Who Are These Emerging Adults?

Who Are These Emerging Adults?

Each generation develops a mindset and patterns that are unique to it. Here’s a simple example from my family that illustrates just one way this plays out across generations. My father and mother were the first to bring a television to their little town in Kansas. It was in their generation that the delivery mechanism for entertainment and news shifted from radio to television. My wife and I were part of the hippy generation known for free love, opposition to the Vietnam War, and flower children. We grew up listening to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Beach Boys on a record player. Our kids’ generation has no need of televisions or record players because they can access their news and entertainment online. In their wired world, white earbuds are practically necessary for life! This is just a simple example, but it demonstrates significant shifts not only in technology but also from one generational culture to the next. If we want to understand our emerging adults, we can’t ignore how they are influenced and shaped by their cultural norms.

Each generation produces a cultural shift, some more impactful than others, but this generation of young adults has undeniably brought on such a significant shift in the cultural mindset that it’s challenging for those of us in previous generations to understand. Their perspectives, priorities, attitudes, goals, and objectives, as well as lifestyle choices, are markedly different from the ones we grew up with. Here are some of their defining characteristics.

They are shaped by technology. On average, young adults are on a mobile device more than a third of their waking hours per day, leading some to call them “screenagers.” They view their device not primarily as a phone but rather as a pocket computer that connects them to the world. If you are going to communicate with your emerging adults, you’d better become tech savvy. When they want to learn something, their best friends are Siri, Alexa, and Google. At HomeWord, when we asked young parents where they get their parenting information, nearly everyone said the internet.

They expect everyone to get a blue ribbon. This is the generation that grew up being affirmed as much for participation as for achievement. Whether they won or lost the game, came in first or last, they received a ribbon or a trophy just for showing up. Although such affirmation started out as an effort to bolster poor self-esteem, it ended up contributing to an entitlement mindset—an expectation of reward regardless of effort or performance. Instead of having poor self-esteem, this generation tends to have an inflated view of themselves. As they enter adulthood, this plays out in several areas, including the belief that they deserve higher pay and more recognition at work. Because they didn’t make the connection between effort and reward or grapple with the agony of defeat as children, this generation has trouble accepting the fact that in adult life and work, they don’t always get a ribbon or a trophy just for showing up.

They don’t live to work, they work to live. Their grandparents had a work ethic that often got in the way of relationships—they lived to work. They worked hard and were loyal to their employers. Today’s emerging adult is far less likely to commit to one employer and most likely will have multiple careers. They are part of a generation in which neither employers nor employees expect long-term loyalty. They like to work in teams, although they feel comfortable telecommuting or working outside the office. And fewer emerging adults want to work a typical nine- to-five job, aspiring instead to greater work-life balance than that of previous generations. They are determined not to let work dominate their lives.

They want a healthy marriage and family. No doubt every generation wants a healthy marriage and family, but emerging adults are even more intentional about it once they do get married and start having children. This comes as a surprise to many culture experts because of their slower approach to settling down.

They consider tolerance an essential trait of a loving person. They often consider it unloving to express any kind of disapproval of another person’s religion, sexuality, and lifestyle. But this generation tends not to have the same level of tolerance for opposing political views and can be quite vocal about expressing their disagreement or their disapproval. This can cause some strong disagreements around the holiday dinner table.

Many emerging adults have a post-Christian world- view, which means that they no longer see the world through Christian values. This is one of the reasons disagreeing with or disapproving of someone else’s lifestyle—even if it conflicts with biblical principles—is considered unloving.

They prioritize adventure seeking. This emerging adult generation values adventure. They travel to exotic places, jump out of airplanes, do extreme sports, and even make adventurous decisions about where they will live. When our youngest daughter, Heidi, and her husband, Matt, let us know that they were moving from the West Coast to the East Coast for nine months, we asked what was prompting the move. “We’ve always wanted to experience the East Coast,” Heidi said, “and we thought it was a good idea to do it before we had kids.” At first, we had all the worries any parent would have about job security and cost factors. But the more they explained it, the better it sounded. Cathy started calling it “The Millennial Adventure.” No doubt your adult children are more adventure-some than previous generations as well.

You might recognize your adult child in some of these characteristics, but did you know that this stage of life is a fairly recent development? It was psychology professor Jeffrey Arnett who first coined the phrase “emerging adulthood” to describe the years between late adolescence and early adulthood. There were traditionally believed to be four stages of life: childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age. Today, we have infancy, childhood, adolescence, emerging adulthood, adulthood, and senior adulthood. In his groundbreaking book Emerging Adulthood, Arnett describes five qualities that characterize this stage between adolescence and adulthood:

  1. Identity exploration. Emerging adults are continually seeking to answer the question, who am I? In an effort to figure it out, they try different options, particularly with romantic relationships and careers.

  2. Instability. Change is a big word for emerging adults. Because they are changing majors, partners, jobs, and even residences, instability is part of their experience.

  3. Emerging adults tend to delay significant adult responsibilities such as marriage and parenthood. With more freedom to explore than they had in adolescence and few of the ties of adulthood, they focus on themselves and their needs and aspirations.

  4. Feeling in-between. Emerging adults are in transition. When asked if they are adults, they often answer, “Yes and no.” They exercise the freedom and lifestyle choices of adulthood, yet they know that they haven’t reached full adulthood—marriage, parenting, and job security. Most emerging adults have also been helped financially by their parents.

  5. Possibilities and optimism. Emerging adults often hold a positive view of the future. They see all the possibilities before them and believe they can avoid making the same mistakes as their parents or loved ones when it comes to relationships and vocation.

As I read Arnett’s characteristics of emerging adults, it suddenly made sense why my adult kids act as they do. It was like he was living in our home and listening to our conversations! Just understanding that these are characteristics of this emerging adult generation—rather than quirks of our children—can help us keep the relationship with our children in perspective and perhaps help us to have a bit more patience. I’ve started using the term “adultolescence” to describe this stage of life. I know they look like adults, but they still have some latent adolescent traits.

If we aren’t attentive to the nuances of our children’s changing culture, we can forget that we were raised with a different cultural mindset. Gaining an understanding of why our kids act and think the way they do won’t eliminate all the confusion we might have or erase our differing opinions, but it can help us make sense of why they might make choices that shock or surprise us.

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Jim Burns

Jim Burns

Jim Burns is the President of HomeWord and the Executive Director of the HomeWord Center for Youth and Family at Azusa Pacific University. Jim speaks to thousands of people around the world each year. He has close to 2 million resources in print in 30 languages. He primarily writes and speaks on the values of HomeWord which are: Strong Marriages, Confident Parents, Empowered Kids, and Healthy Leaders. Some of his most popular books are: Confident Parenting, The Purity Code, Creating an Intimate Marriage and Closer. Jim and his wife, Cathy live Southern California and have three grown daughters, Christy, Rebecca and Heidi.

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