An article in the New York Times last week, “What Is It About 20-Somethings?”, instantly caught my eye. After all, I am myself a 20-something, and it’s always interesting to scrutinize what people unlike you scientifically conclude about people like you. I remember taking my first psychology class in high school and learning about adolescence. My text book told me that I, as a teen, was emotional, struggling with self-identity, and that I was rebellious. At the time, I thought this was a stretch. But in retrospect, this was probably spot-on.
Now in 2010, the question “Why are so many people in their 20s taking so long to grow up?” seems to be at top of mind to many top social psychologists.
New York Times journalist Robin Marantz Henig sums it up nicely: “ It’s a development that predates the current economic doldrums, and no one knows yet what the impact will be…The traditional cycle seems to have gone off course, as young people remain untethered to romantic partners or to permanent homes, going back to school for lack of better options, traveling, avoiding commitments, competing ferociously for unpaid internships or temporary (and often grueling) Teach for America jobs, forestalling the beginning of adult life.”
Jeffery Jensen Arnett, a psychology professor at Clark University in Worcester, MA, is pushing for a recognized new stage in life called “emerging adulthood”. Due to a growing need for higher education in U.S. based on the job market, the acceptance of premarital sex, and the diminishing pressure for people in their 20s to marry young, Arnett believes that “emerging adulthood” is a time that young adults explore their possibilities while they have an uncertain future, and really engage in self-focus and awareness. “Emerging adulthood” is not yet a recognized stage in life due to a great deal of debate, particularly because it can’t be applied to developing countries. The “failure to launch” epidemic that is found in this period of life can only be applied to industrialized countries.
So what would happen if “emerging adulthood” became a recognized life stage? I believe that the social marketing implications would be vast. Just think. Adolescence wasn’t an accepted stage in life until 1904, coined by G. Stanley Hall. Once it was recognized, healthcare, education, and even laws were adapted to provide special services aimed at this group. And because of this, we now have numerous social marketing programs aimed to reduce teen violence, programs to keep teenagers sober and off drugs, and programs to decrease adolescent obesity, just to name a few.
If “emerging adulthood” was commonly accepted by individuals and governments alike, I could easily foresee behavioral social marketing programs aimed at 20-somethings to help them gain independence from parents. And because substance abuse tends to become a more serious problem when those affected are in their early 20s, I could foresee programs specifically targeted at this age group…focusing on getting treatment, rather than prevention. In addition to this, I can envision social marketing programs with a goal to reduce 20-something anxiety. People in their 20s have so much pressure to get so many things accomplished in a short amount of time. We’re supposed to get an education, and now even a bachelor’s degree doesn’t seem to be enough. We’re supposed to find jobs we like, but somehow make enough money to establish ourselves and pay off our often tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. We’re supposed to decide if we want a life partner, and if so, we’re supposed to find them. We’re supposed to maintain friendships to last a lifetime, and we also need to start taking care of our parents as they’re getting older. Wouldn’t it be great if the government encouraged us to all do yoga and provided free yoga classes in every metropolitan city? Just kidding (kind of).
At this point, there really is no way to know whether or not “emerging adulthood” will actually become an accepted and recognized stage in life. It will be interesting to follow the debate as the months and perhaps years go by. But one thing is certain—we as social marketers, will unquestionably be involved.