In progressive, liberal, Western societies, the concept of adulthood has become rather nebulous. The trend of increasing acceptance of individual difference has made many of adulthood’s traditional ideas more difficult to interpret. Unlike traditional societies, for example, Western European and North American traditions in the main no longer practice any rites or rituals which formally induct and welcome adolescents into the rights and responsibilities of adulthood. Instead, teens become adult through a gradual process of smaller ‘adult’ achievements (Berk, 2017, p. 375). Getting one’s driver’s license, graduating from high school, getting one’s first job, moving away from home, going to university; these are all hints and signs that one is becoming more adult. But because there is no clearly defined moment or ritual telling them that they have arrived in adulthood, teens and young adults are left perennially asking, “Am I there yet?”
This has been exacerbated by recent economic challenges which have prevented many young people being able to find and commit themselves to a long-term career, one of the last few clear cultural signs of psychological maturity (Berk, 2017, p. 474). Because the goalposts continue to shift ever farther from the symbols and age at which one traditionally became adult, more and more young people are postponing commitment to jobs, relationships, and ideologies.
So many people are now delaying traditional life choices like career, marriage, and children that some researchers argue that this limbo-period from the late-teen years through to the early thirties should be seen as a distinct life-stage in its own right: Emerging Adulthood (Berk, 2017, p. 470). However, the concept has a number of logical, philosophical, and psychological issues which undermine its claim of being a legitimate developmental stage distinct and separate from adolescence.
According to Arnette’s (2011) theory, Emerging Adulthood (EA) begins once the young person is physically and sexually mature and continues until the person is psychologically mature, or adult (as cited in Berk, 2017, p. 470). EA is characterized as a period of extended personal exploration, usually undertaken in tandem with a course of study at college or university (Berk, 2017, 470). During this period the individual is preparing themselves mentally and emotionally for the responsibilities, commitments, and sacrifices of adult life. As such, the feelings associated with this ‘new’ life stage centre on the uncertainty inherent in the fact that one is no longer adolescent, but also not quite grown up (Berk, 2017, p. 470).
This means that the EA process is largely disconnected from physical development and is therefore a primarily psychological process. This is in keeping with both theory and research which has found that psychological maturity is not an age-dependent process to the same degree as physical maturation (Duffy, Ruegger, Tiegreen, & Kurtz, 2017, p. 40). In fact, Loevinger’s progressive stage model of ego development demonstrates that psychological maturity is more closely tied to life experience than to age (Duffy et al., 2017, pp. 40-41). There is also evidence to suggest that one’s level of psychological maturity is not a fixed property, but varies according to context (Duffy et al, 2017, p. 46).
Challenging Emerging Adulthood
This bring us to the many arguments against EA as a life-stage in its own right. Of these we will look at only two. The first is relatively simple and is based in the philosophical consideration of whether the facts of the EA phenomenon are common enough to be called a universal human life-stage. The second is more involved and uses Marcia’s theory of the four identity statuses to challenge the assertion that EA is a new identity-formation process distinct from those identity processes begun during adolescence.
The argument from universality (Berk, 2017, p. 473) itself comprises two sub-arguments. The first regards the question of EA’s generalizability and the second is concerned with EA’s lack of consistency within the demographic which it purports to describe.
Generalizability. To begin with, it is important to keep in mind the purpose of a stage model of development, which is to describe the lifespan progression of humanity as a whole as specifically as possible (Berk, 2017, p. 6). A good example of this kind of life stage would be puberty. The age at which puberty begins is widely variable, as is its duration (Berk, 2017, p. 372), but there is no question that if a human being survives until about the age of 18, then they will certainly have gone through puberty.
EA, on the other hand, is not by any means a guaranteed experience. EA is the psychological byproduct of affluence, rising educational expectations, and changing cultural attitudes and expectations (Berk, 2017, p. 470); meaning that if a person cannot afford it or their culture does not approve of it, they do not experience it (Berk, 2017, p. 473). Furthermore, EA is heavily localized in the rich, Western, industrial societies of Europe and North America (Berk, 2017, p. 473). It is also not especially plausible, as some theorists claim (Berk, 2017, p. 473), that globalization will bring about a universally high-enough standard of living to facilitate EA’s normalization throughout the world’s population and justify the claim that its universality is inevitable.
Consistency. The second, simpler argument from universality is an extension of the first. Even affluence and favourable cultural conditions are no guarantee that a person will experience EA. Those affluent Western individuals who find secure and satisfying work immediately after university often adopt the mindset of adulthood equally quickly and forego the extended personal exploration of EA altogether (Berk, 2017, p. 474). This, in turn, implies that for those who cannot find a satisfying career right away, EA is a coping mechanism and rationalization of an undesired state; in turn suggesting that EA is not a natural development but one artificially created by challenging economic conditions (Berk, 2017, p. 474).
In my view, from a logical and philosophical perspective, the number of conceptual and contextual contingencies upon which EA depends makes any positive arguments for it unsustainable. That said, the feelings, and doubts, and challenges which young adults face when transitioning into adult life are certainly real, and I do not intend to undermine or condescend to those people who are in the midst of them. But ultimately, even if the conditions upon which EA depends were to become universal, EA would still have little logical claim to the title of ‘human life-stage.’
The next issue with EA theory is the claim that the identity-development process in which “emerging” adults are engaged is sufficiently different in nature from that of preceding adolescent years to warrant being given its own category. To begin with, the identity formation of adolescence and the “self exploration” of EA are described in terms which are essentially identical. Of adolescence Berk (2017) writes, “The process of identity formation typically involves exploring a range of alternatives, making provisional commitments, engaging in in-depth evaluation of one’s choices, and … refocusing on possible alternative commitments.” (p. 410).
And of “emerging adulthood” Berk (2017) also writes: “During the college years, young people refine their approach to constructing an identity. Besides exploring in breadth, … they increasingly explore in depth — evaluating existing commitments.” (italics in original, p. 470)
So according their own arguments proponents of EA are asserting that ’emerging adults’ are simply a few steps further ahead in same process of exploration, provisional commitment, and subsequent re-consideration in which adolescents are also engaged. Berk (2017) then goes on to state that studies of over 6000 culturally diverse university students showed that “most [students] cycled between in-depth evaluation of commitments and … reconsideration of commitments” (p. 471). It would seem, then, that the individual college student in the EA stage is simply still engaged in the same process of identity formation begun by their younger, adolescent selves, also known as moratorium: “The adolescent mind is essentially a mind of the moratorium, a psycho-social stage between childhood and adulthood, and between the morality learned by the child, and the ethics to be developed by the adult.” (italics in original, Erikson, 1993 (1950), pp. 262-263)
The Four identity Statuses. Moratorium is that facet of identity development which centres on the young person’s increasing ability to understand themselves as an active agent in the world, and all of the personal and ethical responsibility which comes along with that agency. The major project of adolescence is thus to develop a coherent, “achieved” identity that will facilitate their following through on these adult beliefs and responsibilities (Berk, 2017, p. 408; Erikson, 1993, p. 261).
Marcia (1980) has interpreted and extended the identity formation aspect of Erikson’s theory of psycho-social development to include four primary “identity statuses” (as cited in Berk, 2017, p. 409): achievement, moratorium, foreclosure, and diffusion. Whereas identity achievement means that the individual has explored their possibilities and committed themselves to a coherent identity, the identity diffused individual moves into adulthood having neither explored nor committed themselves to a particular identity. Between these two are those in identity moratorium – adolescents who are exploring their possibilities without having yet committed themselves to anything in particular; and those in identity foreclosure – who have simply committed themselves to their socially proscribed identity without having done any exploration at all.
However, this process is not uniform, nor does every person succeed in developing a secure ‘achieved’ identity. These four statuses are thus not rigid categories. Rather, they are general approaches to and outcomes of identity formation which are more or less prominent in an individual, and which often occur concurrently in different domains of the person’s personality and identity (Berk, 2017. p. 409). Nor is the process unidirectional; at any given time, some domains of identity might be moving ‘forwards’ towards achievement, while others are moving ‘backwards’ towards diffusion (Berk, 410, p. 410).
In contrast to the western young adults of Erikson’s time, the contemporary western young adult finds that because of the economic and social context in which they stand (Berk, 2017, p. 270), they are in fact not required, not ready, or not able to “commit [themselves] to concrete affiliations and partnerships and to develop the ethical strength to abide by such commitments, even though they may call for significant sacrifices and compromises” (Erikson, 1993, p. 263). Because the affluent modern young adult has more time and resources to spend learning about the world and themselves, they can remain in identity moratorium for a longer period of time than their agemates of previous generations.
As such, it’s not so much that the process itself has changed fundamentally. Rather, western culture has changed in a manner that allows and often forces young people to take more time to “[search] for the social values which guide identity” (Erikson, 1993, p. 263) and work through the questions and challenges of identity development. Ironically, however, in many cases this ‘freedom’ is not voluntarily chosen.
Like those adolescents who do so at an earlier age, many of the young adults who remain in moratorium throughout their twenties do eventually find their way to a consistent worldview, stable career-goals, coherent sense-of-self, and experience of personal agency; which typically results in robust self-esteem and good mental health (Berk, 2017, pp. 470-471). However, those 20- and 30-somethings who remain in moratorium without ever committing themselves to a particular path often end up in the same state of identity diffusion, and often suffer from the same anxiety, depression, and drug abuse, and engage in the same self-destructive behaviours as diffused adolescents and teenagers (Berk, 2017, p. 471).
The processes, challenges and outcomes of “emerging adulthood” are therefore identical to those of the “adolescent” identity formation process which nominally ends at the arbitrary age of 18 (Berk, 2017, p. 8). And so, if this “stage” has to have a pithy and ear-pleasing name, then it should be “Extended Adolescence.”
However, what the phenomena of “extended adolescence” really demonstrate is that the identity formation process is more complex and runs much deeper than the experience of past generations and the predictions of new theory have led us to believe. Given time and resources, young people are now able, and in some cases willing, to take 10 or 15 years to work through a process which previous generations were forced by culture and economics to complete in 5.
Most importantly for this discussion, the phenomena of “extended adolescence” show that there is no fixed timeline for identity development. And although Berk (2017) presents the topic such that she appears to assume that the so-called “Emerging Adulthood” is a separate stage, she herself cites research showing that although the process of identity formation begins in adolescence, it has been found that “college students usually make more identity progress than they did in high school” (italics added, p. 410). So it has never been that young people start a new stage when reaching a particular age, or upon the symbolic, but wholly arbitrary event of enrolling in university, but that the process in which they were already engaged takes on a new scope and dimension as they face up to the broad range of challenges created by these symbolic and practical life-events.
Chaos and Iteration in Identity Development
As we have seen, the fact that the EA “phase” of identity development process appears to begin again at university does not mean that it represents the beginning of a wholly new process. As Mayes (2001) argues, psychological development is inherently chaotic:
“Progressions are preceded or followed by regressions, one area of ability may far outstrip another, increments are blurred, and order is lost in considerable variation within and between individuals” (p. > 148).
This echoes Duffy et al.’s (2017) aforementioned research, which suggests that those functions of identity and ego which are at the forefront of the young adult’s developmental process are constantly in flux (p. 46). And as Berk (2017) has demonstrated, the central questions of identity can be resolved only through a long-term iterative process of making choices, checking ‘forward’ momentum and reconsidering the path, trying new things out, and deeply considering the morality and ethics of one’s beliefs and actions (pp. 470-471).
Trying to distill this natural complexity down into a life stage of fixed duration and specific expectations is in my opinion naive; at best problematic and at worst impossible. In view of this, then, the arguments for emerging adulthood seem to be motivated by more than just the desire to scientifically describe a new life-stage.
Looking at it from an intra-psychic perspective, it is plausible to think that the “emerging adulthood” idea is so appealing because it rationalizes and neutralizes cognitive dissonance and internal conflict around the thorny questions of privilege, equality, and socio-economic status. In other words, ’emerging adulthood’ could well be an elaborate attempt to avoid the unpleasant emotional outcomes of having to acknowledge that one belongs to a specific, small segment of the world’s young adults which has an unfair economic and social advantage over the rest. Rather than face up to this unfairness and inequality which their lives and lifestyles embody, it is emotionally easier to construct a conceptual smokescreen which first makes the problematic phenomenon objectively “natural,” and uses that “objectivity” and “naturalness” to avoid having to personally engage with the problem.
In addition to this, proving EA to be a ‘natural’ life-stage would be a potent defense against the growing body of evidence which shows that the current generation of university students are more narcissistic, materialistic, and self-indulgent than previous generations, and on the whole less empathetic towards those born into less auspicious circumstances (Berk, 2017, p. 471).
Extended Adolescence in Therapy
From a therapeutic perspective, these last two points could be very relevant to the psychotherapy one conducts with adolescents and young adults. Not so much in a diagnostic/assessment sense, but more in the sense that these defenses and coping mechanisms are often interpreted as having turned modern young adults into “apathetic no-shows” (Berk, 2017, p. 472). This lack of empathy is a potent reminder that as an adult, it is often difficult to remember how visceral and monumental the challenges of young adulthood were at the time, and how demoralizing it was to feel that one was failing at growing up. This feeling can only intensify as those who remain in moratorium and diffusion continue to get older, but find themselves no closer to a stable sense of self, purpose, anf meaning. As mentioned, while many eventually succeed in finding their way, a great many also fall prey to the long-term insecurity of their unstable identities, often descending into alcohol and drug abuse and suffering from depression and anxiety (Berk, 2017, p. 473).
According to the Psychodynamic Psychotherapy Model of Practice, these challenges relate to the ‘self’ and ‘adapting’ domains of function (Cabaniss, Cherry, Douglas, & Shwartz, 2017, pp. 27-43). In addition, the identity formation here described is a lengthy process which is largely unconscious, and the problems which bring the young adult client into therapy are likely to be equally unconscious and persistent. This means that they would be well suited to a course of psychodynamic psychotherapy (Cabaniss et al., 2017, pp. 58-62); with an early focus on promoting self-esteem and self-appraisal through supportive interventions like empathizing, soothing, and reframing (Cabaniss et al., 2017, pp. 305-307). Once ‘self’ function has improved, it should be possible to gradually introduce uncovering interventions like calls for associations, clarification, and confrontation (Cabaniss et al., 2017, pp. 307-310; pp. 324-326).
As we have seen, the developments which take place in early adulthood are part of an identity formation process which begins during adolescence and can continue on until well after the attainment of physical maturity. How long one is able to engage in this process is context-dependent, and varies widely depending on cultural attitudes, economic conditions, and socio-economic status. That the claims made for a new and distinct life stage are logically and psychologically unsustainable is not to say that the feelings and challenges faced by today’s young adults are in any way invalid or hyperbolic. The research shows that young adults are actively engaged in the process and experience of identity formation and feel a strong and natural drive to understand themselves and to commit themselves to a meaningful life. If anything, therefore, the proposition of “emerging adulthood” opens an important realm up for consideration and establishes new lines of communication between generations. And most importantly, it encourages everyone involved to develop a more nuanced perspective and vocabulary about growth, development, and adulthood, one more open to and accepting of the amazing variety of human life and experience.
Berk, L. E. (2018). Development through the lifespan. Boston, MA: Pearson.
Cabaniss et al., D.L., Cherry, S., Douglas, C. J., Shwartz, A. (2017). Psychodynamic psychotherapy: A clinical manual. West-Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Duffy, M., Ruegger, L. K., Tiegreen, S. B., Kurtz, J. E. (2017). Ego development and the internalization of conflict in young adults. Journal of Adult Development. 24(1), 40-47.
Erikson, E. H., (1993). _Childhood and Society_. New York: Norton.
Mayes, L. C. (2001). The twin poles of order and chaos: Development as a dynamic, self-ordering system. The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child. 56(1), (137-170)