A new developmental stage?

According to an article in The New York Times last week, there’s a debate going on in academic circles (mainly among psychologists and sociologists) as to whether a new developmental stage should be officially acknowledged. It’s called “emerging adulthood” and it covers the 18-29 age range.

It could happen the same way the stage of “adolescence” did. A century ago, a case was made, and after much disagreement and debate, it was recognized  as a new stage of human development. Social institutions had to adapt — education, health care, etc., — and laws had to change.

“Emerging adulthood” sounds like a bad idea on first consideration — I mean, do we want really to prolong growing up? But I can see why psychologists and sociologists are contemplating it. A lot of research shows that our brains keep growing and changing well into our late 20s. Additionally, young adults who don’t have to worry about the basics of life like food and shelter do tend to wrestle with issues of identity, mission, career path, vocation, etc. in their 20s. (In fact, one school of thought holds that if this isn’t addressed in young adulthood, it will show up later in the form of a mid-life crisis or serious life dissatisfaction.)

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Our laws also reflect a confused mentality about young adults. They can vote and join the military at 18… but can’t drink until 21. They can drive at 16 but can’t rent a car until 25. Some are mature and independent at 22, and others are still partying like college Freshmen at 28.

Of course, the experts disagree about what constitutes a developmental stage. Some believe the brain may operate according to Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, and so the emergence of new stages of development makes sense. Others think a developmental stage has to be “universal and essential,” and is necessarily consecutive. If you don’t master the tasks and needs of one stage, in other words, you can’t sufficiently move onto the next.

The article is long, but if you read it, let me know what you think about “emerging adulthood.”


  • Zoe Romanowsky

    Zoe Romanowsky is writer, consultant, and coach. Her articles have appeared in “Catholic Digest,” “Faith & Family,” “National Catholic Register,” “Our Sunday Visitor,” “Urbanite,” “Baltimore Eats,” and Godspy.com. Zo

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