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What is an “Emerging Adult”? (part 1)

Updated: Apr 18


a group of young, or emerging, adults, ages 18-25 leaning on a brick wall.

Do you remember learning about human development in school? Maybe in middle school, high school, or college, you took a class where you learned about the developmental stages of babies, toddlers, children, teens, and adults. You were taught the differences between newborn babies and toddlers. You learned that adolescence is a time of learning independence and that teenagers tend to engage in risky behavior because their prefrontal cortex hasn’t fully developed. You learned that adults should be independent, thriving members of society, and older adults tend to be retired, experience more age-related medical issues, and eventually die. 


These developmental stages are important for parents, doctors, and other professionals to gauge whether or not you or your loved ones are thriving. A toddler who hasn’t started talking might require monitoring, but a 7-year-old requires interventions. 


At some point in your life, you learned all this, you understand it, it makes sense, and it’s fully ingrained in your brain:


Baby—toddler—young child—-older child–-preteen or adolescent—teenager—

emerging adult—adult—-older adult


 Did you know there is a new developmental stage? Yep, it’s called emerging adultand it lands between teenage years and adult, around the ages of 18-25 (some say 28). Chances are, you know a few. You might live with one! And the following information might just explain the curiosity or concerns a lot of people have about the 18-25-year-olds running around today. Emerging adulthood can be a time of uncertainty and confusion, with a focus on finding identity, redefining relationships, and relishing newfound freedom. College plans, jobs, relationships, interests, and hobbies may change. Emerging adults may live at home longer or may take off on adventures. They may be financially independent, or they might need to be supported by mom and dad for a while.


Emerging adulthood is a recent concept in the human lifespan, and came about due to interconnected social, cultural, and economic changes in our modern world over the past few decades. Just like any other developmental stage, individuals may have smoother or more challenging transitions. But that fact is, there is a new, unique, and extended phase of life between adolescence and full-fledged adulthood. Some reasons for this new stage include:


  • Increased access to higher education: spending more time in college can delay career development and financial independence. 

  • Economic: rising housing, food costs, and student loan debt keep young adults from gaining personal and financial independence. Many emerging adults need to live with their parents longer.

  • Delaying major life transitions, such as marriage and having children: how many 18-year-olds do you know that are getting married and starting a family?

  • Society encourages personal growth and exploration in youth: Instead of jumping into busy careers, marriage, and children, many young adults are enjoying their freedom, building their self-identity, values, relationships, mental health, having fun, and traveling (and, heck yes, I'm jealous). 

  • Globalization and Social media: I've lumped the 2 together, but the world is more connected and smaller than it used to be. Emerging adults have more access to experiences and ideas, and FOMO is a thing. 

  • Improved healthcare and increased longevity: which has expanded our childhood.

These days, it's hard to miss articles and social media posts that are worried, curious, or complaining about this population. To be fair, this new developmental stage is fascinating and challenging, for all parties. We're seeing profound changes in identity, independence, and responsibility. We are all unique individuals, so this may not be the case for everyone ages 18-25, and you might be experiencing completely different behaviors. 



A young adult female with windblown hair, standing outside and looking at the camera


Whether or not you agree--developmentally, socially, and legally-- individuals ages 18-25 are adults. And as responsible, caring, and supportive loved ones, we must treat them as adults, not children. That means: when you raise children, you can impose limitations, give unsolicited advice, deliver consequences, and basically, to some degree, have control over their lives. When a person is an adult, they are considered "fully developed and mature". Your time to raise them as children is over. That doesn't mean you stop being a parent! It just...looks different now. You are a parent to a grown adult. 


Check back for part 2: Tips on how to parent an emerging adult!


References:



Wood D, Crapnell T, Lau L, et al. (2017). Emerging Adulthood as a Critical Stage in the Life Course. Handbook of Life Course Health Development [Internet]. Cham (CH): Springer; 2018. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK543712/

doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-47143-3_7


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