JEFFREY JENSEN ARNETT, a psychology professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., is leading the movement to view the 20s as a distinct life stage, which he calls "emerging adulthood." He says what is happening now is analogous to what happened a century ago, when social and economic changes helped create adolescence — a stage we take for granted but one that had to be recognized by psychologists, accepted by society and accommodated by institutions that served the young. Similar changes at the turn of the 21st century have laid the groundwork for another new stage, Arnett says, between the age of 18 and the late 20s.
This newly-defined life stage is characterized by "identity exploration, instability, self-focus," and other marvelous qualities to which we should all aspire. In other words, we happy 20-somethings need a decade or so of unstable navel-gazing while we prepare for the drudgery of real, down-to-earth adulthood.
Matt also linked to a clever response from Miss Self-Important, which happens to echo my own thoughts nicely - and states them far better than I could have done.
Emerging adulthood is good because freedom of the will is good, and so obviously constraint of the will by external necessity is bad. We know constraint is bad because if emerging adulthood was thought to be a product of new and different necessities, like the unavailability of jobs, or a fatal mismatch between educational preparation and employment qualifications, or a society in decline that no longer supports family and childrearing, then we would be fretting instead of celebrating our uniqueness. We would be feeling the despair of 1932 and not the euphoria of 2010.
One problem Arnett faces as he attempts to have the phase of "emerging adulthood" widely accepted is that it doesn't appear to be a universal phenomenon, but rather is found primarily in the West - and mostly in America. Miss Self-Important comments on Arnett's feeble resolution of this issue:
But in reality, the narrowness of observed emerging adulthood is no problem, since its premise is that all 20-somethings would behave this way if they could only be untethered from the grinding pressures that force them "to grow up fast." Underneath every seemingly grown up 20-something with a family and a steady job, a direction-less emerging adult is gasping to be released. Given freedom from economic want, social mores that encourage early marriage, and limits to college access, every poor Vietnamese rice farmer and rural Pakistani bride of an arranged marriage could be living in Greenpoint, going to yoga classes, and selling her handmade textiles on Etsy.
After reading the article in the Times, I find myself wondering why I'm starting graduate school, teaching almost 40 private students, conducting a children's orchestra, and running around from one gig to another to make a few bucks. Why am I paying a mortgage and even paying for my own health insurance? Instead, I should move in with my parents, take up meditation, and try my hand at "funemployment". Otherwise, one of these days I'm going to find that I'm 30 years old, living a stable life - and all having never completed my emergent journey to self-awareness.
On second thought, I can think of worse things.