Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Emerging Adulthood

What's to come is still unsure:
In delay there lies no plenty;
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty,
Youth's a stuff will not endure.

Twelfth Night

The Times today has a long article on "emerging adulthood" (the tweens), increasingly advocated as a newly normative stage of psychological development. It is the ever more de rigueur period in which twenty-somethings "find themselves," bouncing in and out of jobs and relationships, moving back home, etc. It struck me because of the similarities with "new" psychopathological syndromes, such as increasingly mainstream obesity, (adult) ADHD, soft bipolarity, etc.

One similarity is the jostling of neuroscientific and cultural explanations. On the one hand, brain scans suggest that the pre-frontal cortex continues to develop until age 25, so why shouldn't we expect emotional and cognitive development to be an adventure until that time? Well, there is the fact that throughout much of the world and throughout history, sociological maturity kicked in well before age 25, that is, "emerging adulthood" is a phase that many have apparently been able to skip when needed.

The piece suggests that "emerging adulthood" may actually be an artifact of prosperity; basically, twenty-somethings lollygag around because they can, because they live in the most well-off nation-state in the history of the world, and their parents are willing and able to indulge them. To be sure, this is a mixed blessing: too much promise and too many choices can be burdensome. As I have argued before, the vices of the rich are now the vices of the middle class, who are rich beyond the dreams of avarice compared with most human beings who have ever lived. And yet we try to use neurobiology to justify this sociological state of affairs. It is the brain that adapts to the environment and to society, not vice versa.

And yet this needn't be a pejorative development. Life span is increasing, reproductive technologies augment the opportunities for child-bearing, and the retirement age may eventually be 70 or 75, so what is the hurry, exactly, to settle into the grind of work and children? The crucial change is in attitudes and expectations--the stigma of living with one's parents until age 30 is not so biting. Some sort of cultural tipping point has occurred, which may or may not have anything at all to do with neurobiology. This is allegedly about normal psychology, but it parallels metamorphoses in psychiatric diagnosis. We collectively decide what is normal, then look to science to try to justify the decision.


Delia Lloyd said...

Hi I blog about adulthood and just stumbled across this post through my google alerts. I really like oyur last point that we needn't pathologize emerging adulthood given that we are living ever-longer. Has given me something to chew on today. Thanks!

Delia Lloyd

Dr X said...

I must confess, I haven't had a chance to read the entire article, so please forgive me if, in my blathering, I repeat anything that was covered in the Times piece.

I can't imagine that prosperity isn't a significant factor in delayed launching, but I read recently that independence from parents among boomers represents something of a historical anomaly. On the surface, at least, 20-somethings look like their American grandparents and great-grandparents who often lived in the family home well into their twenties, though for different reasons. In the early 20th century, parents and adult offspring, even married offspring, lived in the same home because the arrangement was mutually beneficial. Everyone worked and contributed to household expenses. I know this was true in my family. During my early childhood, we lived in a house that included three generations of family members. Today, it is far more likely that the arrangement burdens parents financially while benefiting adult offspring. So as a society we’ve moved from mutual dependence, to early independence, to vertical dependence. I suspect each arrangement affects development differently.

Oops, I went on too long. This is part 1

Dr X said...

Part 2 of comment:

Playing armchair economist, I wonder if changing economic conditions exert both push and pull effects on the habits of 20-somethings versus their boomer parents. While real middle class income and wealth have increased over the past 50 years (though not in the last decade), first jobs today, even out of college, pay significantly less than first jobs paid in the 1970s—I believe about $4,000 less in current dollars. The difference is even greater for those without high school diplomas. So increased income and wealth among boomers makes it possible to support adult children, while lower incomes for younger adult offspring makes the arrangement more necessary for the young.

Why are jobs for the young paying less these days? Is it because the relative prosperity of their middle class parents allows the young to be less aggressive about the pursuit of better paying jobs? Perhaps the fact that the young have the option to stay at home also has the perverse effect of driving down the price (the pay) of entry level labor across the board. For example, Johnny and Mary are both pursing the same job, but Johnny lives at home and Mary lives on her own. Johnny can accept the job for less pay, so Johnny gets hired. When this happens again and again across the entry-level job stratum, all the Marys out there must accept lower pay to compete with all the Johnnys. In turn, all the Marys find it increasingly difficult to support themselves independently. And if Mary is a college graduate, she must not only accept a lower paying job to compete with Johnny, it is also more likely that she is carrying significant educational debt.

None of this is to suggest that longer average periods of parental support don’t exert effects on emotional development and conditions in the wider culture. On a psychological level, it remains to be seen how a longer period of dependency will affect these 20-somethings. I think there is a tendency to assume that this is a bad thing, but as you suggest, this state of affairs isn’t entirely out of line with neurological maturation. Putting a positive spin on it, maybe it’s good to have minimal stress to make the most of neural plasticity, though I suppose it can’t be said that going to the beach, drinking and club-hopping are activities that make the most of brain plasticity.

Still, if we look historically at increasing age of launching to independence, it isn’t at all clear that increasing age to launching has been a bad thing. Like many trends, I’m sure there is both bad news and good news associated with delayed launching. I would also assume that there is some unknown age-tipping-point at which bad effects outweigh good effects, a sort of Laffer Curve of mind.

And on an entirely different note, has wide availability of birth control also encouraged delay to marriage and parenthood, decreasing the urgency to establish oneself economically?

Dr X said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Novalis said...

X, all excellent points, and I agree that the jury is still out on whether it is in sum a positive or negative development.

Like most things I guess, it is over-determined: the need for ever more education for even a decent job, the availability of birth control and abortion, and simply evolving expectations (the new normal).

I don't remember whether the piece mentioned it or not, but it occurs to me that middle-aged parents are not only wealthier than most previous generations; 50- or 60-somethings today are also on average healthier and more vigorous than their counterparts in the past, which better accomodates the adult child at home. Our longer and (relatively) healthier lifespans stretch out all phases of development (except, significantly perhaps, true childhood, which seems to be yielding to adolescence sooner).