Recently, the New York Times magazine did a piece on an idea a professor of psychology, Dr. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, has been putting forward since 2000 – an idea that the twenties are not just the best time of your life, if that at all, but a time of your life in which you are not an adolescent, a maturing child, but neither are you a fully fledged adult, ready to take on the traditional responsibilities of adulthood; in short, a time of your life he calls emerging adulthood.
A note: Dr. Arnett’s website is worth looking at. He includes pdf links to excerpts and chapters from his written works published for the lay audience, as well as links to his scholarly articles on the topic, under the heading “Emerging Adulthood books and articles“.
I will confess that I have not gone through the bulk of his work yet. I intend to, some day in the near future, but for now, the information I have gleaned from the NY Times article and my own experience as a twenty-something year old will have to suffice for this blog entry.
Initially, I too, was inclined to scoff at the idea of introducing another life phase in developmental psychology. When I read the neurological justification for this (namely, that in a study it was found the brain is still changing at age 25), I scoffed again. Our brains are constantly changing throughout our lives. Every encounter, every thing that we do, modifies synapses in our brain in some way. Even routine tasks, such as brushing your teeth, confirm and strengthen neurological pathways in our brain. Deviations from routine tasks, or the way we normally conduct them, also change the signaling intensities of neurons in our brain.
But then I read his description of people in their twenties. Not only did I identify with the characteristics he described in the NY Times article (and I do intend to read his initial journal article in American Psychologist in 2000 for a complete coverage of his ideas), but I could also identify those characteristics in my friends around me. Not the same characteristics for every one of my friends, of course – we are all on our own individual paths to maturity and adulthood – but I could track that progress, and not just for myself but for my friends as well. I could also track my progress based on records of my thoughts I have been keeping over the past two years. In those records, I have also commented on goals and future directions I wanted to explore, and here, too, Dr. Arnett’s words strike a hauntingly familiar chord.
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 stakes are higher when people are approaching the age when options tend to close off and lifelong commitments must be made. Arnett calls it “the age 30 deadline.”
DURING THE PERIOD he calls emerging adulthood, Arnett says that young men and women are more self-focused than at any other time of life, less certain about the future and yet also more optimistic, no matter what their economic background. This is where the “sense of possibilities” comes in, he says; they have not yet tempered their idealistic visions of what awaits. “The dreary, dead-end jobs, the bitter divorces, the disappointing and disrespectful children . . . none of them imagine that this is what the future holds for them,” he wrote. Ask them if they agree with the statement “I am very sure that someday I will get to where I want to be in life,” and 96 percent of them will say yes. But despite elements that are exciting, even exhilarating, about being this age, there is a downside, too: dread, frustration, uncertainty, a sense of not quite understanding the rules of the game. More than positive or negative feelings, what Arnett heard most often was ambivalence — beginning with his finding that 60 percent of his subjects told him they felt like both grown-ups and not-quite-grown-ups.
I definitely feel like I am both an adult and a child at the same time. It almost never fails to surprise me when the adults (in the 35+ age range) that I interact with on a weekly basis treat me like an adult, when they give weight to my ideas and my opinions. I remember being exhilarated by this validation of my thoughts. I was a precocious teenager, and the only validation of my opinion that I received from the adults around me at the time in a non-academic and non-familial setting were slightly amused “huh”‘s at my vocabulary and the way I set forth my ideas. There was no interchange of ideas; I was not treated as an equal, even if I did have something novel to introduce to their experience or perceptions about the issues at hand. I felt like a child that had to fight to be recognized.
Now, in my twenties, when I interact with people in the next decade over and beyond, I am amazed when they recognize me as an adult, when they take my thoughts and opinions into consideration, and take the effort and time to debate with me. This is because at heart, I still feel like a child and am amazed that they would take me seriously. It is with a sense of wonder that I savor the realization that I do have something to contribute, that the playing ground is now becoming considerably more level between myself and those a decade plus older than me.
At the same time, this amazement, this contradiction in internally-identified ages does not exist when I interact with my twenty-something year old friends. There is no feeling like a child, there is no amazement at being treated like an adult because these are my internally-recognized peers. At the same time, I can marvel as I watch some of them reach stages of adulthood and I compare them to others who are still only starting to figure out this idea of growing up. The one commonality between my twenty-something year old friends, all at different places in life – working, getting their first degree, getting their second degree, living at home, living away from home, moving back home, living with roommates, living without roommates, planning for marriage and getting married – is that I can see them fighting, whether consciously or unconsciously, in their own ways to have their voices recognized in the community at large. Perhaps this is what we all identify adulthood as. Maybe for some of us, this is the defining feature of adult life.
As for Dr. Arnett’s own journey through the twenties:
After graduating from Michigan State University in 1980, he spent two years playing guitar in bars and restaurants and experimented with girlfriends, drugs and general recklessness before going for his doctorate in developmental psychology at the University of Virginia.
This brings me to the question posed by Robin Marantz Henig: Are we twenty year olds just self-indulgent?
“It’s somewhat terrifying,” writes a 25-year-old named Jennifer, “to think about all the things I’m supposed to be doing in order to ‘get somewhere’ successful: ‘Follow your passions, live your dreams, take risks, network with the right people, find mentors, be financially responsible, volunteer, work, think about or go to grad school, fall in love and maintain personal well-being, mental health and nutrition.’ When is there time to just be and enjoy?” Adds a 24-year-old from Virginia: “There is pressure to make decisions that will form the foundation for the rest of your life in your 20s. It’s almost as if having a range of limited options would be easier.”
While the complaints of these young people are heartfelt, they are also the complaints of the privileged. Julie, a 23-year-old New Yorker and contributor to “20 Something Manifesto,” is apparently aware of this. She was coddled her whole life, treated to French horn lessons and summer camp, told she could do anything. “It is a double-edged sword,” she writes, “because on the one hand I am so blessed with my experiences and endless options, but on the other hand, I still feel like a child. I feel like my job isn’t real because I am not where my parents were at my age. Walking home, in the shoes my father bought me, I still feel I have yet to grow up.”
It’s not an easy question to answer. I’ve certainly felt that I’m being self-indulgent at times and even raged at my own lethargy, all the while being quietly aware that this is a phase I must go through. I, too, have described feeling like the privileges I have had access to as a child is a double-edged sword. You can do anything you want – but that terrifies me, because what if I do the wrong thing? I fought to gain my financial independence. It wasn’t easy to live a frugal lifestyle, to cook every one of my meals from scratch and learn to purchase groceries wisely. For me, it wasn’t a matter of buying the cheaper groceries – being a frugal shopper is something that was instilled in me from an early age – but one of balancing quality and freshness with price, learning how quickly foods go bad and which ones go bad first, which foods can last and so forth. The whole experience was a tough one – but I survived. I was determined not to walk home for food, for comfort, dressed in the shoes and clothes my mother gave me. Even before I moved out, I was purchasing my clothes, my bags, shoes, and feminine essentials with my own money, scrounged from summer jobs and student loans and slowly aliquoted out for spending over the academic year.
Maybe our parents’ generation will call us self-indulgent, but in our own way, as a twenty-something year old, I believe that we are fighting for our own independence, trying to find our own way as an adult in ways different from our parents. Maybe that is being self-indulgent, but maybe this path that we are taking will really make us different adults from our parents. Maybe my generation will not suffer mid-life crises. Maybe those of us successful enough to reach adulthood on our own terms will not struggle with depression, maybe we will be better equipped emotionally to handle loss and disappointment later in life.
Maybe this is just self-defense, but I too, am frustrated and rage at how indolent my life can be sometimes. It is not entirely by choice, because I don’t feel like I have a choice.