Everyday Grace

thoughts and inspiration on emotional health by colleen p. arnold

The New 20’s – Young Adulthood or Extended Adolescence?

My boys and I have been watching “Downton Abbey,” a Masterpiece Theater series on PBS. The lord’s valet, Mr. Bates, and the daughter’s maid, Anna, had what we might think of as a crush on each other until Anna blurted out “I love you!” on an outdoor walk. I remember thinking, “How on earth does she know she loves him?” He proposed to her in the same breath that he asked her to call him by his first name. In another storyline, one of the lord’s daughters has been visiting with another aristocrat, and although they don’t know each other that well, hopes he’ll ask her to marry him at their outdoor party.

Since I’ve been researching the time of life between 18-30 years recently, I’m struck by how differently the individuals think of their futures. Of course, back in the early 20th century, even until fairly recently, women had few options available to them except to get married and raise a family. Young men often knew exactly what profession they’d be going into before graduating high school. Going to college was more unusual than it is today, and was seen as a means to pursue a particular career path where higher education was necessary, such as law or medicine.

It’s such a different landscape now. Now about 2/3 of all high school graduates attend college, and most entering freshman don’t know what career path they want to pursue. Even when I attended college back in the 1980’s, most students had decided by their junior year what career they wanted. Now, it’s not uncommon for college students to graduate and still be undecided. Many switch between jobs in various fields and don’t settle on a career until their late 20’s. They are marrying later, having children later, and using the decade of the 20’s to explore more relationship and career options than most of us even imagined.

What is adulthood? Sociological research, in general, defines adulthood as a time of financial independence and responsibility, marriage and parenthood. What we used to think of as the transition to adulthood, the late teens, is really now more of an extended adolescence.

Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, at Clark University in Massachusetts, has proposed that we start thinking of the time of the 20’s as a distinctive developmental period which he terms, “emerging adulthood.” He says this is a time that bridges adolescence and young adulthood, usually between 19-25, although it can reach until 29. He doesn’t like the term “young adults,” because emerging adults have usually not completed the tasks of adulthood.  Also, the term “young adults” has been used so much to refer to teenagers (such as in the “young adult” section of bookstores) that it isn’t descriptive anymore. He also rejects “transitioning into adulthood,” because that term focuses on the stage afterward, and not on the developmental tasks right in the moment.

While this time of life can be exhilarating and full of possibilities, it is also charged with instability and uncertainty. Emerging adults are more concerned with fulfillment and satisfaction than the generations before them, and tend to be more self-focused than any other age of post-childhood development. On the other hand, so many possibilities can be overwhelming, and relationship upheaval can be discouraging. Choices can be much harder to make when you’ve got too many options. Many people aren’t sure anymore when to call themselves an adult, and find the difficulty of breaking into financial independence very frustrating.

Also, the mental health challenges that this new phase brings us can’t be ignored. According to NIMH, the suicide rate among 20-24 year olds is higher than the national average. This time of life can be wonderful, but it can also be a time of debilitating anxiety, self-doubt and alcohol and drug abuse.

As therapists, we need to acknowledge the difference in this stage of life, help our clients embrace it for all of its possibilities, but also help them not get weighed down by indecision and lack of direction.

Note: If you’re between the ages of 20-30, and live in San Mateo or Foster City, CA, there’s a resource to help you pay for private counseling. See The Ben Fund for details. I’m happy to have signed on to be a therapist for them.


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4 thoughts on “The New 20’s – Young Adulthood or Extended Adolescence?

  1. Hi Colleen–

    Thanks for leaving such an enlightening blog comment–much appreciated, and glad to find your site as a result :). I’ve been struggling with this developmental stage with some of my clients. It’s odd that on one hand, the early 20-somethings are very social media and tech-savvy, but on the other hand, not so much in the independent thinkers category, nor do they possess the ability to delay gratification when it comes to interpersonal relationships…hmmm. The times, yes, they are a-changin’ and I really like your emphasis (+ research) on defining the gaps that exist with this new generation. Of course, I believe that the economic climate plays a big part in their indecision.

    Info overload also factors in this generation’s lack of direction. A blessing and a curse, for sure…

  2. Hi Colleen – I have definetly noticed this later blooming thing in my clients. The 20s are a time of exploration and growth as there are many options. I think it is a great time to be in therapy, as these emergent adults can get a handle on personal dynamics before they are faced with the challenge of marriage and children. I just have to reflect back to my own unformed self in my 20s to realize that this is a time of great personal exploration and development. Neuroscience tells us that wisdom is a result of a deep and complex system of inter-twined neuronal connections, formed throughout life, and not reaching true complexity until the new mid-life (50s). So when us older folks make decisions, its on a foundation of unconscious experience, held in place by our deeply complex and rich neuronal network. Here’s to complexity, compassion and wisdom!

  3. Colleen,

    What a thoughtful curation of the available research, along with some helpful perspective-offering. I have heard from many of my clients a sense that they are “behind” because they haven’t met milestones like home ownership, marriage, or parenthood at the same age as their own parents. I appreciate your frame of this time as a negotiation between freedom and indecision.


  4. Colleen,
    Thank you for your reflection on emerging adults. I have been observing this both as a therapist and a mother. It doesn’t seem so strange to me because I didn’t choose my profession until I was 27 and didn’t marry until 3 years after that! I think your point about the stresses of having so many parts of life open for choice is very good. It can cause these emerging adults to feel quite adrift. I agree that it is a good time for therapy to try to sort out what is really important in life.

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