The cover of Jeffrey Jensen Arnett’s Emerging Adulthood has the title superimposed on a L train entrance. The L train runs between the Meatpacking District of lower Manhattan (14th Street & 8th Avenue), through Union Square and across Manhattan into Williamsburg and Bushwick, the heart of hipster Brooklyn. It is hard to imagine an area with a higher concentration of emerging adults – and it poses issues, I must admit, for those of older adults who enjoy it as well.
Arnett’s book captures a broad socioeconomic trend from the perspective of a developmental psychologist. His focus is on individual emerging adults and his observations repeatedly ring true. His work is repeatedly referenced by colleagues and for anyone working in higher education today, it is easy to see why: he writes about our student population with insight and clarity. Arnett also writes in a professional, non-judgmental manner. His theories hang together whether one is cheered or appalled by the liminal status of so many in their twenties.
The substance of the book comes from over 300 interviews with emerging adults. Arnett provides numerous case studies, examples and illustrations. Structurally, he organized the study both topically and chronologically. A chapter on changing relationship with parents emphasizes the ways that emerging adults may, or may not, establish stronger bonds with their parents on a different plane. The damage of divorce is also highlighted. In “Love and Sex” Arnett gives a very high-level overview and follows that chapter with one on meandering toward marriage that looks at marriage, cohabitation and the ways that commitments are avoided and sought. “The Road Through College” emphasizes the centrality of a college education and the college experience to a middle class emerging adult. A chapters on work describe the exploratory nature of employment for many emerging adults. The goal for most is a career that enhances and complements one’s identity, values and likes. Questions of philosophical meaning and value are examined next, noting the diversity of beliefs and the move, over time, from individualistic approaches to those that entail community values. Or perhaps, the understanding that meaning and value often comes through recognition of others. One of the most interesting findings is that emerging adulthood becomes adulthood when the emerging adult feels like an adult.
Like other works that establish new intellectual terrain, Emerging Adulthood provokes. In classifying, defining and organizing, it frames questions and answers in new ways – and I think functions as an imperfect but effective partner to Richard Florida’s thinking in The Rise of the Creative Class. Florida’s argument is that the economy is increasingly dependent upon creative workers and that cities with high degrees of tolerance and support of creativity and the arts will flourish in the 21st century.
It is easier to delay adulthood – whatever that may mean – if one can live comfortably without substantial responsibilities. And it is easier to live comfortably while looking for an identity-career, exploring one’s hopes and aspirations, and searching for a potential life-partner, in a supportive environment. Like Brooklyn.