At 21 my mother was married and by 27 she had two kids. In those days (not to imply that you are old Mom!) that was the norm. But these days more and more people put off getting married and having children. My friends and I consider ourselves part of the “Sex in the City” generation but author Jeffrey Jensen Arnett thinks there is more to this phenomenon than a popular television show. In his new book Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties Arnett explores why young people today postpone the typical rites of passage until at least their late twenties. He argues that in recent decades a new stage of life has developed, usually lasting from about age 18 through the mid-twenties, and distinct from both the adolescence that preceeds it and the young adulthood that comes in its wake. This new stage is one of identity exploration, instability, possibility, self-focus, and of a substantial sense of limbo. Below is an excerpt from Emerging Adulthood. Steve is just one of many “emerging adults” profiled in the Arnett’s book.
Steve: “Who Knows What’s Going to Happen?”
Steve, 23, flashes his ironic smile often, as if he wants to make sure you can see that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. His brown eyes peer out from underneath dark eyebrows, which contrast with his short light-brown hair. When I met him for our interview in my office at the University of Missouri, he was wearing a green and maroon rugby shirt and casual light slacks.
Although he currently lives in Missouri, he lived in a variety of places in the course of growing up. His family moved often to follow his father’s work as a contract engineer; every time his father got a new contract, they moved. He grew to dislike moving and vowed that he would put down roots somewhere once he left his parents’ household. But as it turned out, he has moved around during emerging adulthood even more than he did with his family. “I always said that once I get out of high school and move away I’m going to stay in one place, but I’ve probably moved 15 times since I left home.”
Missouri was one of the places his family lived for a while during his childhood, and he moved back there to go to the University of Missouri. However, he dropped out of school after a few semesters, feeling “kind of burnt out on it.” Now, he waits on tables at a local restaurant. He is content with the money he is making. “I average about $16 an hour, so I mean, where else can I go right now and make that much money?” Nevertheless, he views his job, like he views many things in his life right now, as temporary. “I’m just kind of lazy right now. I’m just taking it easy.”
While he was in college, Steve majored in fine arts because of his love of drawing. He continues now to do sketches and portraits, to make money in addition to his waiter job and because he enjoys it. However, he is doubtful that he could successfully make a career out of his artistic talents. “If I could wing it and be an artist I’d do it, but it’s one of those things where you have to be great or you’re working in advertising,” and advertising does not appeal to him. “I’ll probably end up doing art as a hobby,” he says.
What course will he take, then, in terms of work? It’s pretty clear that he doesn’t know at this point. One moment he says, “I’ll probably end up being an engineer. My dad’s an engineer, so I’ll probably end up doing that. I’m really good at math, and I know I could pick up on it real easy.” Yet when I ask him a few minutes later what he sees himself doing 10 years from now, engineering has nothing to do with it.
I’ll probably be living in Colorado. I would want to say owning a restaurant, but probably in some kind of management position because I’ve been in the restaurant business for eight years so I know a lot about it. I cook, I’ve waited tables, I’ve bartended. I’ve pretty much done it all and that’s what the criteria is to be a manager. I’m sure I could get a job, and just to be able to ski all the time would be great.
But right now he is doing little to bring this dream to fruition, unless you count the job as a waiter. “I’m just kind of ‘treading water,’ as my mom says.”
With regard to love, Steve has been involved for about two months with Sandy, who is a waitress at the restaurant where he works. They get along well and spend most of their time together. They would like to live together but hesitate because of the objections of her parents, especially her father. “That’s like his last little grip before he lets her go,” Steve says resentfully. He’d like to move in with her for practical reasons, not because he feels nearly ready to marry her. “It would totally cut our expenses in half.”
He is in no hurry to get married, to Sandy or anyone else. In his view, there is a lot less pressure to get married by a certain age today than in the past. “Nowadays, it’s not even really an issue. If it happens it happens and if not, not. It’s not as big of an issue as it was like in the ’50s.” He’s still not sure what qualities he would like to find in the person he marries. “I haven’t really narrowed it down yet. I guess when I find her, I’ll know.”
Steve is as uncertain and unsettled in his beliefs as he is in love and work. As he was growing up, his parents made little attempt to teach him a set of religious beliefs. He says they told him, “If you want to believe it, fine. But if you don’t, that’s fine too. We’ll support you either way.” Now, at age 23, he seems to have reached a few conclusions. “I believe in a Creator. Obviously, we couldn’t have just sprouted from the earth.” Reincarnation also seems plausible to him. “I always thought that there was obviously reincarnation.” But as he talks further, it turns out that none of his beliefs are really so “obvious” after all. “I mean, none of us really know. There’s no proof-positive to any of it. You have to have the facts and really I have none so I can’t really make an educated guess yet.”
Another thing that makes him feel he has not entirely reached adulthood is that he drinks more alcohol than he thinks an adult should. “I’m still in the party mode,” he says. Still, his alcohol use has gone down from what it was a year or two earlier. “I don’t really necessarily drink as much as I used to. Most of all it’s because it’s expensive to go out.” He has grown tired of the local bar scene. “You can only go out to so many bars without them getting kind of boring.” He has also grown tired of the effects of heavy drinking. “I don’t like puking, and I don’t like being hungover.” Not to mention the insurance bills. “I got a DWI [Driving While Intoxicated], and I had a couple of rear-ends where I wasn’t watching. I mean, my insurance is like $1,800 a year. Outrageous. That’s why I kind of stopped drinking so much.” But he still drinks enough to see it as a reason why he has not become an adult.
Nor do Steve’s parents view him as having reached adulthood. “When I get a job, they will,” he says. A job other than waiting on tables, that is. “We call it a ‘real job.’ ‘When you get a real job.’”
Nevertheless, his relationship with his parents has changed in recent years, to more of a relationship between equals. Now he is “a little more open with them, I guess. The way I talk to them and the way they talk to me, it’s more on an adult level.”
His parents have been successful in both their professional and personal lives. His dad has been successful as an engineer, and his mom, after devoting herself to raising Steve and his brother when they were young, now owns an antique store. Their marriage has been a relatively happy one. “I can’t even remember them ever fighting once,” Steve says. “They’ve got a pretty good sense of humor with each other, and they know how to communicate in kind of a funny way and still get the point across.” They seem to have good relationships with their children as well. Steve says he was “very close” to his parents growing up, and it is clear that he remains fond of them.
Yet despite their success, and despite the unsettled quality of his life at age 23, Steve believes that his life will be better than his parents’ lives have been. The reason for this is that he has been allowed to have an emerging adulthood with years of freedom to try out different possible paths, whereas his parents did not. “My dad, when he was 15, moved out and basically had to find a way to support himself and eventually his family, and I’m not having to go through that. My dad is in a position where he can help me out more than he got helped.”
Eventually, Steve expects to have everything his parents have and more, all the best that adult life has to offer: satisfying and well-paying work, a happy marriage, a couple of children, living in an area he loves. For now, however, he is happy being “very nomadic. I’ve got so little stuff I can just move it around. I don’t like to sign a lease, so usually I just try to do it month by month.” He wants to be ready to hit the road in case a promising opportunity comes along. “Who knows when I’ll find a job in Colorado? I’ve got to be ready to go! I don’t want to owe anybody $1,000 on a lease when I’m not going to be living there. Who knows what’s going to happen?”