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.