Not Quite Adults: The Uncertain Period of Emerging Adulthood

The excitement I exuded after graduating college still feels palpable; I was going on Birthright Israel, vacationing with my family in Jamaica, then moving into an apartment in New York City with college friends. I believed wholeheartedly what I had been told, that my “20s” would be marked by independence, maturity, and carefree ease. Yet upon entering the real world, I realized that this period can also be some of the most uncertain and difficult years in life.

Most millennials today do not follow the traditional paths of our parents’ generation. Upon finishing college, rather than immediately starting the career of our dreams or getting married, we stagger into the real-world, somewhat confused. Biologically, this angst and feeling of uncertainty makes sense, as scientists report that our brains do not finish developing until around age 25. But what is this relatively new, post-college period, and what does it mean for those of us who are living in it?

In 2004, Dr. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett conducted a 5-year study with 300 people ages 18 to 29, to understand what it means to be an adult. Despite differences in social backgrounds and financial idealizations, Arnett was surprised by the commonality of respondents reporting "feeling in between,” and questioning their personal identities. Based on these interviews, Arnett came up with the term "emerging adulthood" to describe this period of life. Arnett explained emerging adulthood as the age of identity exploration, instability, self-focus, feeling in between, and of possibility. While many people are taking responsibility for themselves at this age, they do not completely feel like adults. No longer under the roof of their parents or bound by the routine of school, young people are now forced to decide what they want to do, where they want to go, and who they want to date or marry.

At 23, I thought I had it all planned out. I wanted to spend a few years doing research in New York City, then get my doctorate in clinical psychology, while having fun, falling in love, and establishing myself as a researcher. When my plan did not fall exactly into place, my artificial (and in retrospect, unreasonable) timeline I had set for myself was shaken. As a clinical researcher, I found the experiences of my friends also different from the narrative society presented us. I have since spent time reading numerous articles and books, in an attempt to help others better manage emerging adulthood. Based on research, I have compiled suggestions for coping with the ups and downs of this challenging, yet still exciting, period of life:

1. Ditch the life plan

When we are kids, we often model our parents’ behaviors or those around us. We grow up in a societal bubble, each of us sheltered in certain ways. However when we enter the real world, we have to figure things out for ourselves, no longer on the set path that had been laid out for us. Many millennials report feeling “lost” or are trying to figure out “who they are.” But what does this existential question mean? Do any of us genuinely know who we really are or how our lives will play out? Don’t we all have traits that are constantly in flux and aren’t we always learning and developing based on life’s many obstacles and wonders we encounter? Many of us envision how our lives will unfold, and are disappointed when things don’t go as planned. Well, I have some insight for you- things rarely go as planned. So, expect there to be bumps in the road. If your plan fails, get back up on that horse and keep riding. Maybe you’ll even find a different path that is a better fit for you.

2. Become comfortable with uncertainty

Human beings seek security. We long for predictability. However, by accepting the unknown, and riding life’s waves, we learn to become more comfortable with uncertainty. Our personalities change more during our 20s than any other period in our lives. So rather than view the uncertainty presented by the choices of this time in our lives as a negative, perhaps we should reimagine the choices as an array of doors through which we can enter many possibilities. Decide to allow yourself to experience more of life rather than plan and control it. It is better to learn early on that nothing in life is static; all is fleeting and changing. We resist change at our very core. But the sooner we can accept that the only thing in life that is certain is uncertainty, the less stressful things are and the richer and more fulfilling our lives will become. Fighting reality is hard and unnecessary work.

3. Realize that life is what you make of it

Life can be challenging, but it can also be wonderful and rewarding. Change is not easy, and it is important to remember that millions of others are experiencing similar feelings of fear, anxiety and loneliness. You are maturing each day you go to work or push yourself to apply for a job; or, decide to break up with your significant other, or put yourself out there on repeated first dates. Remind yourself to lighten up. Too often we are so serious and intense that we miss the glimmers of joy life has to offer. Anything you can do to keep things light will make the ride that much more endurable and even enjoyable.

4. Be selfish

Within reason, of course. But really, this is the time to take matters into your own hands and do what is right for you. Care for yourself by setting your own agenda, making time for self-healing activities like exercise and meditation, and maintaining relationships with the friends that matter to you. Know that you are the only one that can choose what waters to test and only you can be the determiner of your life’s choices and path. If you hope to one day have a family, now is the best time to explore things while you’re independent.

5. Don’t be afraid to take risks

Don’t sell yourself short, and don’t be afraid to take the road less traveled. Above all, do not fear failure. In our competitive and fast-paced comparison-based society, it is easy to get caught up in what others are doing, and what you “should” be doing. (I don’t believe in “should” statements). I can say that while my first big experience with failure was discouraging, I cannot think of another time in my life that I learned so much about myself and my prerogatives. We live in an age where it is more acceptable than in prior generations to deviate from the norm. Whether you want to see the world’s beauty and spend time traveling abroad, spend time being single, or quit a high-paying job to start a business or band you’re excited about - do things that scare you, and push yourself to your best ability. Now is your time to make the most of all that you can.

So, my main advice to you, whether you’re just beginning emerging adulthood, are in the midst of your 20s, or are finally reaching the stage of true adulthood, is to acknowledge that this period is tough. It is scary, it is anxiety-provoking, and it may not be anything like what you have been told by the media. Know that you are not alone in your loneliness. You can turn disappointment into curiosity and take advantage of the uncertainty life has to offer by making daring and bold choices. Do what you have always wanted to do, watch your life unfold, and stop planning, today. Life has a funny way of working itself out.

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