A few months ago, I posted an article decrying the problem of twenty-something young adults. It was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I cringe at the unbalanced perspective. Google “twenty-somethings,” and you will see a considerable denigration of this generation. So, I’d like to set the record straight or, at a minimum, bring some balance to the tendency to trash young adults as entitled, spoiled, and lazy. One study showed the older one gets, the more negative the attitude toward the younger generation.
Jeffrey Arnett, a professor at Clark University, coined “emerging adults” to describe individuals between the ages of 18-29 rather than terms like kids or young adults. I like this term because it acknowledges that this group is in the process of becoming adults. Historically, developmental psychologists like Erickson, saw development as moving from adolescents to adults with no interim phase. This may have been true in the past when adolescents had to assume work, marriage, and family responsibilities at an early age. In the sixties, the age of males when first getting married was twenty-three and females twenty-one. Today the age of first marriage for males is close to thirty, and for females, twenty-eight.
This finding is a good thing. Better to figure out who you are and where you are going in life before settling in with a partner. We also know from recent brain research that the executive function responsible for reasoning continues to develop into the mid-twenties. So, let’s give these emerging adults some credit for not getting married in the early twenties with half a brain, as some of us did. We can also see the benefits of this trend in reduced divorce rates compared to high points in the eighties. But there are other reasons to recognize these emerging adults or challenge the popular myths about this generation.
Millennials & Gen Zers
Incidentally, emerging adults, ages 18-29, cut across two generations- millennials and Gen Zers. Although there are some differences between the two generations, my experience is that there are no significant differences between the two groups, especially the young millennials and the Gen Zers. We must be cautious about making generalizations about emerging young adults. I have found that older millennials despise being called millennials. One characteristic of millennials, which I will assume continues with Gen Zers, is that work ethic is not in the top five values, unlike past generations. My son, a millennial by certain definitions, has been highly goal-oriented, driven to achieve and get his medical degree would not fit this statistic and rightfully eschews being identified as such. In a recent webinar with Dr. Arnett, he addressed some myths about emerging adults that are worth highlighting.
Dispelling Common Myths
One myth is that emerging adults are “selfish.” There was some research done on the perceived narcissism of teens and young adults and the finding was that this was more a function of this age period than unique to any generation. We were as self-centered in our late teens and early twenties as any group today. But Dr. Arnettt, in his research, argues that this age group is not so much selfish but self-focused. These emerging adults describe the importance of finding a fulfilling career. As such, they change jobs ten times between eighteen and twenty-nine. They are pretty idealistic and want to make a difference in the world. They embrace work-life balance, so they have time with friends and family and do not sell out to the company 24/7. Over sixty percent of millennials believe it is their responsibility to have elderly parents come to live with them. Contrast this with twenty-five percent of boomers who believe it is their responsibility to have elderly parents come to live with them. This finding is that today’s young adults are closer to their parents than in past generations.
Another myth is that they are entitled. There isn’t evidence that they should be given everything they want, but they are unwilling to settle for jobs that are not fulfilling or don’t allow for work-life balance and tend to be optimistic about getting what they want out of life. These emerging adults are optimistic about the future even though current economic, social, and political challenges exist. Understanding some of these positive qualities of emerging adults has implications for parents.
Implications for Parents of Young Adults
First, it’s essential to maintain a sense of perspective or balance and not slide into stereotypes about this or any generation. When considering our emerging adults, find positive qualities, attitudes, and behaviors that can be recognized and affirmed. By the way, even though you may read specific statistics regarding this generation, good or bad, understand that you cannot apply or assume that this relates to your adult child. To do so is not only statistically incorrect, it shows insensitivity to your son or daughter’s uniqueness. Second, we need to guard against the “confirmation bias” tendency to just look for something that may reflect our negative beliefs about our emerging adults. We need to raise our antenna for their positives and acknowledge and affirm these. By doing this we elevate these qualities in a way that can lead to greater expression by them. By focusing on our emerging adults’ negatives, we can inadvertently reinforce these tendencies as these young adults may rebel or resist our characterizations.
Finding fault is less likely to help our young adults move forward constructively than finding the positive attitudes, values, and behaviors we would like to see. Incidentally, research on this group tends to support the belief that this generation ultimately is striving for the same things we pursued – career, marriage, family, and home ownership. They are just taking a little longer to get there. My work focuses on bringing together parents and young adults around the common future that both parents and young adults want.
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