In This Article Emerging Adulthood

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Critiques of the Concept of Emerging Adulthood
  • Cognitive Development
  • Vocational Development
  • Diversity within the United States
  • Across Nations and Cultures
  • Mental Health and Mental Illness
  • Stress

Psychology Emerging Adulthood
Elizabeth Mazur
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0183


Jeffrey Arnett and Susan Taber first introduced in print the term emerging adulthood in the article “Adolescence Terminable and Interminable: When Does Adolescence End?” published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence (Arnett and Taber 1994 [cited under General Overviews]). They defined it as the period between the time individuals consider themselves “to have begun the transition to adulthood” and the time when they consider themselves to be fully an adult “cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally (p. 534).” In his publications, Jeffrey Arnett asserts that this stage of life has arisen only recently in the United States and other Western nations in response to social and economic changes, especially the increasing median ages for first marriage in the last fifty years and the additional years of higher education pursued by many young people. Thus, the criteria for adulthood have been delayed. However, despite Jeffrey Arnett’s claim to this concept, in 1960 Kenneth Keniston, in his influential book Youth and Dissent, described the limbo of “youth” as a “new” but nameless stage of life of young people that Keniston describes as neither psychologically adolescent nor sociologically adult (Keniston 1960 [cited under General Overviews). In his book, he argued that the central characteristic of this stage is the tension between selfhood and the existing social order. From his own research with Americans in their twenties, Jeffrey Arnett found that the preeminent criterion for adulthood was accepting responsibility for one’s self, followed by independent decision making and financial independence (Arnett 1998 [cited under General Overviews]). As Jeffrey Arnett describes in Arnett 2000 and Arnett 2004 (both cited under General Overviews), in a more psychological vein emerging adulthood consists of five features that distinguish it from the preceding stage of adolescence and the following one of young adulthood. Based on a decade of research, Arnett defines emerging adulthood as the age of identity exploration, especially in the areas of love and work (traditionally tied to adolescence); of instability; of self-focus; of feeling in-between, neither adolescent nor adult; and as the age of possibilities, when optimism runs high and there is an unparalleled opportunity to transform one’s life. In Arnett 2000, Arnett does not claim that emerging adulthood is universal; rather, it is considered a period of life that exists only in cultures that postpone the entry into adult roles and responsibilities until well after the late teen years. Thus, emerging adulthood is most likely found in countries that are highly industrialized or post industrialized. Even within such countries, emerging adulthood need not exist in all cultures and at the same ages. Although in both Arnett 2000 and in Arnett 2007 (cited under General Overviews) Arnett defines emerging adulthood as beginning at ages eighteen or nineteen (the time of leaving home), and in Arnett 2004 and Arnett 2014 (cited under Five Key Features of Emerging Adulthood) he typically frames it as “roughly ages 18–25” and that, for many, emerging adulthood lasts through the late twenties.

General Overviews

The works included in this section provide good introductions to the concept of emerging adulthood. They vary in their emphases and their intended audiences. Keniston 1960 lends a historical context, discussing the psychological limbo the author perceived between adolescence and adulthood, a stage of life that he names “youth.” Arnett 1998, Arnett 2000, Arnett 2007, and Arnett and Taber 1994 are targeted to a graduate level audience and above, as is Tanner 2006. Tanner 2006 focuses on the contribution that the theory of emerging adulthood makes to a general understanding of life span human development, emphasizing the concept of recentering—a shift in orientation between emerging adults and their environments during which they gain self-direction—as the defining process of emerging adulthood. Tanner 2006 argues that emerging adulthood is a critical turning point in the life-span, and Arnett 2004 explores topics ranging from relationship with parents, love and sex, marriage, college, work, and religion. Henig 2010 is written for a more general audience and is straightforward, approachable, and lacks most academic jargon; it may be of interest to college staff, undergraduate students, and nonacademics, especially parents. In the wide-ranging article the author poses a question that many parents and emerging adults themselves may ask, “Why are so many people in their twenties taking so long to grow up? Using psychological and sociological research, the author attempts to explain the debate surrounding the question whether emerging adulthood is a new stage and the broader implications of the theory. The website MacArthur Network on Transitions to Adulthood is likely to be a helpful resource for students, instructors, researchers, and policymakers searching for specific data related to emerging and young adults.

  • Arnett, Jeffrey J. 1998. Learning to stand alone: The contemporary American transition to adulthood in cultural and historical context. Human Development 41.5–6: 295–315.

    DOI: 10.1159/000022591E-mail Citation »

    Author interviewed and surveyed 140 mostly white male and female Americans ages 21–28 about their explanations for believing they have reached adulthood or not. Participants’ three major criteria—acceptance of responsibility for one’s self, independent decision making, and financial independence—reflect individualistic American society.

  • Arnett, Jeffrey J. 2000. Emerging adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. American Psychologist 55.5: 469–480.

    DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.55.5.469E-mail Citation »

    Not the first publication in which Arnett uses the term emerging adulthood but the seminal one in which he proposes and then describes a new period of life-span development that is theoretically and empirically distinct from both adolescence and young adulthood, at least in industrialized countries.

  • Arnett, Jeffrey J. 2004. Emerging adulthood: The winding road from the late teens through the twenties. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Arnett’s first attempt to present a comprehensive account of emerging adults, based on his interview research over the preceding decade. He examines in greater depth than in the earlier publications the following topics: relationships with parents; love, sex and marriage; college; work; and religious beliefs and values.

  • Arnett, Jeffrey J. 2007. Emerging adulthood: What is it, and what is it good for? Child Development Perspectives 1.2: 68–73.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1750-8606.2007.00016.xE-mail Citation »

    Not as comprehensive as the preceding publications but more of an update, this article focuses on four specific issues relating to emerging adulthood: how the term fit into the life course, the need for the term, whether it is typically experienced positive or negatively, and whether it benefits society.

  • Arnett, Jeffrey J., and Susan Taber. 1994. Adolescence terminable and interminable: When does adolescence end? Journal of Youth and Adolescence 23.5: 517–537.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF01537734E-mail Citation »

    The authors explain the difficulty of designating a particular age or, even, age range that denotes the end of adolescence in majority Western culture and connect the entrance to adulthood to the broad or narrow socialization practices of the culture. In their conclusion, they introduce the concept of emerging adulthood as following adolescence.

  • Henig, Robin M. 2010. What is it about 20-somethings?. New York Times (18 August).

    E-mail Citation »

    In an interesting, wide-ranging journalistic take, Henig not only summarizes the topic from Arnett’s perspective, but also includes relevant science about the brain, socioeconomic influences, adult child-parent relationships, Kenneth Keniston’s description of “youth” (Keniston 1960) on which Arnett built, and gentle criticisms by Richard Lerner concerning classical stage theory.

  • Keniston, Kenneth. 1960. Youth and dissent: The rise of a new opposition. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

    E-mail Citation »

    Seminal text arguing for youth as a period of life between adolescence and adulthood. Author outlines characteristics of this stage and argues that its central characteristic, underlying many of the attitudes and behaviors of contemporary youth, is the tension between selfhood and the existing social order.

  • MacArthur Network on Transitions to Adulthood. Chicago: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

    E-mail Citation »

    Since 1999, this website sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation has been issuing reports about the changing nature of early adulthood (defined as ages 18–34), such as “fast facts” about demographic trends, lifestyle, and vulnerable youth as well as working papers, policy briefs, and general publications related to this time period.

  • Tanner, Jennifer Lynn. 2006. Recentering during emerging adulthood: A critical turning point in life span human development. In Emerging adults in America: Coming of age in the 21st century. Edited by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett and Jennifer Lynn Tanner, 21–55. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    E-mail Citation »

    This chapter focuses on the contribution that the theory of emerging adulthood makes to understanding life-span human development and emphasizes the unique nature of the years between eighteen and twenty-five. Tanner presents the concept of recentering as the defining process of emerging adulthood from a life-span developmental perspective.

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