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20-somethings: NOT lazy, spoiled, or selfish

Recently the New York Times published a major story featuring Jeffrey Arnett’s research on “emerging adulthood,” his term for the age period from 18 to 29. The article received tremendous attention (boosting it to the position of top emailed story) and Arnett was soon asked to appear on the Today Show, among other major media outlets around the world. In the original post below, he expands on the ideas previously presented and responds to stereotypes about emerging adults.

By Jeffrey Arnett

How do you know when you’ve reached adulthood? This is one of the first questions I asked when I began my research on people in their twenties, and it remains among the most fascinating to me. I expected that people would mostly respond in terms of the traditional transition events that take place for most people in the 18-29 age period: moving out of parents’ household, finishing education, marriage, and parenthood. To my surprise, none of these transition events turned out to hold much importance as markers of adulthood. In fact, finishing education, marriage, and having at least one child have consistently ended up near the bottom in importance in the many surveys that I and others have done in the United States and around the world over the past decade.

Consistently, across countries, ethnic groups, gender, and social classes, the “Big Three” criteria for reaching adulthood are these: 1) Accept responsibility for yourself, 2) Make independent decisions, 3) Become financially independent.

What the Big Three have in common is that they all denote self-sufficiency. For emerging adults, adulthood means learning to stand on your own as a self-sufficient person. Only when you have attained self-sufficiency are you ready to take on the obligations of marriage and parenthood. Because the Big Three all occur gradually rather than as one-time events, most emerging adults feel in-between until at least their mid-twenties, on the way to adulthood but not there yet.

There are negative stereotypes that have sprung up with regard to emerging adults: that they are lazy, spoiled, selfish, and never want to grow up. These stereotypes are common and extremely unfair. Lazy? Have you noticed lately who is pouring your coffee, working the retail counter, mowing the lawns? It’s mostly emerging adults who are doing the crummy, low-paying, no-benefits jobs older adults try to avoid. Emerging adults often hold one or more of these jobs and combining them with going to school as they try to work their way up to something better. Spoiled and selfish? Who is it that is applying in record numbers to Teach for America, Americorps, and the Peace Corps, among other volunteer organizations? Not their Baby-Boomer critics, but emerging adults. Never want to grow up? By age 30 most people are married, have at least one child, and are committed to a stable career path. Why begrudge them the freedom of their twenties to try to make the best possible adult lives for themselves, and to have fun and adventures that they will not be able to have later?

Whatever older adults think of it, emerging adulthood is here to stay as a stage of the life course. Instead of tearing them down, as parents and as a society we should be building them up and giving them the support they need to enjoy their twenties and have a successful entry into the responsibilities of adult life.

Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Ph.D. is a Research Professor in the Department of Psychology at Clark University. He is also the Editor of the Journal of Adolescent Research and author of Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties.

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