We reach adulthood, legally, when we turn eighteen.
From that point on we can drink and vote and own property. We can go to university. We have the ability, by law, to function entirely as an independent individual.
Two years, then, is surely enough time to have fully adjusted to this new stage of our lives. Every single adult in the history of time has done it, so why on earth can’t we? The mechanics of the thing are not so complex. We need to have income equal to or greater than our expenses. We need shelter and food, but we are free, finally, to create our own happiness. We can dedicate our free time to the causes and pastimes and people that we love.
And yet we’re useless. The things that were so natural for the generations before are not so easy for us: the career, the house, the partner, the kids. Is it our own laziness? Is it that we don’t want to settle, that we selfishly refuse to sink into mediocrity in spite of it all? Our optimism traps us in uncertainty, dodges security to seek excitement. We reject the present and work for the idea of a future.
But, as we wait for the best we fear the worst: the arrival of the day when we stand atop the distant horizon that we strove for, look out, and see that our world is small and dark and sad after all.
The Psychology of ‘Emerging Adulthood’.
There is some explanation for the feelings of unrest and upheaval that can accompany us into our twenties. Neuroscientists have long stated that the brain is not fully developed until age twenty-five, and possibly beyond that. Jeffrey Arnett, a psychologist who has spent years researching the ‘twenty-something’ age group, is now vying for the period between age twenty and twenty-nine to be recognised as a distinct developmental stage in a person’s life, and not simply one segment of the ‘young adult’ category, which spans from ages twenty to forty-five. He calls the twenties ’emerging adulthood’ and sees it as characterised by self-focus, instability and feeling caught ‘inbetween’, but with “a sense of possibilities” running through it all. For those of us with whom this resonates, Arnett’s conviction in his findings makes sense. If ’emerging adulthood’ were to be recognised as a legitimate developmental stage, it could be great news for us. When adolescence became recognised as a developmental stage distinct from childhood or adulthood, teenagers were able to get greater support specific to their needs within their particular stage.
In the UK in 2015, 72.4% of eighteen year-olds were in education or training. Over half of that group, and 49.7% of the age group as a whole, were in full time education. Just 16.2% were in employment independent of any kind of learning programme. What this means, is that by the time young people reach their twenties, the majority of them will be embarking on a very different stage of their life, despite having reached ‘adulthood’ two years previously. Expectations change. As twenty-somethings, they are expected to be far more independent than they were before, and as this happens, the focus shifts from them as individuals, to the organisations they must inevitably attach themselves to in order to live.
Surely this is where all our angst originates. If at university, it is highly likely that we were previously in possession of a grant or loan to help us financially while studying. And, even if we did live completely independently throughout our adult education, it’s still changed. It’s the shift in focus that does it. In education, the learner is able to be selfish, as everything is about them: bettering their mind, learning a skill, maximising their potential. Work is different. It is not about the worker, it is about the output. However demanding a course may be, it’s not the same. Illness and pain are now claustrophobic. Reputations must start from scratch. No longer are we delicate snowflakes to be admired carefully – we are packed into the snowball with the rest.
So…is this Universal?
The trouble with ’emerging adulthood’, is that it reeks of privilege. That’s not to say that disadvantaged young adults never experience the disengagement with adulthood that their better-off peers do, or that they have no desire to ‘find themselves’. It is simply that they have less opportunity to. The phenomenon is rarely observed in the developing and industrialised world at all: children there are required to grow up quickly. These young adults don’t get the chance to experiment until they find what they’re looking for. And, although it is speculated that the pattern increasingly seen in the more privileged is allowing those young people to ‘grow up’ more naturally in sync with their brains, the process is not a necessity. If need be, twenty-somethings can and will make the transition to ‘adult’ seamlessly: earning, marrying and having children.
Perhaps then we – the children of relative privilege, or privilege enough to allow us education past eighteen, no matter how financially desperate we felt at the time – do endure a kind of pain that is self-indulgent. Most of us get by: even if we do move back in with our parents, take horrible, low-paying jobs that we hoped we never would, and struggle to find the fulfilment that we were told we could. And perhaps the angst is unnecessary, given the optimism that fuels it: the promise of more, one day.
But it still matters. It’s still valid. Even if it’s just a byproduct of the relative privilege of living in a developed society. In fact, if anything, maybe it’s good for us. Maybe we’ll be happier later having at least tried to get the best for ourselves.
And one day, we hope, we’ll emerge fully formed and ready to take on the world.