Do you feel like you’ve reached adulthood? Research psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett asked 18-29 year olds this simple question.
Arnett from Clark University interviewed emerging adults across a range of countries and ethnic groups to determine consistent markers for adulthood. Participants included male and female African-Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans in the United States, as well as people living in Argentina, Austria, China, India, Israel, Romania, and Sweden.
His findings are documented in his book ‘Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens Through the Twenties (2014, second edition). This revised edition comes ten years after his initial research in 2004. New chapters include media and social class issues.
Arnett makes the difference between three stages in the transition from childhood to adulthood: adolescence, emerging adulthood, and young adulthood. He focuses on the middle stage – emerging adulthood – and concludes that emerging adults are skilled at contradictory emotions: confident but cautious, and optimistic but uncertain.
In response to the question about whether they felt that they had reached adulthood, the answers formed three categories: taking responsibility, making independent decisions, and becoming financially independent.
Taking responsibility for yourself
Arnett stated that, for emerging adults, taking responsibility meant accepting the consequences of their actions without expecting anyone else, particularly parents, to protect them from these consequences. Respondents, for example, said that if they broke something, they fix it, without blaming anyone else.
Making independent decisions
Arnett said the second ‘threshold’ of adulthood was about identity, based on indpendent decisions. These included, for example: what educational path should I take; what job offer should I accept; where should I live; who should I live with; do I want a relationship or do I want to be independent; should I move in with my boyfriend/girlfriend; should I break up with my boyfriend/girlfriend; should I move location to follow my goals; and so on.
He said it’s about finding out who they are and how they fit into the world, with a range of decisions involved. It’s a quest for finding identity, and one that is ‘deeply personal.’
Arnett said the key to stepping over this threshold is patience. Emerging adults put excessive pressure on themselves to figure out these identity questions, and their parents – often unknowingly – add even more pressure.
But eventually, it happens. He said, ‘Almost everybody figures this out around age 30.’ The closer emerging adults get to 30, the more likely they are able to answer these questions and figure out their place in life. ‘Because people want to find stability by age 30, they generally do.’
The third most common threshold of adulthood is the easiest to track: paying your own way. In 2015 about 39% of 18-34 year olds in America were living with their parents, according to the Pew Research Center. In a 2012 study 60% of 18-29 year olds in Italy lived with their parents, whereas in 2013 in Singapore, 97% of 15-34 year olds lived with their parents due to traditional values and high rental properties.
Arnett said emerging adults are consciously striving for financial independence, particularly in America. Emerging adult Americans would rather live frugally on their own than comfortably with their parents. However, they said they still needed support to cover expenses such as car repairs, flying home for the holidays, and sometimes making the monthly rent.
Again, Arnett said patience is the key. Financial transition from dependency to independent financial living takes patience for emerging adults and their parents. ‘Depending on each other is what families do and have always done.’
In summary, the findings show that emerging adults of today have different transition points to adulthood than their parents. For example, people a generation or two older than the research participants generally had traditional and linear thresholds of adulthood such as boyfriend/girlfriend; engagement; marriage; buying a home; becoming a parent; establishing a career, and so on. While these are still important for emerging adults of today, they don’t voice these in the same manner. Rather, they focus on character traits: taking responsibility, being able to make their own decisions, and becoming financially independent.
Photograph: Frey & Mosby (September 2016)