Have you ever read Peter Pan? Not the Disney story, but the original novel by J. M. Barrie? While I do consider it a work of literary genius, I would hesitate to hand it to young children. I mean, let’s be honest. Never Never Land is kind of creepy. Indians kidnap children and the pirates try to kill everyone, while the fairies drink and have orgies (yep, you read that right). Tinkerbell calls Wendy a word that starts with a “B” and rhymes with “witch”. Peter Pan himself isn’t much better. He is a fun character, but he isn’t intended to be a hero or a role model. In fact, he can be kind of a jerk in his childish ways. At the end of the book, all the children, including the Lost Boys, realize that they need to leave Never Never Land and grow up. Peter Pan is the only one who remains behind, and the reader is actually left feeling a little bit sorry for him. Neverland is not a place to stay, because people are supposed to grow up. But for some reason, (probably thanks in part to Disney), Neverland and Peter Pan have become idealized symbols of eternal youth in our culture.
I’ve noticed a trend in my reading. People are taking a lot longer to grow up than they used to. Did you know that the concept of being a teenager didn’t exist until the late 1800’s? Before that a person was either a child or an adult, but nothing in between. Brett and Alex Harris have already covered the the rise of the teenager in their writings, so I encourage people to check out their article The Myth of Adolescence on The Rebelution website for more information. Or better yet, read their book! (See Resources page). Seriously though, at least read the article. Teens are a relatively new phenomenon, in the grand scheme of history.
So when I first heard the term “emerging adulthood” used to describe a “new” phase in life between the teen and adult years (starting at around age 19 and lasting until somewhere between 26-30, depending on the individual), I immediately started making the connections to what the Harris boys had written in The Myth of Adolescence. Once again our culture is finding permissible ways for young people to put off the responsibility of adult life. Just like people ages 13-19 are now teenagers instead of men and women, people ages 19-30 are now emerging adults instead of just adults. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, the developmental psychologist that coined the term, identifies the features of emerging adulthood this way:
- “It is the age of identity explorations, of trying out various possibilities, especially in love and work.”
- “It is the age of instability.”
- “It is the most self-focused age of life.”
- “It is the age of feeling in-between, in transition, neither adolescent nor adult.”
- “It is the age of possibilities, when hopes flourish, when people have an unparalleled opportunity to transform their lives.” (Emerging Adulthood, p. 7)
Now, Arnett, along with many others, takes a positive view of all of these features of emerging adulthood. And I agree that identity explorations and possibilities are wonderful things! In fact, they are so good that I think they should be coming much sooner in life than the twenties! (see what I did there? 🙂 ) However, the instability and feeling in-between can be really unsettling – and for some people it lasts as long as age 30. Arnett’s research also shows a fundamental shift in how young people view adulthood. Rather than a beginning of something exciting, many young people view reaching adulthood as the end of independence, spontaneity, and possibilities. The idea of “settling down” has become synonymous with “boring,” while “responsibility” implies a connotation of “not fun,” so they put it off as long as possible. And unfortunately, the world has made really easy for them to do that.
The rise of emerging adulthood is a result of several fundamental sources, all combined together to keep people in their late teens and early twenties from growing up. One is the increase of higher education. A college degree is almost expected these days, and in order to really get ahead, people are spending time well into their twenties and early thirties pursuing graduate degrees. This leads to a delay in getting married and establishing a career. The availability of birth control means people can date and marry without having kids right away. In fact, people who choose to marry and start a family in their early twenties are often chastised for wanting to “settle down too young,” when about 60 years ago, that was the norm. And unfortunately, these shifting economic times are a hard reality for many young people right out of college, making it difficult for them to immediately establish their working careers in the fields they studied. Many people will take whatever job they can to pay the bills, or end up moving back home with their parents because they can’t afford life on their own yet. Combine all these elements, and people can easily put off reaching the individual responsibilities of adulthood until age 30.
Less tangible, but no less real, emerging adulthood is the result of a cultural mindset that says people need to explore all possible options before making any sort of a commitment. College students are encouraged to major in what interests them, and if those interests change, they can change their majors as many times as they want. Arnett’s research indicates that most incoming college freshmen may have a vague idea of a subject they want to study, but they have not made any kind of definite career choice as the purpose of their collegiate studies. They are often more interested in the freedom and social opportunities college life provides. The result of all this unfocused major-changing is that it’s taking longer for people to graduate. Getting out of college in four years is becoming less common, and nearly half of undergraduate students are over 25 years old (Emerging Adulthood p.125). Catch phrases like “keeping my options open,” “becoming well-rounded,” “getting in touch with myself,” “bouncing around,” and “building a lot of experience” have become common among people in their twenties. Those phrases aren’t inherently bad, but when used as an excuse to keep from choosing a path and committing to it, they allow young people to avoid growing up.
My generation is a good example of emerging adults. I know and work with people well into their late twenties who still live with their parents. I’ve talked with others who envy my stable marriage, but aren’t willing to take the steps I took to get there. They’ve bought into the messages of emerging adulthood. You see, instead of training for a given career, we were fed various life philosophies, encouraged to “explore the options” and take time to “discover ourselves.” Instead of preparing for marriage and family, society encouraged us to date casually to “find out what we liked.” The common thread is an overwhelming avoidance of commitment – to anything! The result is a generation that struggles with self-identity, career instability, and a whole slew of relationship baggage.
But what I don’t understand is why. So many people my age have sacrificed the pride of achievement, success, and reaching goals for the idea of “keeping options open.” They have sacrificed fulfilling relationships for a string of Friday night dates. They have sacrificed purpose and ambition for a vague concept of “being free to do their own thing.” Maybe they fear being tied down, or they don’t want responsibility, or maybe they just don’t what it is that they’re supposed to be doing. Whatever the cause, too many people my age are drifting into adulthood instead of launching into it.
Possibilities are great, but at some point a person needs to choose something to actively pursue in order that something great can become reality. That’s when life becomes exhilarating – when possibilities stop floating intangibly just beyond reach and some of them become the reality of life. That’s when dreams are achieved instead just imagined. I love the idea of identity explorations and researching a wide range career possibilities to find the best individual fit – I just want to see those things started at the teen level instead. Arnett doesn’t seem to think teens are capable of accurate identity exploration, but I think they are, if they were just given the right guidance.
Being absolutely honest? This trend scares me. In just the span of about 120 years, society has found culturally acceptable ways for people to put off adulthood an extra 15-20 years after they leave childhood. That’s not ok! And who’s to say that it’ll stop now? When will “40 become the new 20?” When will we reach a time when people just don’t grow up at all? I pray that teens everywhere are taking the Harris boys’ message to heart and establishing themselves as the young adults they are meant to be, because I don’t want to live in Neverland. That place is scary.