Millennials get bad press. They are vilified by the media. Time Magazine called Millennials “The Me Me Me Generation.” Millennials are the laziest, the most entitled, job hopping, disloyal, and narcissistic generation of all. Wow, who wants to be a millennial after hearing this? Surely, every generation has its blind spots, including millennials. But most of the complaint you hear about millennials isn’t a millennial problem; it’s a life stage problem due to a new life stage called emerging adulthood.
Emerging adulthood was coined by developmental psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, PhD who interviewed 300 young people ages 18 to 29 in cities around the nation over five years, asking them questions about what they wanted out of life. Emerging adults are between 18-29. Millennials (17-36) happen to be part of this emerging adulthood, but as we see millennials grow, we’ll be seeing an influx of Gen Z turning into emerging adults.
So what’s different about emerging adults? Arnett discovered five defining characteristics of an “emerging adulthood.” For an average twenty-something in America today, this is the new normal.
1. Identity Explorations
The twenty-something years are a time of exploring the big identity questions. Who am I? Why am I here? What do I really want out of life? And how do I fit into the world around me? To answer these questions, twenty-somethings try out various possible futures in love and work. These explorations can be exciting and motivating, and they can also be unsettling and overwhelming — both for the young people in question and for their parents. Sometimes exploring looks a lot like wandering, or even a failure to grow up, for Pete’s sake, in the eyes of exasperated parents. But for the most part, sorting through the varied choices that are becoming available to them helps twenty-somethings learn more about who they are and how they want to shape their adult lives.
Emerging adults may change college majors, jobs, living situations, and love partners with dizzying frequency. Parents sometimes wonder if their children will ever settle on something, anything, but in nearly all cases the instability of emerging adulthood is a temporary but necessary part of identity explorations. Remember, parents, almost everyone has a more stable life by their thirties than they did in their twenties.
Most emerging adults are not selfish, although they’re accused of this. Just compare them to what they were like as teenagers, and you’ll probably agree they are more considerate of others than teens are, and better at taking in other people’s perspectives. However, emerging adulthood is a time of intense self-focus in the sense that your grown kids are focusing on their own lives, especially on how to get the education or training to qualify for a good job and then how to find one. They have to be self-focused, in order to make their way into a competitive adult world, and they’re free to be self-focused because most have fewer daily responsibilities or obligations to others than they’ll ever have again. Emerging adults may seem selfish to parents when they don’t return calls or “click reply” as soon as parents would like — and sometimes they are — but their self-focus doesn’t mean they don’t love their parents. It’s all part of learning to stand alone as a self-sufficient person — an important goal in the emerging adult years.
4. Feeling in between
Emerging adults don’t feel like children teenagers anymore, but most of them don’t feel entirely adult, either. Instead they feel in-between, on the way to adulthood but not there yet. And they have mixed feelings about the destination. Adulthood appeals to them for the stability it offers, and the rewards of marriage, children, and (they hope) a good job, but it also looks frighteningly predictable.
5. Sense of possibilities
Emerging adulthood is a time of remarkably high hopes for almost anyone, even if life is currently not going all that well (and often it’s not). Most are not entirely content with life as it is, but they believe they are on the way to better times. In the national CUPEA survey, a remarkable 90 percent of emerging adults agreed that “I am confident that eventually I will get what I want out of life.” No matter how dismal their love lives, most young people believe that eventually they’ll find a “soul mate.” No matter how dreary their current job, most believe they’ll someday be doing work they love and that pays well.
Whatever you do, don’t blame frequent job changing, surprising job choices, and moving back home on the generation of millennials. They’re not the problem. It’s the new life stage called emerging adulthood.
Question: Which attribute do you resonate with the most?
Arnett, J. J. (2014). Getting to 30: A Parent’s Guide to the 20-Something Years