Nascent Adult Life Theory

Emerging adulthood is a recent theory which has gained huge attention in recent years. Emerging adulthood was developed as a separate phase between adolescence and adulthood in the human development cycle, which states that the gap between adolescence and adulthood is widening. The theory highlights and discusses five features which are meant to capture the behaviors and attitudes of young people during this stage of life. To some, many aspects of the theory represent that of the western majority culture. In this paper, I propose that young people from African American communities may not have the chance to engage or take advantage of this newly proposed life stage.

Emerging Adulthood and The Black Identity Introduction The period of adolescence is a period where an individual starts to experience bodily changes and is no longer considered a child. This period may range from the of age of ten years old until the age of 18 years old in many cultures today and possibly fifty years ago.

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The period or time frame when one can be considered as an adult is one that has become a little more ambiguous and has been changing over the last few decades. The path from adolescence to adulthood about fifty years ago, was short and direct. Back then, being an adult meant that you were out of your parents’ house, you had an education, you had a sustaining job, and you were most likely married and owned your own home (Settersten & Ray2010). Most of this happened while you were still in your 20’s and early 30’s.

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For many millennials today, this is not the case, and the transition to adulthood is a long and not so direct one. Millennials are taking longer to transition into adult roles, such as moving out of their parents’ house, getting married, and having children. These changes can be credited to changes within the American society. Many changes in technology and cultural integration, have created a shift in the way in which young people transition into adulthood. Due to these changes, and the increased delay in obtaining adult roles, a new stage in the developmental cycle has been proposed and studied.

This stage is known as emerging adulthood (Arnett, 2000; 1998). Emerging adulthood, a term coined by Jeffrey Arnett in the early 1990s, describes the period of transition from adolescence into adulthood. Emerging adulthood is said to range from age 18 to about 25, but sometimes may even extend to about age 27 (Arnett, 2000). This period is a time of immense exploration and a time in a young person’s life where they have many options and future opportunities still available to them (Arnett, 2000). This theory of emerging adulthood identifies five distinctive features of the period of emerging adulthood, they are identity exploration, the age of instability, the age of feeling in between, the age of self-focus, and the age of possibility. Identity exploration can be described as the age where young people get to create new experiences and try new things before settling down. The age of instability is the time period of many changes, changes such as the transition from high school to college and the constant changing of living situations due to not yet owning a house.

The age of in-between is a time when one feels independent but yet not fully feeling responsible enough to be considered an adult. The age of possibility is the idea that there are a lot of options out there, and that one will be successful in the future. The Age of Self Focus is when a young people can focus on themselves, free from parents. They can choose what they want and who they want to be (Munsey 2006). For many millennials, this step is important and normal and allows for a more effective transition into adulthood. To further understand Arnett’s emerging adulthood theory, we must first understand developmental stage theories. Developmental stage theories are theories that divide human development into distinctive stages (Dannefer, 1984). The stages of these theories are often divided based on age-related typical behaviors and patterns beginning with birth and spanning through adulthood. In developmental psychology, the two stages of the human life cycle that are most heavily discussed and researched are the stages of adolescence and adulthood; that is, what does it mean to be an adolescent and what does it mean to be an adult?

When it comes to developmental psychology, one psychologist who is worth noting due to being one of the first to subtly touch on the idea of there being a stage between adolescence and adulthood, is Eric Erickson. Erickson is an American psychologist who identified eight developmental stages. In Erikson’s developmental theory, each phase of the developmental cycle faces conflicting ideas that one must resolve in order to be successful in the next phase (Erickson, 1968; 1950). So with that, Erikson believed that identity forms during adolescence and before that phase is over, an individual’s identity is consolidated (Erickson, 1968). Since emerging adulthood is to be used for exploration of oneself, through exploration of the self during this period, comes identity formation, thus this stage of life is very important for young people to engage with. Unfortunately, though, not every young person gets the chance to use this period to explore their own identity.

Therefore, I propose that the concept of emerging adulthood is something that does not entirely apply to young people from marginalized communities, specifically, those from African American communities. This paper takes a look at emerging adulthood theory and strives to examine how the theory may manifest in the lives of young African American individuals in comparison to their white counterparts by employing three of the five distinctive features of the period of emerging adulthood. The specific features that this paper focuses on are identify exploration, the age of self-focus, and the age of possibility. These three were used because they encompass the most variability, many of the features have components that overlaps. The age of identity exploration Identity exploration is one of the main components of the emerging adulthood theory (Arnett, 2000; 2004). Through all of the five features, there is this component of an individual searching for oneself, therefore, emerging adulthood can be seen as the overarching umbrella of the theory and the overall period of emerging adulthood.

Identity exploration is when an individual is free to explore various aspects of who they are and the kinds of things that they like. When it comes to African Americans in America, however, exploration may be difficult because of the complexity of race and race related issues (Brittian, 2011). It has been recognized by Arnett (2008) that, although exploration is more complicated by African American emerging adults, they still face similar challenges as other emerging adults. In what ways can exploration be different for African Americans? Family socioeconomic status and racial prejudices are some examples of differences but do these differences challenge or limit African Americans ability to engage with the time period? In order to fully explore who you are, you must be in an environment that allows you to do so. African Americans are disproportionately discriminated against and profiled, this may have an impact on their self-esteem and how they see themselves. For African American emerging adults, the challenge is that, while they are trying to assess who they are, they must also learn to negative in a world that does not accept them (Arnett, 2008).

Very early on, young people become aware of their racial identity, with the idea of being less than even into the age of emerging adulthood, it is difficult for black people to fully develop into a true sense of self. Study shows that members of oppressed groups may internalize the negative views of the dominant cultural, therefore developing a negative view of who they are (Phinney, 1989). In order to combat these stereotypes and negative views, African American emerging adults must fight against them by striving to prove these views wrong. Resilience is important in this age (Miller, 1999), without extreme resilience, they succumb to the words of society and may act as society expects them to act. Another factor that may hinder African American emerging adults is their family socioeconomic status. Socioeconomic status is a measure that combines both social and economic status. The three most common measures are education, income, and occupation. Black Families are known to be more on the low end of social status due to years of institutional racism and discrimination (William, 1999).

Poor families have less money to spend on their children, therefore, it is difficult to expose them to activities such as museums, family trips, and other kinds of educational trips. The age of self-focus Young people are shaped by the environment in which they live, so the degree to which they can focus on themselves is contingent upon that environment. In Arnett’s Emerging Adulthood theory, it is noted that during emerging adulthood, emerging adults experience the time to focus on themselves, known as the age of the self-focus (Arnett, 2000). I argue that, for African Americans, the environment to which most grow up in, limits their ability to focus on themselves. This is due primarily to family expectations and demands as well as their lived experiences. In African American households, adolescents are taught to grow up and mature faster than their age (Johnson & Mollborn, 2009). Sometimes this occurs in the required household responsibilities, such as cleaning around the house, and other times this occurs in mandatory expectations, such as taking care of siblings in the absence of working parents. This responsibility is even greater when the individual lives in a single parent household and for African Americans, this is something that is very common.

According to the 2016 US Census, 66% of Black children resided in single parent households compared to 24% of White children (U.S. Census Bureau, 2016). Taking care of younger siblings limits the amount of time young people can spend on themselves. Being the oldest in a single parent household increases the amount of responsibility one has to take on and in contrast decreases the amount of activities they may be able to engage in. This is also related to exploration because one cannot explore when they are not given the time to do so. The age of possibility The age of possibility is an important feature in the Emerging Adulthood theory. Age of possibility means that young people are excited and have high hopes about the future, regardless of them not having the certainty of life directions (Arnett, 2006). When it comes to young people in the African American community, this may not be the case. While this period allows many emerging adults to look to the future and envision a well-paying, satisfying job (Arnett, 2000 & 2006), black individuals may not have that luxury. Black Emerging adults may not get to experience this age of possibility due to disproportionate opportunities and unemployment. A comprehensive study done by Rogowski and Cohen (2015). outlines what it means to be Black in American society. In it they discuss unemployment rates, education, and political engagement.

“In the second quarter of 2015, unemployment rates were substantially higher for Black youth than for white and Latino youth. For instance, 16.6% of Black youth between the ages of 20 and 24 were unemployed, compared with 10.3% of Latino youth and 8.5% of white youth in the same age group” (Rogowski & Cohen, 2015). With employment rates being so high for Black emerging adults, it may be difficult to have optimism about a well-paying future job. The lack of perceived future possibilities by African American can be seen in the high rates of substance use as well as the high suicide rates amongst African American males. There is a peak in suicide rates for black males in their late 20s and early 30s (Arnett, 2008). Implications So, what does this all mean? Does this truly mean that African Americans do not get the full experience of being an emerging adult? Through various readings about this theory, one will get a better understand of the theory. Over many articles, Arnett does state that the theory of emerging adulthood was to recognize that there is an increase gap between transitioning from adolescence to adulthood, and that this gap was worth studying (Arnett, 2000; 2006). The question is though, does socioeconomic status, discrimination, and other factors that impact African Americans experiences in America have a negative impact on their engagement with emerging adulthood?

Through various readings, the short answer that I concluded is no. A Study by Arnett (2016) that looks at social class and emerging adulthood, shows that despite differences in social class; low, medium, and high, there is little to no significant difference in how young people in America regard and thinks about the five distinctive features of emerging adulthood. In fact, individuals from low social class backgrounds had higher responses for some of the features of emerging adult than individuals who came from a high social class backgrounds. For example, when asked about the age of possibilities and whether or not they feel like this was an age where everything is possible, 84% of individuals from low social class background said yes, compared to 80% in the median class and 81% of high class (Arnett, 2016). This shows that regardless of situations and circumstances, one can still dream of a better life, one can still be optimistic about their future, and one can understand that they may not fully be adults yet, but they are not children. African Americans do experience this emerging adulthood age, although it may be different and difficult. It may be worth studying what those differences are and how these difficulties may have an impact their adult lives.

Emerging adulthood is a time period between adolescence and adulthood, roughly between the ages of 18 and 25. It is known as the period in which young people are free to explore new opportunities and experiences before they can decide to enter culturally recognized adult roles such as marriage and raising a family. This theory was established by Jeffrey Arnett in the early 1990s and since then have gained a lot of attention. While some researchers agree and support this theory, others have their reservations due to concerns about the applicability to certain cultures. This theory is relatively new and more research needs to be conducted on how this theory persist in cultures other than the majority American culture. Through my investigation of this theory, I came to understand that this theory does also apply to African American young individuals, but also came to realize that due to differences in lived experiences, the way in which it does may be different. The question is, how different, and what could these differences mean and imply? More research certainly needs to be done on African Americans and emerging adulthood because many of the current studies focuses on the dominant culture of the American society.

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Nascent Adult Life Theory. (2021, Dec 31). Retrieved from

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