A new generation postponing adulthood

I am often struck by how many individuals from my cohort, I shall lovingly refer to us as “young adults,” have no idea what they are doing with their lives.  These are my close friends, my peers, and quite often most 20-somethings around me who cannot seem to choose what it is they are doing with their lives.  Notice I picked the word choose, but it may not necessarily be the driving component of so many young adults choosing to postpone adulthood while they determine what they are meant to do with the rest of their lives.

I speak on this topic having been one of these 20-somethings myself.  You see, I was your typical senior in college a few years back.  I was coming to the close of my time in college, but I had no plans for immediately after my graduation because, in my words, “I have too many interests.  I can’t choose just one.”  Amongst the many things that threatened to captivate my life at the time, I toyed with the following ideas: teach English overseas in France (à Grenoble; c’est ville est magnifique!), teach English in Iraq, go to a church missions training school, or work with troubled youth at a camp in Colorado.  For months, I tortured myself over which task I would choose to fill my next calendar year with.  Prior to this point, my whole life had been composed of filling slots of time until it was time to move on to the next thing.  Elementary school – five years.  Junior high and middle school – another three years.  High school – four years.  College – four years.  It’s as if I never learned how to live my life without blocking out 1-4 year time slots out until the next phase beckoned me forward.  And now, because I had a college degree, I was automatically supposed to know how to pick something to do forever?

Mais non, I thought.  To me, this was about promising myself to live a life full of adventure and not let the American dream trap me in a boring life of mediocrity.  It’s as if I equated the lack of choosing with freedom.  How wrong I was.  If anything, I have learned how the lack of choosing only led to entrapment.  You become entrapped in this need to chase things that are never accumulating towards any real thing.  I believe it works this way in most modes of life.  Think about relationships.  Some individuals may feel the need to jump around from partner to partner to make sure they do not feel tied down and are free, but those people are often the most lonely.  Think about faith.  Others may choose to never settle on one faith and keep searching to find the ultimate truth, but those persons often have the least amount of peace.  It is the same with one’s vocation or calling. However, the search for the one thing is a valuable process in and of itself.  Choosing is the difficult part.

Perhaps only my sister is to thank for helping me avoid staying in this state of postponing adulthood for too long.  I distinctly remember talking to her one day about my plans to move from country to country for 3-4 years teaching English so that I could travel the world.  To this idea she simply replied, “OK – that’s nice, but when are you going to grow up and choose something to do?”  Wow.  When she uttered those words, I became enraged.  “I’m living a free, spirited life!” I thought to myself.  But then I realized she was right.  The lack of choosing something did not show how strong, free, or independent I was.  Someone once said to me that choosing something is one of the strongest signs of maturity because it involves saying no to other things.  I have found this to be true in all areas of my life: faith, relationships, careers, friends.  So I am thankful to my sister’s harsh words to me that day.  But if I had not explored my opportunities, would I have ever chosen something I love so much?  There is a necessity in the search but also a need to find.  These things are easier said than done.

Choosing something is one of the strongest signs of maturity because it involves saying no to other things.

Given my ponderings on this topic, I found a recent article in the New York Times about 20-somethings very interesting.  In the article, Henig discusses the increasing pattern of 20-somethings  delaying the onset of adulthood.  Today, the five milestones described by sociologists as the “transition into adulthood” are occurring later: 1) completing school, 2) leaving home, 3) becoming financially independent, 4) marrying, and 5) having a child.

Henig discusses that some psychologists are pushing for this new phase of 20-somethings to be considered a new developmental stage, one psychologist Jeffrey Arnett terms “emerging adulthood.”  Arnett has studied this population across a wide array of populations (see NYT article) and has found that this life stage is full of ambivalence.  Individuals feel excited about this stage of life with the endless possibilities it offers.  However, this stage of life is also plagued with frustration and uncertainty.  Not surprisingly, the emotional and cognitive  developments occurring during this stage may map partially on to the development of the brain (which continues developing until approximately age 25).  Is it because our prefrontal cortex (in charge of emotional regulation and cognitive functioning) is still developing that we are not yet emotionally developed in our 20-somethings?  Perhaps.  But this still does not explain why this is a recent trend.  Although I felt like this article may have stretched the neuroscientific findings it reports, it is possible that the lack of a fully developed prefrontal cortex may be linked to poorer decision-making (or less rationally based decision-making).  However, future studies would need to be done to confirm this and it is difficult to examine brain activity occurring during major life decisions, such as choosing a career path.

As a social psychologist, I am more apt to agree with the cultural argument mentioned in the article.  It makes sense that as our culture is shifting, so are the individuals in it.  Due to advances in science, people are having children later and due to the many options in careers, more people are taking longer to specialize.  With things like marriage and family being pushed further off on the timetable, people may feel less pressure to move forward in major life decisions.

Most interestingly, the article brings up the issue of who benefits from this “emerging adulthood” stage of life.  Not surprisingly, it’s mostly the privileged classes that benefit from exploring themselves.  Some may even argue that it is merely a stage of self-indulgence.  But I’m reserving my opinion on that for now.  To me, I am ambivalent toward this issue.  On the one hand, I value this stage of life in which exploration is allowed to take place and individuals can find what they are truly passionate about and get on that path.  However, I also think there comes a point where one says, as my sister did, “Grow up!”  But finding the balance between the two is nothing short of impossible.  Understanding why this occurs?  Even more complicated.  But it’s an interesting thought nonetheless.

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About Megan Johnson Shen

I am a social psychologist graduating with my Ph.D. from Baylor University this May and moving to NYC this summer to start a new job as a postdoctoral researcher at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in the Cancer Prevention and Control Department. I love the brain, human behavior, and anything to do with understanding them better. I love research and a good dinner party. Fine wine and cheese - I'm there. Interesting experimental data? I'll probably show for that too. View all posts by Megan Johnson Shen

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