The Winding Road From the Late Teens Through the Twenties

By Jeffrey Jensen Arnett

Oxford Univ. 270 pp. $29.95

In the middle of the past century, some of America's most prominent social critics lamented the disappearance of adolescence as a life stage when the young could explore and ultimately discover their place in society. Teenagers, they claimed, were growing up too fast and being deprived of the moratorium needed to gain psychological maturity. In the two decades after World War II, young people often quit high school to take well-paying manufacturing jobs, rushed into marriage in unprecedented numbers and produced a huge cohort of children referred to by one social demographer as "an invasion of barbarians." These barbarians are the graying parents of today's young adults.

Curiously, the "marriage rush" and "baby boom" are now celebrated as a golden age of domestic tranquillity, when the family was valued and supported. We have forgotten that, according to many observers, family life in the 1950s was a precarious attempt to manage the enormous challenge of absorbing veterans back into civil society. Early marriage gave rise to soaring rates of marital dissolution, and the generation of children born in that era experienced a host of social ills as they entered their adolescent years in the '60s and '70s.

A half-century later, the social script for growing up has again been radically altered, and no one thinks that the young are taking on responsibilities too early in life. Today, it is nearly universally accepted that one cannot attain a middle-class life without at least a college degree and some years of experimentation in the labor force. Marriage, if it occurs, comes later than ever before in our nation's history. Well-educated people awkwardly postpone childbearing to their late twenties or early thirties (if not later); the less educated embark on it earlier and often outside of marriage.

Jeffrey Jensen Arnett is one of a growing legion of social scientists, and one of the few psychologists, examining this new pattern of coming-of-age in American society. His slender and engaging book, "Emerging Adulthood," reworks and integrates some of his professional writings. Some of his ideas about this developmental stage are informative and insightful, but many professionals and policymakers will find the volume singularly focused on middle-class youth and detached from the changing social and economic context that has rearranged the social timetable. Without this context, it sometimes appears that the personal testimonies of young adults reported in the book are the only reality that is structuring the transition to adulthood. Valuable as they are, these accounts are not accompanied by observations or information about the settings in which young adults reside and that are shaping their identities and development.

Drawing on the work of Erik Erikson and other theorists, Arnett defines emerging adulthood as a time of instability, self-focus, exploration and perceived possibility. This process generally takes place from the late teens to the mid-twenties. According to both Arnett and the participants in his studies, emerging adulthood concludes by age 30. This assumption is neither demonstrated nor especially convincing, since many of the events that shape development -- schooling, renegotiation with parents, intimate relationships and partnership, childbearing and childrearing -- are often not concluded by the late twenties.

Lacking information on his sample over time and absent systematic age comparisons, we are left guessing when and how adult development is accomplished. Surely, we cannot rely solely on the participants' views at a single point in time, given that young adults are continually revising their opinions about their selfhood and circumstances. "Emerging Adulthood" provides only an indistinct picture of how this process is shaped by changing experiences in family, school, work and intimate relationships. Arnett is unable to address the larger question of whether stable identity establishes life choices or whether life choices shape stable identity.

My biggest disappointment with the book is the omission of those young adults who have been marginalized by the mainstream institutions of school, work and even family. Arnett refers to this population from time to time, but they make only a cameo appearance in his book. Because he never provides an adequate description of those he interviewed in his studies, we cannot say for sure that his sample excluded the very poor, high school dropouts and youth emerging from the foster care system and prisons, but I was unable to find anyone in his case studies who belonged to the so-called forgotten half, consisting of those who never make it to, much less through, college. Airbrushed from the portrait of emerging adults are those whose futures may be foreclosed by lack of skills and limited opportunities. Continued underinvestment in this portion of the population surely deserves more than fleeting mention in a book about the route to adulthood.

Despite these limitations, Arnett deserves credit for helping to chart a new terrain that is only likely to grow in the 21st century. His sense of optimism and advocacy for young adults are infectious. This work is likely to help build a field of scholarship that is urgently needed to renovate policies, programs and general understanding of the lengthy and arduous process of becoming an adult in American society. At a time when cutbacks are being made on a daily basis in public assistance for education, housing, childcare and health, it appears that parents are being called upon to assume a growing share of economic, social and psychological support for their young adult children. It is just possible that this go-it-alone approach may drive families out of the business of having children altogether.