What Is Emerging Adulthood?

Graduation from high school is a major milestone of emerging adulthood.
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  • Written By: N. Farley
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 15 October 2014
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Emerging adulthood is a term coined by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett in an article that appeared in American Psychologist in 2000. Arnett used the term to describe the time between adolescence and adulthood that 20-somethings began to occupy in the late 1990s. This period of human development was significant because it strayed from the traditional track of past generations. While growing into emerging adulthood, a young adult might focus on self-exploration, learning and personal growth. Psychologists such as Arnett viewed this period of behavior from 20-somethings in contrast with the behaviors of that generation's parents, who instead chose to focus on careers, marriage and children while in their 20s.

Arnett noted that the causes of emerging adulthood stem largely from cultural changes that promote a different lifestyle for younger generations. In a technologically advanced society, Arnett points out, there is greater need for more extensive education, while there are also fewer jobs available. Additionally, Arnett also looked at the greater acceptance of premarital sex, cohabitation and birth control use among young people. As societal values and cultural pressures changed and redeveloped, Arnett believes that a new period of life formed. Proponents of emerging adulthood say that this is a positive developmental period for young adults.


Emerging adulthood is also characterized by young adults who wait to get married or have children until they are established in their careers, as well as for those who pursue education before anything else. Many of these young adults move back in with their parents at some time during their 20s. They might also switch careers, homes and romantic partners frequently. Individuals in emerging adulthood might choose to remain single or childless throughout their adult lives. The time between the teenage years and the adult years can be a time for individuals to reflect on their positions in life, as well as the directions in which they're heading.

Some psychologists stand in opposition to the concept of emerging adulthood, because they say that it fosters laziness and underachievement in youth. Proponents of this side of the debate argue that 20-somethings haven't been raised well, either as a result of overprotective or inattentive parents. As a result, the generation of those in emerging adulthood have found themselves ill-equipped to handle the challenges of adult life. This poor planning causes them to fall back on their parents and families for support, without ever building the skills needed to succeed in a traditional manner.


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