This article is from Issue 56: Mar/Apr 2012

The Age of Arrested Development

Examining why our generation just can't seem to grow up.

Ryan Johanson is a 27-year-old recent M.A. graduate from NYU. This past summer, he moved back home with his parents to find a job and start paying off his school loans. But even with his (very expensive) master’s degree, he could only find employment at a local Starbucks. Ryan spends his weekends hanging out with old high school friends and partying. He feels a mixture of apathy and frustration about his life.

Jenn Swinton is 25. She has moved twice and worked four different jobs since graduating college three years ago. Her current job feels like a step sideways instead of forward. This spring, her best friend is getting married, and as happy as Jenn is for her friend, this wedding reminds her she still isn’t in a committed relationship or career. So much of her life still feels so unsettled.

In most cultures, rites of passage are important. They signify when life is moving forward; when the old is gone and something new has arrived. In many cultures, there are special rites of passage that mark adulthood. Once a ceremony is complete or some sort of notable goal attained, childhood is left behind forever. The individual is recognized by their community as fully developed and immediately capable of mature decisions and adult responsibilities. These ritual events and ceremonies provide an uncomplicated progression from one life status to another.

Modern Western culture, however, lacks this clean transition. For this reason and others, adulthood in the West has become an abstract concept; an idealized, nebulous something that 18- to 29-year-olds cannot seem to define or attain.

A New Stage of Life

Dr. Kara Powell, executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute and co-author of Sticky Faith, has noticed this trend firsthand. “What we are finding today is that certain characteristics of adolescence seem to extend late into people’s 20s and early 30s,” she says.

This has led to speculation that there now exists an entirely new phase of life, one that Dr. Jeffrey Arnett, a developmental psychologist at Clark University and leading researcher in studies of persons ages 18 to 25, has labeled “emerging adulthood.”
Those in their 20s and 30s are not children, not adolescents and not necessarily adults either; but something uncomfortable and intangibly in-between.