When Jeffrey Jensen Arnett was starting out as a research psychologist, he asked hundreds of people a simple question: “Do you feel like you’ve reached adulthood?”
As a 30-something, he expected people to talk about what psychologists call “role transitions,” like starting a career, getting married, and buying a house.
Instead, his 18- to 29-year-old subjects listed ways they felt like adults and ways they didn’t. This led him to coin the term “emerging adulthood” — that tumultuous period through the 20s where you’re not quite independent, but most of the way there.
In these interviews, people across countries and ethnic groups had surprisingly consistent markers for adulthood — from African-Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans in the US to abroad in Argentina, China, Romania, Sweden, Austria, Israel, and India.
Respondents “mentioned what I came to refer as ‘the Big Three’: taking responsibility for yourself, making independent decisions, and becoming financially independent,” says Arnett, a Clark University research professor of psychology.
Arnett, whose “Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens Through the Twenties” came out in its second edition last year, unpacked the Big Three for Tech Insider.
1. Taking responsibility for yourself
“People mention all sorts of things that they mean by it,” Arnett says. “It generally means accepting the consequences of your actions without expecting anyone else, particularly your parents, to protect you from those consequences.”
Say, for example, you bought a junker of an old car — things start to immediately go wrong, turns out it was a really bad idea. To cover the consequence of a decision like that is the sort of responsibility that people the world over speaks to adulthood.
If something breaks, you fix it — without blaming someone else.
2. Making independent decisions
The second threshold of adulthood is all about identity.
- What educational path should I take?
- What job offer should I take?
- Where should I live?
- Who do I live with?
- Do I want a relationship or do I want to be independent?
- Should I move in with my boyfriend or girlfriend?
- Should I break up with them?
- Should I move to New York to try that acting career?
“It’s finding out who you are and how you fit into the world,” Arnett says, “and there is a range of decisions that go into that.”
It’s a quest for finding identity, he says, and one that is deeply individual.
What’s key here, he says, is patience. Young people put a lot of pressure on themselves to figure out these identity questions, and their parents may add even more pressure — but eventually, it happens.
“Almost everybody figures this out around age 30,” he says.
The closer they get to 30, they’re more likely to be able to answer these questions and figure out their place in life. It’s not like these things are answered magically because they’re older, but what they want to do, where they should live, finding a partner; because people are focused on these things, they find them. Because people want to find stability by age 30, they generally do.
3. Financial independence
The third-most common threshold of adulthood is the easiest to track: paying your own way.
Financial independence is “very important in American society in particular,” Arnett says. “We Americans expect children to become independent, and emerging adults feel that pressure, and their parents put that pressure on them.”
It’s especially timely given that, thanks to the still-recovering economy and the high cost of education, in 2015 about 39% of 18- to 34-year-olds in the US were living with their parents, according to the Pew Research Center. You have to go back to the 1940s to find the last time as many women lived with their families.
Compare that with a 2012 report that found 31% of all adult Italians live with their parents, with 60% of 18- to 29-year-olds living at home, and a 2013 study found that 97% of Singaporeans 15 to 34 live with their parents, due to traditional values and high rents.
Arnett says that emerging adults are very consciously striving for financial independence, and he sees that they’d rather live frugally and on their own than comfortably with mum and dad’s assistance. But still, they might need help covering an expensive car repair, flying home for the holidays, and making the odd month’s rent.
While he thinks it makes sense to consider cutting off a 25-year-old who’s not making strides toward financial independence, here patience is again key.
“Depending on each other is what families do and have always done,” he says.
Drake Baer contributed to an earlier version of this post.
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