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Emily Kennedy


Arrested Adulthood: Pre-Adults Stuck Between Life Stages

Posted: 08/26/11 02:19 PM ET

Dear "pre-adults" (18 to 35-year-olds, that's you),

Oh, did you think you were an adult already? Sorry. I too just learned I wasn't. It's kind of shocking, right? Or is it a relief (do I get better tax credits with that)? Well, researchers think we're in a whole new life stage they call "arrested adulthood." We're spending longer in school, having trouble starting a career and putting off related adult milestones, resulting in our age group trailing behind our parents' generation like a turd hanging off a sheep's ass. Well, through grown-up discussions with some "real adults" and successful "pre-adults," I've got a few suggestions for us on how to finally pinch off.

"Frankly, I find this notion of 'arrested adulthood' a bit pejorative," says Norah McRae, Executive Director of The University of Victoria's (UVic) Co-op Education Program and Career Services. McRae says studying helps develop "higher order thinking skills" and asks: "Are these not crucial qualities for 'adults'?" Yes. So why aren't we adults?

Well, if we aren't given the opportunity to use these adult thinking skills in the adult situations we learned them for (i.e.: a job), then it seems we get stuck on the wait list for adulthood.

Let's take a step back here, what is an "adult" anyway? Researchers say the top three criteria for adulthood are: 1. Take responsibility for yourself; 2. Make independent decisions; and 3. Financial independence. And then there's society's expectation for us to have landed a career, tied the knot, and procreated. Well, it'll come as no surprise to you that we're not doing that until much later in life.

"Emerging adulthood" (coined by Dr. Jeffrey Arnett, researcher at Clark University's Department of Psychology and co-author of the book Debating Emerging Adulthood) is meant to explain the mess of factors that result in today's 18 to 25-year-olds falling behind their peers of yesteryear in reaching adult milestones. The term isn't meant to be derogatory. In an email, Dr. Arnett told me "I've had many [emerging adults] tell me they greatly appreciated the term and the idea that there is a new life stage in between adolescence and young adulthood," and in an article published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, Dr. Arnett uses the life stage to defend 18 to 25-year-olds to those adults who view them as lazy, selfish slackers.

Well, our stage of arrested development is getting extended... again. Kay Hymowitz, scholar and author of the new book Manning Up: How the Rise of Women has Turned Men into Boys, stretches Dr. Arnett's "emerging adulthood" to 35 and renames it "pre-adulthood." In a phone interview, Hymowitz explained "if you consider marriage one of the primary ways you enter into adulthood... then that's delayed the timing of adulthood for young people... college educated young people marry later, closer to 30."

OK. So if these terms are meant to help us out and offer explanations to critical older generations, why have we got our backs up? Well, it all boils down to the difficulty of getting your foot in the door of a job and, consequently, adulthood. Why would an employer hire me for a job with adult responsibilities (earning me financial independence, and eventually making me enough dough to throw that adult right-of-passage party we call a wedding) if I'm labelled an adult-in-training? We're facing an increasingly competitive job market. Complexity is balls to the wall here people! And now, just when I thought I had adulthood in my corner, turns out I'm fighting for that title too. Well eff me.

Since everybody loves a pity party, let's invite one more guest. Enter the "child-man." This is the guy who loves the new life stage because it's like calling mulligan on adolescence. Hymowitz gets a high-five for calling out my male peers on acting even less adult-like than me. In her book, Manning Up, she writes: "What also makes pre-adulthood something new and big...is its radical reversal of the sexual hierarchy. Among pre-adults, women are the first sex." Hymowitz explains that statistics show women are leading the pack, graduating in greater numbers than men, with higher GPAs, and overall "more confidence, drive, and plans for the future."