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Arrested Adulthood: Pre-Adults Stuck Between Life Stages

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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."

Hymowitz tells me over the phone that my male peer group doesn't think the same way I do. "We have a world that's much more gender-neutral, but there are certain ways that it can't be, and I think pre-adulthood is a time when women really do experience the differences between the sexes that really don't go away."

So that's why I just want to smack my friend Rob Phillips, 33, web development manager by day, DJ by night, when he says, "There is so much more accessible to us these days that I feel it would be narrow minded to ignore it all in favour of building a 'nest'."

Hymowitz explains that "this freedom that your friend is describing is true. But it is a product of affluence, and it's a very lovely choice to be able to make."

So why aren't more women joining Peter Pan and crew in Never Never Land? I'll give you a hint: Tick-tock-tick-tock (and no, that isn't the sound of Hook's scaly nemesis). It's the sound of my ovaries shriveling up.

"Men and women are just going by different time schedules. A woman gets near 30 and she knows she's got some big decisions to make, and I don't think men have the same sense of pressure." Hymowitz points out that even those women who don't want to have kids still have to make that decision in a timely manner, otherwise it'll be made for them. "They don't have all the time in the world, so I think that changes your mindset."

My reproductive organs may be pulling me into adulthood, but I still face the same major barrier as the boys: choosing a career. Hymowitz says, "There are an extraordinary number of occupations that didn't exist 10 years ago" and sifting through all the options takes time.

What also takes time is completing that four-year degree needed for said occupations. Well a Harvard study (ironically) suggests that we should perhaps focus less on four-year academic degrees and more on vocational programs. Is vocational training the answer? Hymowitz points out even the trades are in flux, and Dr. Bryan Hiebert, Education Professor at the University of Calgary and Vice-President of the International Association for Education and Vocational Guidance, agrees that the job you train for today may not be there when you graduate. Dr. Hiebert says "[v]ocational training is not an answer... but following your heart, and taking the type of training that will help you become the type of person you want to become is... part of the answer." And as a result of following your passions, you'll see more people going into these training programs.

I know, "follow your passions" doesn't sound like professional advice on how to grow up and land a job. But one post post-secondary program is proving it may just be the key to jumping into the job market.

UVic's Applied Career Transitions Program (ACT) is one-of-a-kind in Canada for actually helping grads get a job. "[T]he results were astonishing," says Dr. Hiebert, who was involved in evaluating the course. "The job placement rates for people completing the program were over 90 per cent..." What does the program do? I can say from experience it's like a good host at a great party: it introduces you in the right way, to the right people. Participants meet with a couple of career coaches over several months and work through modules that have you self-assess your interests and skills, put together a career portfolio, research the labour market, generate career options and then go out there and network your way into a job. Many friends have borrowed my manual like some holy grail of career planning, and I think the program's success offers simple lessons everyone can apply. Namely, that you've got to be creative and tease out relevant skills from all of your pre-adult experiences, then spoon-feed them to a network of potential employers to nom nom nom.

But, as Dr. Hiebert explains, "[I]t's hard for young people to do that if they don't have a vision for where they want to be going with their lives," so he stresses the importance of having a career vision that takes the rest of your life into consideration. This is the "High 5 +1" approach. No, not the latest social network from Google, High 5 +1 is a recipe for success with six ingredients:

1. Change is constant -- one job for life is a thing of the past;

2. Focus on the journey -- careers unfold over time, so manage the process and the outcome will look after itself;

3. Follow your heart -- discover what you have a passion for and pursue that;

4. Keep learning and plan your continued education path;

5. Access your allies -- 80 per cent of the jobs filled are not advertised, so develop your networks; and

6. (this is the +1) Believe in yourself.

Or you could really take matters into your own hands and create yourself a job. Scott Gerber, 28, says we've got to "create a job to keep a job." Gerber is the founder of the Young Entrepreneur Council and via e-mail he told me "[t]he age of the resumé-driven, hand-out society is over; and it isn't coming back. Young people need to learn the skills necessary to make them self-sufficient--or partner with others who have the skills they lack."

Chelsea Haberlin, 27, did just that six years ago when she and a few fellow theatre grads co-founded ITSAZOO Theatre Productions in Vancouver. Although Haberlin's company isn't yet providing full-time employment, it is helping young adults get work experience in one of the most notoriously difficult professions to land a gig.

"People are happy to do this because they believe that short of higher education, volunteering and interning are good ways for them to get closer to the career of their dreams." But Haberlin warns, "it's super hard to create your own work. Really very hard and relies heavily on your own determination."

Haberlin attributes her success to the same formula Dr. Hiebert preaches: following your passions. Her answers are so spot-on that you'd almost think I bribed her, but I promise you, I don't have the cash to do that sort of thing. "The challenge I see is that people are unsure about what they want to do," she says. "Until they have found that passion they are unable to move forward." And she echoes the view that being labelled a "kid" when you're almost 30 makes for an uphill battle in today's job market.

So what's the bottom line? Get yourself a career vision, be creative about how you sell yourself to employers, and think like an entrepreneur. Don't let the labels hurt you. In fact, until you bust onto the adult stage, take solace in the fact that researchers have got your back, with a life stage.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story indicated that Dr. Jeffery Arnett coined the term 'arrested adulthood.' In fact, he coined the term 'emerging adulthood.'

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