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TRBQ Podcast #17 — What Is Adulthood?

You can vote when you’re 18 and drink when you’re 21. But when do you really become an adult?

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Psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett says people in their 20s are in a different life-stage than people in their 30s. He coined the term “emerging adulthood” to describe the years between adolescence and full adulthood.  Producer Flora Lichtman met up with him to hear more.

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PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

(Music)

OLSHER:
I’m Dean Olsher. And this is the The Really Big Questions, the podcast that asks — you guessed it — big questions. Like what it means to be an adult. Research shows that how we define adulthood has changed in recent years. Psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett says that historically, almost all cultures defined adulthood through marriage. Today, not so much. In a national survey asking which of 40 criteria are most important for adulthood, Arnett finds a different answer.

ARNETT:
Marriage consistently ends up near rock bottom.

OLSHER:
How are we redefining adulthood? TRBQ producer Flora Lichtman investigates.

LICHTMAN:
I’m out pounding the pavement to see if my neighbors can help us think through our big question du jour. What does it mean to be an adult?

PERSON 1: That’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about actually. For me, it’s have I developed myself enough as a person.

PERSON 2:
I don’t really know yet, because I’m not an adult myself.

LICHTMAN:
How old are you?

PERSON 2:
I’m 18.

PERSON 3:
I’m not an adult yet. I still think I’m a kid. I’m 65!

PERSON 4:
What does it mean to be an adult? To be responsible?

PERSON 5:
Be responsible.

PERSON 6:
Independent, responsible and respectful.

LICHTMAN:
That last answer – being independent and responsible – is pretty representative of what most people in America think. So says Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a psychology professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. and co-author of “Getting to Thirty.” And he would know.

ARNETT:
I’ve been doing research on this question for 20 years now and I’ve found remarkable consistency in how people think about adulthood and how they conceptualize it across ages, across genders, across social class groups, across ethnic groups. The top three, I call them the big three, are accepting responsibility for yourself, making independent decisions, and becoming financially independent. Those are remarkably consistent across many studies by now.

LICHTMAN:
You’ve tracked in the last 20 years I think a real change in how people conceive of adulthood. We hear a lot about the millennial generation bucking norms for adulthood, pushing back these traditional markers.

ARNETT:
Yeah, 20 years ago, the median marriage age was three or four years earlier than it is now, and it’s just continued to rise. And the same with the median age of entering parenthood. And I was pointing at the time to how higher education had expanded so much, and that was another thing that seemed to make adulthood later. Well, by now, it’s expanded far more, making even more there’s a period of emerging adulthood as I call it in-between adolescence and young adulthood. It’s really a distinct life stage, now, I think.

LICHTMAN:
Right. You’ve argued that this time period, it’s basically your 20s, right?

ARNETT:
Yeah, basically.

LICHTMAN:
Is this new stage of life called emerging adulthood. And I was curious, how does that fit in with biology? When we think about stages of life, are they constructs that we impose on our life or is there some biological underpinning? How do those two things fit together?

ARNETT:
That’s a question that some scholars have raised about my theory and about my ideas. They’ve said, “Wait a minute, stages have to be universal. They have to take place for everyone, everywhere. And they also have to be uniform.” Because that’s traditionally how we’ve thought about stages. I mean, Freud’s stages of psychosexual development in childhood and Erikson’s stages of the life span, Piaget’s stages of cognitive development.

They all were proposed to be universal and biologically based. But what I’ve argued is they were all wrong. I mean, we all recognize that they vastly overstated the universality of their theories based on very small local samples. What I’m arguing is stages are useful as long as you don’t claim that they’re universal, because they almost never are. Infancy is about the one life stage I think you can say is really biologically based. You can’t walk and you can’t talk for the first year of life. That’s true everywhere.

But all the other ones, I think, they’re frameworks that we use to understand our development and the development of those around us. And I think once you understand them as social constructions, then emerging adulthood makes sense as a life stage for our time.

LICHTMAN:
One of the adulthood themes we keep hearing about are 20-somethings moving back home with their parents–often for financial reasons. And one of Arnett’s most interesting findings is that parents seem to be kind of happy about this.

ARNETT:
Yeah. You know, it’s remarkable how happy they are, because we have this sort of cultural narrative if you will in American society that parents can’t wait for their kids to leave. And if the kids do come back in their 20s, then the parents are saying “Oh, no, how could this happen? When are you moving out again?”

It’s funny how common that is as a cultural narrative, and it’s funny especially because it bears almost no relation to reality.

(Sounds of family dining)

LICHTMAN:
The Goonan family in Marine Park, Brooklyn seems to make the point. They graciously let me join Sunday night dinner last summer. A weekly family ritual.

B GOONAN:
Usually we have several people over. Her brother, my sister.

LICHTMAN:
That is Bill Goonan. He’s married to Marion. And their daughter Danielle is here too.

D GOONAN:
Sometimes we try to get her to make something other than meat sauce, but it’s rare.

LICHTMAN:
Danielle, 29, has a good job. She’s lived alone before, doing a Fullbright in Italy and graduate studies at the London School of Economics. But when she landed a job in New York, she decided to live at home — seemingly very much by choice.

D GOONAN:
I like my parents. When I was at school I spoke to my mother every single day. I had friends who didn’t speak to their parents for months on end at college and for me that was the weirdest thing. It’s how you’re raised I guess.

B GOONAN:
I think it makes a lot of sense if you get along with your parents.

D GOONAN:
We’re an Italian-American family. It’s normal to live at home until you’re married. My mother did it. He did it. So it’s interesting when you go out on a date with a guy, a yuppie, a hipster, all those lovely terms for someone who moved to Brooklyn but wasn’t born and raised here and they give you a face. But in our culture, which is different from your culture, which yes is different from your culture, that’s ok. That’s acceptable. Our families are close.

LICHTMAN:
But this isn’t just about feeling connected, it’s also is about saving money–something Danielle became acutely aware of after her dad was seriously injured on the job when she was a kid.

D GOONAN:
We were on food stamps. We went from middle class, when you worked for the corporation I think you were upper-middle class, you had the Volvo you had the house. Then all of the sudden she’s driving to other neighborhoods to buy food with food stamps because she’s embarrassed. Because he got hurt. So I’m saving more than 20 percent of my paycheck and I spend another 500/month paying off education loans and I’m able to do that because I live at home.

LICHTMAN:
Not that there aren’t negotiations.

D GOONAN:
When I moved back it was different in the sense that technically I’m an adult. It’s my parents’ house. So you have to rewrite the rules.

B GOONAN:
Believe it or not I’m a little bit of a neat freak. My wife really is not a neat freak. And Danielle is a total disaster. So it goes down the line.

LICHTMAN:
How do Bill and Marion like having Danielle around?

M GOONAN:
I love having her around. She tends to… (voice) don’t butt in until I’m done. Yesterday I walked down the steps and we have a pool and we’re building a deck and I’m all excited. And I say, “I went to BJs and I bought those disinfectant wipes to wipe off the table.” And she went, “You went to BJs? You know they’re not good.”

D GOONAN:
I did not say it like that.

M GOONAN:
Yes you did. But this is where we could sit here for 20 minutes and argue.

B GOONAN:
To answer your question, outside of what you see now, I love having Danielle around. Listening to the arguments are not the best part.

LICHTMAN:
This assessment matches up pretty well with Arnett’s data. In national surveys, Arnett has asked parents whether having their young adult at home is positive, negative or a mix.

ARNETT:
Now, I thought most people would say it’s a mix of positive and negative, because really isn’t living with just about anybody a mix of positive and negative? You know, you do have to adjust to somebody else’s patterns no matter who they are.

LICHTMAN:
There are compromises no matter what.

ARNETT:
Exactly. But remarkably, 61 percent of parents said it was mostly positive. Only six percent said it was mostly negative.

LICHTMAN:
So a majority were positive, even though many parents also acknowledged some additional burdens.

ARNETT:
They worry more. They are financially impacted by it. But in spite of that, it’s basically a very positive experience. And the emerging adults basically say the same thing. They appreciate their parents’ support. They like their parents.

LICHTMAN:
Compare that with how Bill Goonan describes his relationship with his parents.

B GOONAN:
I never asked my father for anything. You wouldn’t dare. When you sat at the table he ate first. He took what he wanted and you took what was left and that’s how it was. Our generation we want the kids to have much more than we had. And we’re willing to give up our life for it, which is not good. And unfortunately, most of us don’t realize that until we get up to our 50s and we say you know what we screwed up a little bit. I would have made them work for more things, earn more things and not have that, “I had it so hard, I’m going to make it so easy for them.”

D GOONAN:
I worked a lot.

B GOONAN:
Even though, there are people that are a lot worse than us, I believe because I’ve seen it. But I would do little things differently.

LICHTMAN:
And that brings up a question about Arnett’s theory: does the emerging adulthood stage Arnett is proposing only apply to kids whose parents can support them?

That’s why I wonder what role privilege plays. I guess that’s what I mean with my developed world question. If you have more money, just to put it bluntly, to get education, to explore because you don’t necessarily have to immediately get a job or provide for your family. You have the luxury of thinking about identity in a different way.

ARNETT:
Yeah, I think so, too. And no doubt you do. No doubt it makes a lot of difference what kind of opportunities you have for self-exploration in your 20s depending on how much your parents can back you up financially.

But here’s the interesting thing. I mentioned I did this national survey of 18 to 29 year olds, the Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults. And on that survey, I had this question: This is a time of my life for finding out who I really am. Well, about 80 percent of them agreed with that statement, and there was no social class difference.

LICHTMAN:
80 percent of the emerging adults?

ARNETT:
Here’s another one, and this is something that has really been striking to me for hole 20 years I’ve been studying this is how optimistic they are.

So, this was one of the survey items on that Clark poll: I am confident that eventually I will get what I want out of life. 89 percent agree with that statement. I am confident that eventually I will get what I want out of life. Wow, nine out of ten are confident, and there’s no social class difference. There’s no ethnic difference. It’s remarkable that even though the 20s are a struggle, almost everybody believes that eventually life is going to smile on them.

LICHTMAN:
I wonder how that changes with adulthood onset.

ARNETT:
Well I’ll tell you, I now know. I just finished this latest Clark poll, what I’m calling the Clark Poll of Established Adults. It’s 25 to 39 year-olds. Because I’ve always wondered, what happens to those big dreams? Does the bubble get popped? I mean, of course the bubble gets popped. Who does get what they want out of life, right? I mean, by the time you’re in your 50s or 60s, I think everybody will say, “Well, I got some things I wanted out of life but not everything.”

So, I surveyed 25 to 39 year-olds, thinking it’s likely that’s when the bubble would burst. But as it turns out, they’re almost as optimistic in the 30s as they are in the 20s. It’s not quite as high. It’s more like 80 percent to 90 percent. But, they still overwhelmingly agree with that statement: I am confident that eventually I will get what I want out of life.

LICHTMAN:
So when does the bubble burst?

ARNETT:
I have no idea. I think maybe Americans are just pretty resilient in their optimism, and inclined to see the bright side and to believe that better days are ahead, even if their current lives are not quite what they want them to be.

LICHTMAN:
That was Jeffrey Jenson Arnett, Research Professor of Psychology at Clark University and author, with Elizabeth Fishel, of “Getting to 30: A Parent’s Guide to the 20-Something Years.”

OLSHER:
You can find more big questions on our website. TRBQ dot org. Catch up with us on Twitter and on Facebook — that’s a good place to ask us your really big question. This podcast was produced by Flora Lichtman. The Really Big Questions is a project of SoundVision productions with funding from the National Science Foundation. I’m Dean Olsher.

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