Delaying adulthood, emerging adulthood or adulthood in crisis?

In this Ceasefire Blog, Hana Riazuddin insightfully explores the social, cultural and psychological influences on young people's transition from student life to adulthood, and asks, how will we ever become adults, and more importantly when?

New in Ceasefire - Posted on Tuesday, January 25, 2011 14:00 - 15 Comments

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In this Ceasefire Blog, Hana Riazuddin insightfully explores the social, cultural and psychological influences on young people’s transition from student life to adulthood, and asks, how will we ever become adults, and more importantly when?

Four months into graduate life and I seem to have heard it all. Guardian headlines warned us earlier this summer that a ‘record 70 applicants for every job’ in which the class of 2010 are ‘told to consider flipping burgers and shelf stacking’. Family gatherings prompt an initial ‘congratulations’ followed by the ‘what do you want to do with your life’, and after a dishevelled answer the conversation concludes on ‘you should have done medicine’, what do you do with a Politics BA anyway? Parents ask ‘what’s next?’ and agree with said headlines that we should do anything and everything to keep us afloat, to come out of these turbulent times on the other end. But as economic instability becomes definitive of the lives of twenty-somethings, those in, outside or between education, the pressure is on to do and not think, to survive and not dream, to know and not feel; we are essentially pressed into going into the rest of our lives blindfolded. Yet all the questions that surround both the uncertainty and the apparent delay of the once traditional, timetabled to-do list seem to contain a much more sinister undertone: how will we ever become adults and more importantly when?

When we look at definitions of an adult, as a noun it is characterized by maturity or someone who has attained ‘legal age’, as an adjective it is framed under an elusive ‘fully developed and mature’ description. Robin Marantz Henig, in her piece in the New York Times on the debate surrounding the trend of twenty-somethings forestalling adult life,  identifies the traditional sociological ‘transition to adulthood’ marked by five particular milestones: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child. In addition to these, there are scrambled and scattered legal indicators that outline ‘coming of age’ for particular events: voting, drinking, marriage, working, age of consent that all vary considerably with little to no consistency in signposting or regulating what denotes adult behaviour. Young people are having sex earlier, getting pregnant, binge drinking, marrying later, studying later, travelling longer and taking more time to decide what it is they want to do with their lives. But is this a case of delaying adulthood, emerging adulthood or adulthood in crisis?

Henig’s article takes into careful consideration Jeffrey Jensen Arnett’s, a psychology professor at Clark University in Massachusetts,  ‘emerging adulthood’, a distinct life stage derived from the cultural changes occurring namely here in the West, as a possible explanation for the current phenomena that twenty-somethings are now experiencing. Like adolescence, Arnett argues that ‘emerging adulthood’ has its own psychological profile wherein identity exploration, instability, self-focus, feeling in-between and a strong sense of possibilities are characteristic of this period and lose urgency as you approach the ’thirty deadline’. However, he readily admits that not everyone goes through it and those who miss out on it may not face deep repercussions: perhaps developmental tasks such as identity exploration, experimentation or a mid-life crisis later on in life. Richard Lerner, a close friend of Arnett’s and Bergstrom chairman in applied developmental science at Tufts University, argues otherwise. If it is to qualify as a developmental stage, it has to be both universal and essential, something that if missed out on will considerably and unfavourably alter one’s development, holding individuals back in the long run. Whilst I strongly agree with Henig, that if this is indeed a true and real life stage, more than just the misfortune of recession, we need to start rethinking our definition of development and push policy to create systems that support this transient juncture to adulthood, I can’t help that but feel we must reframe the debate considerably.

What we are facing in our generation of twenty-somethings is neither delaying nor ‘emerging adulthood’, but arguably a crisis in how we conceptualize what it means to be an adult. Whilst the traditional milestones were attainable in a tick-box fashion, marking an adult by material and physical mediums, consumerism predominantly available for the middle-classes over the last fifty years has had significant impact in changing this linear timetable. Consumerism has debatably allowed for greater choice, giving a wider range of people options (or more accurately the appearance of meritocracy) to live their life differently than their parents and grandparents. Consumer culture allows individuals to approach their life decisions as if they are consumable market choices, who you are is defined by what you can buy and thus the ability to brand and rebrand yourself in a finite but nonetheless extensive number of ways. This has been supported with wider access to higher education that provides and paves the way to the idealized ‘capitalist’ life-style and a service-based, debt economy that makes traditional class boundaries blurred: everyone can be the consuming middle-class.

Adolescence and childhood, however, not only emerged as a psychological life stage a hundred years ago, but as a possible, untapped consumer market. Whilst choice becomes the smokescreen of capitalism, consumerism has simultaneously ensured that youth is the ideal form of living, something that even adults aspire to maintain and attain through cosmetic surgery, beauty serums and midlife crises defined by dating someone much younger and a burgeoning celebrity-style sex-life: the greatest choices available are centred on a sexualized, youth culture. What becomes problematic, however, is that the same images are being sold to children and adults alike but with slightly different marketing and advertising tools. As a result, there is no identifiable transitional phase that marks the route from adolescence to adult, and even less public debate around what it means to be either. So how then do you expect children to become adults in a culture that currently has little to no wide-place structures to support this seemingly vital socio-cultural endeavour?

Becoming an adult is not an ending in itself but instead an on-going process. Whilst on first appearance my peers seem to be delaying this transition, the new questions being asked and new demands being made are far from this. Conversations I’ve had with some of the most exciting twenty-somethings globally causing a storm in a number of different fields such as fashion, literature, education, community development and journalism, point to the desire of a much more holistic existence based upon continuous nurtured growth spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and intellectually as well as socially or materially. These ambitious, driven young people have noted the flaws in previous generations where adulthood is not a one stop shop and the failings of adults (and parents alike) who are unable to make responsible emotional, social, or economic decisions despite adhering to traditional notions of material adulthood, leave us longing to be better human beings first and foremost. More importantly, these future leaders and world makers are the same people who feel it is feasible now more than ever to do so, acknowledging the limitations that our parents perhaps faced and boundaries that we can now shift. As young people, they are prepared to break the mould and are much more mentally and emotionally mature than the media gives credit for; working now to a live a fulfilling life defined by persistent growth in order to achieve self-actualization and happiness beyond but not exclusive of career development, something that often falls short with the thirty, forty and fifty year olds I encounter daily who are uninspired, disempowered and unhappy with the lives they lead or the people they have become.

If the crux of the matter is when children are to become adults the foundation is dependent on how. This means acknowledging the fact that today’s children will have to become adults tomorrow and reconceptualising adulthood in a way that evokes responsibility over oneself, those around them as well as wider society. Maybe ‘emerging adults’ are developing better skills for daily living and gaining a better understanding of their role and purpose in life now, but this should be a process occurring and nurtured much earlier. Children at school should be asked less of ‘what are you going to do with your life’ and more of ‘who do you want to be’, emphasising that adolescents transitioning to adults requires more than financial, legal or educational security, but emotional and personal development to allow them to function as healthy, adaptable, human beings accessing their full potential and capacities. Starting earlier will move away from the conundrums that twenty-somethings are currently facing under turbulent social and economic pressure, and ease children from adolescence into an adulthood they circumscribe themselves with authority. After all, adulthood is not and cannot be seen to be a static and homogenous concept or stage: redefining it to incorporate the individual within a framework of the collective, allows for choice, fluidity and growth that people face throughout their lives, not just in their twenties.

Perhaps it seems overly ambitious and requires an overhaul of a tiresome and outdated education system defined by curriculum, but as a twenty-something surrounded by more twenty-somethings who similarly agree, something has undoubtedly got to change. Introducing broader and more life-skill orientated programmes into education, health care and social support, that address emotional and mental health as well as critical thinking and intellectual development, will not only prevent any delay of future generations of adults, but more importantly reconstruct adulthood as an earned merit promising self-actualized responsibility and not a right delineated by material markers or legalized ages. For now, however, our generation of twenty-somethings, hopeful, thoughtful, inquisitive and insightful will have to pave the way, turning our visions of possibility into action, and quite frankly proving our sceptical elders wrong: we will and are making great adults.

Hana Riazuddin has recently graduated from School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London with a Politics BA. She is a black muslim feminist, writer, blogger and believer in the transformatory power of love.

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15 Comments

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Sophie
Jan 25, 2011 19:36

What a load of shzzle, this writer is so contradictary its beyond a joke. There have been some really good original pieces which I feel have been ripped off here, this is the problem with social networking – good writers are targeted for their delicious creativity and in no time ideas are stolen.

Z
Jan 25, 2011 19:40

Agree sophie. it’s sad that genuine art is not recgnised because attention seekers like this one think it is ok to push popular radical belif as their own.

JO
Jan 25, 2011 19:50

WISH THERE WAS SOME CORElATION BETWEEN ACTIONS AND LYRICS. NO RESPECT FOR PEOPLE WHO MAKE A BIG DEAL ABOUT OCONSUMERISM YET HAVE THE NEEDS TO BUY THE LATEST FASHION ASSETS, WHETHER ITS A DROP TOP CAR, A SUIT, DRESS; ONE WORD HYPOCRACY.

THIS SPOLIT BRAT HAS ALL THE BEST INTENTIONS BUT WHO WOULDNT IF MUMMY AND DADDY WEREN’T SO WELL OFF? IT’S SO OFF PUTING FOR PEOPLE OF HIGH MEANS – ELITISTS IN THEIR OWN RIGHT MAKE SUCH JUDGEMENTS ABOUT HOW TO IMPROVE THE WORLD.

NICE TRY THOUGH ON A PLUS SIDETHE WRITER IS WELL FIT. SHE JUST NEEDS TO DO WAX HER MOUSTACHE.

F
Jan 25, 2011 20:42

JO, do us all a favour and learn how to spell before you start making remarks that are totally out of line. There is such a thing as agreeing to disagree. Try it out for a change.

JO
Jan 25, 2011 23:42

I AGREE TO DISACREE AND I AM WORKING ON MY SPELLINGS. UNFORTUNATELY I DIDNT GET TO SCHOOL THROUGH TO 16 YEARS SO I DO APOLOGISE. BUT I STANDBY MY WORDS CONTRADICTIONS TOO MUCH

far
Jan 25, 2011 23:57

Thoroughly enjoyed this piece. Very timely and interesting assessment of ‘adulthood’. Really enjoyed the way the author articulated her position, had me nodding at my computer screen. Thanks for this Ceasefire and big up to the writer. 🙂

blow
Jan 26, 2011 0:29

Lol far aka hana is that you? Hahahhahhahahahahaha smelly hana

David Arnold
Jan 26, 2011 0:40

I don’t particularly agree with any of the above comments about this article. Firstly Jo has unfortunately got an inability to differentiate between writers and what they write about, which has resulted in her somewhat unnecessary comments above, but whatever, I suppose everyone is entitled to their opinion irrespective of whether it has no practical or academic value or not. Secondly I don’t get the feeling that this article has been a ‘ripoff’, it just amalgamates a lot of differentiating ideas that – for me at least – illustrate the complex environment youth are thrust into in a post-modern society. I get a real sense of pushing and pulling and tension is essentially what is academically key here for me, with a calling for reconceptualisation that is prevalent throughout most social sciences. For me its not a ‘knockoff’ but a reframing of high theory into something that illustrates diversity.

Good article IMO!!!

David Arnold
Jan 26, 2011 0:42

I don’t particularly agree with any of the above comments about this article. Firstly Jo has unfortunately got an inability to differentiate between writers and what they write about, which has resulted in her somewhat unnecessary comments above, but whatever, I suppose everyone is entitled to their opinion irrespective of whether it has no practical or academic value or not. Secondly I don’t get the feeling that this article has been a ‘ripoff’, it just amalgamates a lot of differentiating ideas that – for me at least – illustrate the complex environment youth are thrust into in a post-modern society. I get a real sense of pushing and pulling and tension is essentially what is academically key here for me, with a calling for reconceptualisation that is prevalent throughout most social sciences. For me its not a ‘knockoff’ but a reframing of high theory into something that illustrates diversity and is readable, and to call it anything else is to essentially claim that the majority of theory floating around at the moment is in the same ‘knockoff’ category….

Good article IMO!!!

Rajesh
Jan 26, 2011 10:45

Theoretical pieces of this nature are all about taking social/political theories and trying to make sense of them in our own envirnment. I think the writer has done this excellently, and although we may not all be able to relate, due to the feeling of class, racial or other differences, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we can’t all take something from it.

blow
Jan 26, 2011 21:55

Rajesh aka hana is that u again, blowing your own trumpet -again, we known you long enough to know that’s you hun, you anti-white racist jump on the bandwagon loser. Go stick a needle in your arm or write about your so called family abusers – liar. I’d like to publish those pieces.

Adam Cooper
Jan 26, 2011 23:16

Anti-White racist? What an interesting accusation. “blow” appears to have little or no understanding of oppression, particularly the White Supremacy which s/he channels through his/her ignorant accusation. White people, accusing Black people of racism is the biggest trumpet blowing in possibly all of human history (aside from perhaps Men complaining about sexism or the rich complaining about classism).

“blow”, appears to have jumped on a bandwagon which has been riding for 500 years, I assume s/he will be doing his/her publishing on the back pages of the next issue of BNP monthly newsletter. I’ll be sure to look out for it.

Thankyou kindly “blow” for revealing the pathetic and self-absorbed nature of your own racism, as anyone else reading these comments will be fully aware of the foolish and bigoted point of departure from which you judge others

catch 22
Jan 29, 2011 1:44

I am sorry, this is long and pointless and is in fact a rip off in the truest sense of the word. That is my honest opinion, i’m sorry!
However, i think some people are just going on crazy with the insults (can you produce anything better?) no right? see the thing is, it just lacks originality you know, but good work non the less. i approve of your courage to actually go ahead and write things, so good for you and i hope you improve with positive feedback.

maybe try painting? :p

Miss B
Feb 3, 2011 14:21

what’s the need for all the rude, hurtful, negative & uneccessary feedback? you haters need to find something better to do with your time. don’t hate…appreciate!!

I hope the writer takes no notice & continues to believe in the power of love <3

great article, keep them coming.

Dan
Feb 6, 2011 23:49

A friend of mine linked me to this page on facebook and I must say it is an amazingly written peice of work! well done to the writer and may god give her the courage to write more and keep getting better. amen!

with so much respect

Danna

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