Emerging adulthood is a time where you are forced to know yourself. While some say that emerging adulthood encompasses the “intimacy vs isolation” stage of Erikson’s stages of development, I’d argue that many people are still in “identity vs role confusion.” (Perhaps as a part of this idea that we’re taking longer to grow up.) College in particular is a time when you’re forced to make decisions for yourself. Many of us go straight from high school into college and the transition is a steep one. In high school, everything is scheduled for you. There’s minimal choice in classes, in who you want to be around, in what you want to do, whether you even want to go to college. Want to be an artist? You still have to take calculus. Decisions are forced upon you and you there isn’t really time to think “Hey maybe this isn’t what I want.” Perhaps the emerging adulthood stage is a result of this type of infantilizing our high school students and not allowing them to make decisions for themselves. I know I was definitely talked into things that I didn’t want because I assumed that others knew what was best for me and I didn’t know what I wanted. I was terrified of college admissions and college classes being harder than my APs. I did everything by the book and when I got to college I still felt behind.
The New York Times article “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” written by Robin Marantz Henig states that emerging adulthood is a period of identity exploration and self-focus. The article states that identity exploration occurs in adolescence as well, but has more urgency in emerging adulthood. Once you graduate college you’re faced with impending questions like “How am I going to pay the bills?” “Where am I going to live?” “Who am I going to share my life with?” “What do I want to do FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE?” These are terrifying questions for someone who is still trying to figure themselves out.
Self-esteem is an interesting aspect of identity that affects everyone. A study I found tracked college students’ self-esteem over the course of their four years in school and found that self-esteem levels dropped substantially during the 1st semester, but did rebound by the end of the year and continued to gradually increase over the next 3 years, with small increases from the beginning until the end of college. The study also measured the students’ perceived change and found about 2/3 reported that their self-esteem had increased and about 12% reported a decline.
Self-esteem has a big impact on these impending serious questions. It impacts your ability to find a partner and have children (2 of the 5 markers of adulthood mentioned in Henig’s article.) It impacts how competent you perceive yourself as when interviewing for jobs and entering the workforce. With only small increases in self-esteem from the start to the end of college, students may feel the same lack of control they felt in high school. Like life is happening around them and they are just now having the opportunity to know themselves.
This article reviews many different perspectives on identity in the emerging adulthood stage. It states that emerging adults also explore social issues that interest and pertain to them. Gender and ethnic identities develop during this stage and can impact the views of traditional adulthood. Is “have a baby” a marker of adulthood for many gay men? How can you combat racial inequality when you still have to feed into the system in order to feed yourself? There are many factors that go into what makes up your identity. In emerging adulthood, like no other period before, you are able to find the person that you are or that you want to be and achieve it. No parents or high school peers you’ve known since the 3rd grade dragging you down and holding you to the person that you once were.
So while it’s debated whether it is a good or a bad thing that this stage exists, Emerging adulthood is a stage where people get to understand themselves (or understand that they don’t understand themselves.) If we were allowed to do these things before this stage it might not take us so long to grow up. This limbo period forces a kind of self-awareness that doesn’t seem to happen without a period between schooling and work. This newfound identity then impacts the decisions one makes about what to do with their lives.
Schwartz, S., Zamboanga, B., Luyckx, K., Meca, A., & Ritchie, R. (n.d.). Identity in Emerging Adulthood. Emerging Adulthood, 1(2), 96-113.
Arnett, J. J. (2011). Emerging adulthood(s): The cultural psychology of a new life stage. In L. A. Jensen (Ed.), Bridging cultural and developmental approaches to psychology: New syntheses in theory, research, and policy (pp. 255-275). New York: Oxford University Press.