Emerging adulthood or extended adolescence?

It’s a rhetorical war, really, to describe the peculiar phenomenon of people in their twenties who remain attached to their parents and uncertain about how to navigate the modern world.  Most conservative evangelicals have used the latter phrase, with all the negative connotations that go along with a “failure to launch.”

In some ways, the rhetorical divide sums up the varied responses to the phenomenon.  Jeffrey Jensen Arnett–who coined the term–describes it this way:

Just as adolescence has its particular psychological profile, Arnett says, so does emerging adulthood: identity exploration, instability, self-focus, feeling in-between and a rather poetic characteristic he calls “a sense of possibilities.” A few of these, especially identity exploration, are part of adolescence too, but they take on new depth and urgency in the 20s.

The Times’ lengthy exploration of the topic is one of the best I’ve seen.

Two particular aspects bear highlighting.  One, the author rightly observes that adolescence is a peculiar creation of the modern world, and that emerging adulthood seems to be limited to developed countries. Count me among Arnett’s critics (and, for that matter, among the critics of adolescence as a phenomenon):  the peculiarity of “failure to launch” to developed, industrial nations that are enormously wealthy relative to the rest of the world suggests the phenomenon is a response to an irrepressible consumerism and the transient impermanence of American life that is correlative it.

We may have reached a new stage in American culture, but it is a precarious one:  the “failure to launch” depends upon a generation of parents eager to support their children while outsourcing their own retirement savings to the benevolent hand of social security.

As a financial advisor, I saw this all the time.  The most extreme case was one couple in their mid-50s who happened to have some several thousand dollars to their name for retirement–that’s several thousand dollars, not several hundred or even tens of thousands of dollars–but were still paying for their 28-year-old sons graduate education and living expenses so he could get a master’s in religious studies.

I’m as impractical as they come about grad school, but let’s be perfectly clear:  Emerging adulthood doesn’t happen without adolescent parents who enable their children by refusing to allow them real responsibility for their lives, and who are willfully ignorant about what it will take to survive retirement. It’s easy to pay for kids to travel the world when you think your financial house is in order, but by the time those kids get around to “settling down,” I suspect they’ll find that the corporate ladder is a lot more crowded with folks like their parents who have to keep working because they didn’t do their due diligence.

Second, I was happy to see the author qualify the brain science by suggesting that it may in fact be tied to internalized cultural expectations.  The important thing to keep in mind when neurology is tossed about is that the body and the brain are malleable, which means all that the claims about the neurological basis for behaviors or social phenomena need to be treated extra judiciously.

Even if “emerging adulthood” is a new lifestage, then, it’s not an obviously universal life-stage or even irreversible.

I don’t have strong policy proposals right now regarding how to treat emerging adults, if only because I don’t feel much sympathy for them.  I’m in that stage, so I get the challenges.  I made $20,000 my first year out of college while living in LA and paying $950(!) a month in rent–and my wife was a graduate student.  I realize that the economic deck is stacked against young people right now, especially in the midst of the first real recession we’ve lived through.

But my aversion to institutional support for “emerging adults” goes deeper.  If the legacy of adolescence is any indication, once we tailor society to meet the particular (artificial?) “needs” of a certain demographic, it only reinforces the idea that those needs are actual.  This is as close as I’m going to get to social constructionism, as I think it actually has some merit.

My hypothesis, and it’s a tentative one, is that the restructuring of American society around “adolescence” (including schools and colleges where the primary socialization happened within peer groups isolated from any adult interaction) combined with the economic explosion of the second half of the twentieth century allowed the concept to creep into later and later periods of life.  If there are no social pressures to become adults, and the economy sustains an extended childhood, then most young people will simply rest content on their laurels.

That’s an oversimplification, of course.  The demise of gender differences is central to this restructuring of society, as is the decline of religious authority.  But if the bare outline at all resembles the reality, then a similar sort of institutional adaptation to “emerging adulthood” would simply root it more deeply in the American consciousness and social life.

Why have a mid-life crisis if we can simply extend the crisis of adolescence out?

Of course, the central challenge to this hypothesis is the same challenge that could end “emerging adulthood”–the economic challenge.  The cultural dominance of the adolescent mindset was delayed for several generations by real challenges that demanded adult responses–the depression and the global wars. When a period of relative peace ensued, the need for the militaresque virtues of discipline, fortitude, and courage declined among normal citizens–which is to say, we quit being a nation of adults and so became incapable of cultivating adults.

That to say that an extended economic recession, one that affects both parents and children, may be the only thing that prevents adolescence from being perpetually extended.  Necessity may be the mother of invention, but she is also the mother of maturity–which is why children in undeveloped nations tend to skip “adolescence” altogether.  It’s hard to feel a sense of self-anxiety when you can only feel your stomach grumble.

Put in this context, a federal sponsored savings account so that people in their early twenties can see the world is preposterous.  In fact, it’s the most ludicriously patronizing idea I think I’ve ever heard.  As someone who has recently returned from a month-long trip to Europe, a luxury that I have been too embarrassed by to write about or even post Facebook photos from, I can verify that travel does not help one “find themselves” or their vocation.  If anything, it perpetuates a disenchantment with the normal structures of life that folks like my parents have toiled in for the better part of thirty years.  Travel is an aristocratic pastime, and it’s facile to think that it will help do anything to establish emerging adults in the world.

But then, we’re a nation of adolescents doing everything in our power to continue on being adolescents.  Suggesting we pay for a year of our kids’ travel because they are confused about their identity smacks of a wish-fulfillment fantasy than a real solution to a social problem.

The best way to get young people to act like adults is to treat them like adults.  It was my one rule as a teacher, and it will be my rule until I die.  High schoolers spend an enormous amount of time and energy demanding the freedoms and privileges of adulthood.  We should dignify them by also giving to them the responsibilities that attend them, and the sense of fulfillment, fear, and frustration that comes with that burden.  The sooner they learn to carry it with honor and dignity, the sooner they will be able to rise above a world where the soft-bigotry of low expectations respects no class, creed, or race.

As one British statesman said to me, “The prayer book had it right.  We ought to wake in the morning, say, ‘Lord, have mercy on me a sinner,’ and then get on with it.”  It’s advice that adolescents who are more interested in reveling in their own angst than actually doing things in the world desperately need to hear.

(HT:  Rhett for the link to the Times piece)

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • Matthew Anderson on emerging adults and extended adolescence: http://bit.ly/aBKuFo

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  • What to do with emerging adults? http://bit.ly/d5FygL //@rhetter, this is my reply to your request for feedback on the @nytimes piece.

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  • Teluog

    Amen. I did an assignment for school on the failures of youth ministry and discovered that youth pastors and especially parents were failing to provide their children with the moral and intellectual support needed to become mature adults. Instead, they are dumping their responsibilities on material things or games instead of supplying the wisdom and psychological support they need–but this appears to be because parents these days lack the wisdom and maturity themselves.

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  • Mike

    Just had a conversation with a friend who feels like he is in this stage of life right now. He is growing a lot. While he is independent from his parents he is still in school and does not have many commitments outside of that.

    I think Buster Bluth from Arrested Development is the best example of this in popculture BTW.

    • @Mike, Buster Bluth FTW! I think you’re exactly right. In fact, that’s so good I’m tempted to rewatch all of AD, just because….

  • Hey I posted on this too!

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  • cms

    This is a late comment, but just wanted to thank you for this post. Totally agree. it’ll be interesting to see if people coming into their 20’s in 2025 are as angst-ridden as my generation was.