For this issue on the Millennial generation, we didn't think we could really do the subject justice without addressing the topic of "emerging adulthood," as the life stage from the late teens through the twenties. And who better to talk with than the man who coined the term?
A research professor in psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, Dr. Jeffrey Arnett first presented his theory of emerging adulthood in an article in American Psychologist in 2000, followed by numerous scholarly articles on the same topic. That article has been widely cited and its premise broadly embraced, leading to the publication in 2004 of his book, Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from Late Teens through the Twenties. He was profiled in a New York Times Sunday Magazine article, "What Is It About 20-Somethings?" in August 2010.
In our first few minutes of conversation, I mentioned I'd always though it would be cool to coin a new sociological term, like "generation gap" or "baby boom," and see it catch on so strongly that it entered the language. He smiled and said, "It's very cool." — J.D.M.
How did you first come to focus on the whole issue of emerging adulthood?
It started about twenty years ago, when I was looking for something new to study.
I was in my early thirties at the time, thinking back on what an interesting decade the twenties had been for me and for so many people I knew, how it was a time that was so dramatic and important in deciding one's life path.
It occurred to me that psychology didn't really have any way of understanding that. The models of lifespan stages we had were based on a much earlier normative path of development.
[Erik] Erikson had probably the most influential theory of development through the lifespan. Developed in the 1940s and published in his 1950 book Childhood and Society, his theory laid out eight stages of life. For Erikson, the "young adulthood" stage was the only thing happening between adolescence and midlife, from age 18 to 45.
Hence the rallying cry, "Don't trust anybody over 30."
I think what's more relevant today, John, is, "30 is the new 20." That phrase has become popular for a reason. The sorts of choices and carving out of a stable path that used to happen around age 20, when Erikson was writing about these things, is now happen about age 30.
For me, that raised this question of what's in between adolescence and young adulthood. Was there something else happening during that period?
I spent years interviewing people in their twenties. Eventually I concluded that this was a new life stage in between adolescence and young adulthood, which I called "emerging adulthood."
It must be gratifying to see that term and concept so widely embraced now.
It is—though actually, I was amazed that nobody seemed to have discovered it before.
Douglas Coupland's great book, Generation X, came out in 1991, and became very popular, which I think signified that a lot of people had a sense something was different about this generation.
But my point is that this is not just a generational thing. Something fundamental had happened in the structure of the course of life. This is, in other words, a new life stage.
I do think there are some differences between Generation Y—or the Millennials, or whatever you want to call them—and the Generation X that Coupland described. But in terms of the fundamental changes that have happened, like longer education, later marriage and later parenthood, and the twenties being a time of great instability, a time to try all sorts of different things, these are not specific to this generation. These signify a new life stage, a more or less permanent feature of our life chronology, and that is not something that is going to change for future generations.
I'm not saying there are no specific generational characteristics, although I do think a lot of what people say about this generation or that generation is said without much real evidence. There's a good deal of lame spouting off about the generations that isn't really based on any research. But I do think there are some distinctions, to an extent.
I think this generation of "Millennials," the emerging adults who have come into their twenties in the last decade, let's say, they are quite media-savvy and media-oriented in a way that Coupland's generation was not.
If you read Generation X today, one striking thing you notice is that there is no Facebook, no cell phones, and not even email. Whereas for emerging adults today, all those things are an integral part of their daily lives.
But overall, you're saying, this emerging adulthood stage is one that future generations will also experience.
Exactly. New generations will come along, but emerging adulthood will still be there. It will take somewhat different forms, in the way that the Millennials today are different in some ways than the people of Generation X.
But this new life stage is here to stay. As far into the future as we can see, the twenties are going to be a time that is characterized by instability, change and identity exploration. And then the thirties will be the period when people settle down and become more committed to the structure of an adult life.
I have heard it said that it was not until the twentieth century that we had such a thing as an adolescence.
Yes, and there's a lot of truth to that. It's especially interesting to me, especially being at Clark University, where G. Stanley Hall [the first president of Clark University and "father of adolescence"] worked a century ago.
That's fascinating! I hadn't put that together.
It's a coincidence, but a fascinating one to me. Hall published his magnum opus, Adolescence, in 1904, and my book Emerging Adulthood came out in 2004. That's kind of a nice symmetry, because his book became very popular and made adolescence very well known as a life stage term. And 100 years later, I essentially did something very similar with emerging adulthood.
I love a comment you've made in your writing, about how the twenties is a time when we postpone later life decisions. You said, "Family responsibilities: yes—but not yet." It reminds me of Augustine—
Yes! "Lord, make me chaste, but not yet." I actually quoted that in something I wrote about emerging adulthood.
That's just too good not to quote!
It is. And there's a point worth making there, because this comes up a lot: there is a sort of negative stereotype about people in their twenties today not wanting to grow up, and that they're always saying, "Not yet."
I think this is a huge misunderstanding. By and large, young people do want to make the commitments of adulthood, and they do so by about age thirty. But in their twenties, they (very sensibly, I think) say to themselves, "Look, there are things I can only do now, while I'm in my twenties—so I'm going to use my twenties to do those things. And then I'll be ready for the commitments of adulthood by about age thirty."
I was just reading over an interview with a parent for a book I'm writing for parents of emerging adults. Her son is thinking of traveling somewhere for a year, maybe doing volunteer work or joining the Peace Corps. She encouraged him. "Now's the time to do it," she told him. "You're not going to be able to do this when you're my age, because then you'll be too bound by obligations and commitments."
She's right. Why not do these things when you can?
I'm constantly battling these negative stereotypes, because people tend to have a negative view of these emerging adults as dragging their feet about becoming adults, as if they just wanted to play all day.
It's not that way at all. It's just that they're sensible about the opportunities they have now and won't have for the rest of their lives.
I wonder how many people of earlier generations ended up acting out in their fifties and sixties because they never took that chance…
Exactly. There's a lot of truth to that. In this interview, the woman met her husband as a freshman in college and got married young, as a lot of people did in those days. Now they're divorced, and she said, "I didn't have that freedom—and I should have taken it. I got married too early, and to the wrong person."
Now, at 51, she realizes she made a huge mistake thirty years ago. And now she wants her life back. It's kind of a shame.
I suppose this is in the realm of speculation, but if we have a whole generation who take that time and really explore what they can in their twenties, and who put off those committing decisions until a little bit later, you've got to wonder what will be the quality of the decisions they make in their thirties.
Yes. You'd like to think that they'll be happier in their marriages and in their work, because they've taken longer to commit to a stable work path and have tried different things, looking for something that fits them just right.
I've thought about this a lot, actually, and I suspect it's not quite as positive as we might like to think.
It is, in some ways: for example, there has been a decline in the divorce rate since the mid-1980s. Not a dramatic decline, but a decline. And this is because of fewer divorces in the early years of marriage.
I think the reason for that is that people are marrying later, and thus they generally have more experience when they get married, as well a better idea of who they are and who the right person for them to marry would be.
But, on the other hand, people's expectations for marriage have gotten so high. Everybody talks about finding their soul mate, which is nice, if you can find it, but it's a lot to ask from marriage. It's a very romantic ideal—and difficult to sustain for half a century or so, which is what we're looking at. If you marry around age 30, you're likely to live to be about 80. Can the person be your soul mate for 50 years?
On the other hand, some people do have that. In my interviews with people in midlife now, the parents of emerging adults, I'm finding many people who are still truly in love with their spouses, and these are very happy people. Whatever else might be not going well, if you have that lifelong love, you're really lucky, because it's the foundation of happiness that makes the rest of life glow. But it's a difficult thing to find.
I recommend a bathroom with two sinks.
That's good advice. Maybe you should write a book.
Maddie Dychtwald talks about how we used to see career path as a linear thing, but it's now becoming more episodic or cyclic. I wonder if this new pattern, with emerging adulthood as an exploratory phase, is more conducive to these changes in the modern career path.
I think it is, John. Because the way emerging adults talk about work, they want to find something that is enjoyable and meaningful. They don't want a job to be just a job.
And this is true across social classes, by the way, not just for college graduates. Even within the working class, young people aspire to find something they really look forward to doing when they go in to work every day.
The thought of having one job for the next half-century is appalling to most of them. Even if it were well-paying, had good benefits and so on, for most of these young people, that's not enough. They want to find what I call "identity-based work." They see work as a form of self-expression; they want it to make the most of their talents, abilities and interests.
And they also expect that to change. When they do settle on a job, by about age 30, they're not thinking, "Okay, I'll do this for the next fifty years." They're thinking, "Okay, I'll do this for as long as I enjoy it—and when I stop enjoying it, I'll do something else."
I find it fascinating that this interest in "identity-based" work cuts across all classes—that it's not just the more privileged, Ivy-League-schooled kids who have an expectation of meaningful work.
Yes, but I should add that a genuinely fulfilling job is an ideal, and like any ideal, it is always somewhat elusive. But it's especially elusive for people who don't have much education.
In terms of finding a good job and having strong job options, education is more important now than ever before. Over the past forty years, the median income for a person with only a high school degree or less has gone down by about a third, controlled for inflation. The lucrative factory jobs that used to exist—in automobile factories, steel plants, and so forth—simply aren't there anymore.
Meanwhile, the income for people who have a college education has steadily gone up during that same time. So the gap between them is bigger than it has ever been before—and it's only going to grow, because the economy's still moving more and more towards an information, technology and services economy, and away from a manufacturing economy.
If this period of emerging adulthood offers the opportunity for more higher education, how many people are taking advantage of that?
That is definitely an upward trend. I just saw the latest figures, and it's up to 70 percent now. That is, seven out of ten high school graduates are going on to get some kind of post-secondary education.
Now, that's not necessarily a four-year degree; it might be a community college degree or some kind of professional training, anything from culinary arts school to becoming a computer technician. You don't need a four-year degree to prepare yourself well for the workplace. There are lots of other options for very good jobs.
You said you hear negative stereotypes. I hear people sometimes say, "This generation's irresponsible, they have no attention span."
Right: they're lazy. Slackers.
Then I hear others say, "No, you've got that all wrong. In fact, they're more sociologically aware, more embracing of differences, with more of a social conscience than any past generation."
Yes, and I think that second characterization is more accurate.
They are more accepting of diversity, more tolerant of differences—in race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and so forth—than any previous generation.
This also extends to religion, interestingly, even among people who are religiously conservative. For example, young evangelicals are much more likely than older evangelicals to be in favor of same-sex marriage. They don't see what the problem is.
John Zogby, the pollster, just wrote a book about generational difference, and he calls these emerging adults, today's 18- to 29-year-olds, "the first globals." He says they are more globally aware and more globally connected than any generation before them.
For example, they are more likely than any older age group to have traveled outside the borders of the United States, and a lot of that is from studying abroad.
I studied abroad as an undergrad at Michigan State thirty years ago, and that was rare at the time. Today, everybody does it.
So, yes, they're more globally conscious. I meet a lot of people in their twenties who are interested in working for some kind of international service project or NGO.
My niece graduated from Vanderbilt last year. She has a sort of drudge job; it pays well and has good benefits, but it isn't very interesting and she doesn't like it much. It's definitely not an identity-based job! So she's applied to go teach English in Bangladesh for a year.
That's emblematic of this generation. Applications for the Peace Corps, Teach For America and a hundred similar programs are through the roof.
Some people say, "That's because the economy's bad and they can't find a job here." No, it's not! The same thing was happening a few years ago, when the economy was booming. Give them a little credit!
They're not doing it because they have to; they're doing it because they are genuinely interested in doing some good in the world.