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Emerging adults and their parents: New results from a national study

A closer look at current trends in relations between parents and their late-adolescent offspring.

By Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, PhD

I've been researching emerging adults (ages 18-29) for the past 20 years, but only last year did I finally have the opportunity to conduct a national study, the Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults. I'll be writing up the results in journal articles for years to come, but I'd like to share some of the most notable findings here.

In my original theory of emerging adulthood (Arnett, 2004), I proposed five features that distinguish emerging adulthood from other life stages: identity explorations, instability, self-focus, feeling in-between, and a sense of wide-open possibilities. These features were based on hundreds of interviews I had conducted, mainly in central Missouri and San Francisco, but the Clark poll allowed me to see if they applied to a broader national sample. Table 1 shows that four of the five features were supported by a majority of 18-29 year-olds.

The fifth feature, feeling in-between, was asked in a somewhat different format. The question was “Do you feel that you have reached adulthood?” and the response options were “yes,” “no,” and “in some ways yes, in some ways no.” Overall, 49% answered “yes,” 5% “no,” and 47% “in some ways yes, in some ways no.” The “feeling in between” response of “in some ways yes, in some ways no” decreased with age, from 62% among 18-21-year-olds to 41% among 22-25-year-olds to 30% among 26-29-year-olds.

Overall, then, the five features of emerging adulthood seemed to be evident in this national sample. Of course, whether these five features apply distinctively to 18-29-year-olds remains to be shown, in studies that assess other age periods on the same items. I hope to do so in future Clark polls. (For more on the 2012 Clark poll, see Arnett & Schwab, 2012).

In recent years, my research focus has been on the parents of emerging adults, culminating this year in the publication (with my co-author Elizabeth Fishel) of a parents' guide to emerging adulthood, When Will My Grown - Up Kid Grow Up? Loving and Understanding Your Emerging Adult (2013, Workman). The 2012 Clark Poll contained a number of questions on relations with parents, generally showing that emerging adults and their parents get along remarkably well. More than half (55%) of emerging adults stated that they are in contact with their parents “every day or almost every day,” reflecting the closeness of their relationship as well as the ubiquity (and low cost) of modern technology. About three - fourths (76%) stated that they get along better with their parents now than they did in their mid - teens, indicating the improvement in relations from adolescence to emerging adulthood.

This year I conducted another Clark poll, this time on the parents of emerging adults. We have just begun to examine the results, but so far the findings are consistent with the Clark poll of emerging adults in showing close, harmonious relations. For example, in contrast to the widespread perception that parents don't want their emerging adult children at home, 61 percent of parents in the Clark poll said their response was “mostly positive” and only 6 percent “mostly negative” to an arrangement where their 18-29-year-old child was living at home or had moved back home. Nearly 67% of parents said that a consequence of their emerging adult kids living with them now is that they feel closer to them emotionally, and 66% reported they have more companionship with their child. A majority (62%) also said their emerging adult helps with household responsibilities. But it's not all good when emerging adults live at home: 40% of parents report that a consequence of their kids living at home is that they have more financial stress.

Next year I hope to direct a Clark poll on 25-39-year-olds. I have become increasingly curious about what happens after emerging adulthood, in young adulthood (we probably need a new name for this, too), after people have entered enduring adult responsibilities of long-term work, marriage, and parenthood. There is actually a lot of research by now on midlife, most notably by the MacArthur project, so the thirties are now the decade of life that is perhaps the most under-researched and the least understood. Eventually I hope to have national data stretching from age 10 to 70, which could shed light on a whole range of questions about the course of lifespan development.

References

Arnett, J.J. (2004). Emerging adulthood: The winding road from the late teens through the twenties . New York: Oxford University Press.

Arnett, J.J., & Fishel, E. (2013). When will my grown up kid grow up? Loving and understanding your emerging adult . New York: Workman.

Arnett, J.J., & Schwab, J. (2012). The Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults: Thriving, struggling, and hopeful . Worcester, MA: Clark University. http://www.clarku.edu/clarkpoll/