The Inside Agenda Blog

The Arrested Development of Twenty-somethings

by Yasmina Sekkat Monday September 20, 2010

Tonight’s interview is with research professor Jeffrey Jensen Arnett in the Psychology Department of Clark University to discuss his theory of emerging adulthood, “an extended period of development between adolescence and young adulthood, typically extending from ages 18-25 (pdf).”


How is emerging adulthood different from adolescence and adulthood? Arnett writes in his book, Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from Late Teens through the Twenties(pdf), that it has five main features:


1. It is the age of identity explorations, of trying out various possibilities, especially in love and work.

2. It is the age of instability.

3. It is the most self-focused age of life.

4. It is the age of feeling in-between, in transition, neither adolescent nor adult.

5. It is the age of possibilities, when hopes flourish, when people have an unparalleled opportunity to transform their lives. 


It’s a period where confusion and fear of shutting the door on opportunities can lead to apprehension in making commitments. Is this really what I want to be doing with my life? Is this really the person I want to marry? Do I really want to risk becoming another divorce statistic? Can I really have it all or do I have to choose a career or a family? If I have kids, will I turn into my mother or father?


Do we spend too much time thinking about ourselves? About what we want about what we need, about our futures? Are we delaying the moment when we have to settle in order to avoid prematurely closing doors on different options? Maybe what I want today isn’t what I will want tomorrow. Or maybe we really are just whiney and have not learned to make choices because we had too many of them. Is our freedom inhibiting our ability to choose? Perhaps we value individuality because we can afford to.



In a piece entitled “How Teenagers Find Themselves: The development of a key brain area leads to self-consciousness” by Charles Q. Choi from Scientific American, Choi discusses how the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) affects teenagers' self-awareness. It is one of the last parts of the brain to develop before adulthood and “It is known to activate in adults when they think about themselves, about other people and even about the personality traits of animals.”


In the same article, developmental social neuroscientist Jennifer Pfeifer of the University of Oregon says that, “While these [brain] areas related to self-reflection might be more active in adolescence, it is something that goes on throughout your whole life—you’ll see the same kinds of processes going on in the brain in adults if they enter stages in their lives that are new to them, such as parenthood." 


So perhaps some of this is natural. But maybe the socioeconomic circumstances that have led to higher than usual unemployment rates among young people between the ages of 15 to 25 is the driving force behind our arrested development. 


What do you think? Do young people need to grow up faster or are they where they should be? 

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