Emerging Adulthood & Cognition

Emerging Adulthood

Historically, early adulthood was considered to last from approximately the age of 18 (the end of adolescence) until 40 or 45 (the beginning of middle adulthood). More recently, developmentalists have divided this 25 year age period into two separate stages: Emerging adulthood followed by early adulthood. Although these age periods differ in their physical, cognitive, and social development, overall the age period from 18 to 40 is a time of peak physical capabilities and the emergence of more mature cognitive development, financial independence, and the establishment of intimate relationships.

Emerging Adulthood Defined

Emerging adulthood is the period between the late teens and early twenties; ages 18-25, although some researchers have included up to age 29 in their definitions (Society for the Study of Emerging Adulthood, 2016). Jeffrey Arnett (2000) argues that emerging adulthood is neither adolescence nor is it young adulthood. Individuals in this age period have left behind the relative dependency of childhood and adolescence but have not yet taken on the responsibilities of adulthood. “Emerging adulthood is a time of life when many different directions remain possible, when little about the future is decided for certain, when the scope of independent exploration of life’s possibilities is greater for most people than it will be at any other period of the life course” (Arnett, 2000, p. 469). Arnett identified five characteristics of emerging adulthood that distinguish it from adolescence and young adulthood (Arnett, 2006).

  1. It is the age of identity exploration. In 1950, Erik Erikson proposed that it was during adolescence that humans wrestled with the question of identity. Yet, even Erikson (1968) commented on a trend during the 20th century of a “prolonged adolescence” in industrialized societies. Today, most identity development occurs during the late teens and early twenties rather than adolescence. It is during emerging adulthood that people are exploring their career choices and ideas about intimate relationships, setting the foundation for adulthood.
  2.  Arnett also described this time period as the age of instability (Arnett, 2000; Arnett, 2006). Exploration generates uncertainty and instability. Emerging adults change jobs, relationships, and residences more frequently than other age groups.
  3. This is also the age of self-focus. Being self-focused is not the same as being “self-centered.” Adolescents are more self-centered than emerging adults. Arnett reports that in his research, he found emerging adults to be very considerate of the feelings of others, especially their parents. They now begin to see their parents as people not just parents, something most adolescents fail to do (Arnett, 2006). Nonetheless, emerging adults focus more on themselves, as they realize that they have few obligations to others and that this is the time where they can do what they want with their life.
  4. This is also the age of feeling in-between. When asked if they feel like adults, more 18 to 25 year-olds answer “yes and no” than do teens or adults over the age of 25 (Arnett, 2001). Most emerging adults have gone through the changes of puberty, are typically no longer in high school, and many have also moved out of their parents’ home. Thus, they no longer feel as dependent as they did as teenagers. Yet, they may still be financially dependent on their parents to some degree, and they have not completely attained some of the indicators of adulthood, such as finishing their education, obtaining a good full-time job, being in a committed relationship, or being responsible for others. It is not surprising that Arnett found that 60% of 18 to 25 year-olds felt that in some ways they were adults, but in some ways, they were not (Arnett, 2001).
  5. Emerging adulthood is the age of possibilities. It is a time period of optimism as more 18 to 25 year-olds feel that they will someday get to where they want to be in life. Arnett (2000, 2006) suggests that this optimism is because these dreams have yet to be tested. For example, it is easier to believe that you will eventually find your soul mate when you have yet to have had a serious relationship. It may also be a chance to change directions, for those whose lives up to this point have been difficult. The experiences of children and teens are influenced by the choices and decisions of their parents. If the parents are dysfunctional, there is little a child can do about it. In emerging adulthood, however, people can move out and move on. They have the chance to transform their lives and move away from unhealthy environments. Even those whose lives were happy and fulfilling as children, now have the opportunity in emerging adulthood to become independent and make their own decisions about the direction they would like their lives to take.

Socioeconomic Class and Emerging Adulthood. The theory of emerging adulthood was initially criticized as only reflecting upper middle-class, college-attending young adults in the United States and not those who were working class or poor (Arnett, 2016). Consequently, Arnett reviewed results from the 2012 Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults, whose participants were demographically similar to the United States population. Results primarily indicated consistencies across aspects of the theory, including positive and negative perceptions of the time-period and views on education, work, love, sex, and marriage. Two significant differences were found, the first being that emerging adults from lower socioeconomic classes identified more negativity in their emotional lives, including higher levels of depression. Secondly, those in the lowest socioeconomic group were more likely to agree that they had not been able to find sufficient financial support to obtain the education they believed they needed. Overall, Arnett concluded that emerging adulthood exists wherever there is a period between the end of adolescence and entry into adult roles, but also acknowledged that social, cultural, and historical contexts were important.

Cross-cultural Variations. The five features proposed in the theory of emerging adulthood originally were based on research involving Americans between ages 18 and 29 from various ethnic groups, social classes, and geographical regions (Arnett, 2004, 2016). To what extent does the theory of emerging adulthood apply internationally?

The answer to this question depends greatly on what part of the world is considered. Demographers make a useful distinction between the developing countries that comprise the majority of the world’s population and the economically developed countries that are part of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), including the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. The current population of OECD countries (also called developed countries) is 1.2 billion, about 18% of the total world population (United Nations Development Programme, 2011). The rest of the population resides in developing countries, which have much lower median incomes, much lower median educational attainment, and much higher incidence of illness, disease, and early death. Let us consider emerging adulthood in other OECD countries as little is known about the experiences of 18-25 year-olds in developing countries.

The same demographic changes as described above for the United States have taken place in other OECD countries as well. This is true of increasing participation in postsecondary education, as well as increases in the median ages for entering marriage and parenthood (UNdata, 2010). However, there is also substantial variability in how emerging adulthood is experienced across OECD countries. Europe is the region where emerging adulthood is longest and most leisurely. The median ages for entering marriage and parenthood are near 30 in most European countries (Douglass, 2007). Europe today is the location of the most affluent, generous, and egalitarian societies in the world, in fact, in human history (Arnett, 2007). Governments pay for tertiary education, assist young people in finding jobs, and provide generous unemployment benefits for those who cannot find work. In northern Europe, many governments also provide housing support. Emerging adults in European societies make the most of these advantages, gradually making their way to adulthood during their twenties while enjoying travel and leisure with friends.

The lives of emerging adults in developed Asian countries, such as Japan and South Korea, are in some ways similar to the lives of emerging adults in Europe and in some ways strikingly different. Like European emerging adults, Asian emerging adults tend to enter marriage and parenthood around age 30 (Arnett, 2011). Like European emerging adults, Asian emerging adults in Japan and South Korea enjoy the benefits of living in affluent societies with generous social welfare systems that provide support for them in making the transition to adulthood, including free university education and substantial unemployment benefits.

However, in other ways, the experience of emerging adulthood in Asian OECD countries is markedly different than in Europe. Europe has a long history of individualism, and today’s emerging adults carry that legacy with them in their focus on self-development and leisure during emerging adulthood. In contrast, Asian cultures have a shared cultural history emphasizing collectivism and family obligations.

Two young people ride a tandem bicycle along a waterfront.
Figure 8.1. Is your culture one that promotes romantic relationships for emerging adults? Or does it encourage you to wait till you’re older? What would it be like to live in the opposite culture?

Although Asian cultures have become more individualistic in recent decades, as a consequence of globalization, the legacy of collectivism persists in the lives of emerging adults. They pursue identity explorations and self-development during emerging adulthood, like their American and European counterparts, but within narrower boundaries set by their sense of obligations to others, especially their parents (Phinney & Baldelomar, 2011). For example, in their views of the most important criteria for becoming an adult, emerging adults in the United States and Europe consistently rank financial independence among the most important markers of adulthood. In contrast, emerging adults with an Asian cultural background especially emphasize becoming capable of supporting parents financially as among the most important criteria (Arnett, 2003; Nelson, Badger, & Wu, 2004). This sense of family obligation may curtail their identity explorations in emerging adulthood to some extent, and compared to emerging adults in the West, they pay more heed to their parents’ wishes about what they should study, what job they should take, and where they should live  (Rosenberger, 2007).

When Does Adulthood Begin? According to Rankin and Kenyon (2008), in years past the process of becoming an adult was more clearly marked by rites of passage. For many, marriage and parenthood were considered entry into adulthood. However, these role transitions are no longer considered the important markers of adulthood (Arnett, 2001). Economic and social changes have resulted in more young adults attending college (Rankin & Kenyon, 2008) and delaying marriage and having children (Arnett & Taber, 1994; Laursen & Jensen-Campbell, 1999) Consequently, current research has found financial independence and accepting responsibility for oneself to be the most important markers of adulthood in Western culture across age (Arnett, 2001) and ethnic groups (Arnett, 2004).

In looking at college students’ perceptions of adulthood, Rankin and Kenyon (2008) found that some students still view rites of passage as important markers. College students who placed more importance on role transition markers, such as parenthood and marriage, belonged to a fraternity/sorority, were traditionally aged (18–25), belonged to an ethnic minority, were of a traditional marital status (i.e., not cohabitating), or belonged to a religious organization, particularly for men. These findings supported the view that people holding collectivist or more traditional values place more importance on role transitions as markers of adulthood. In contrast, older college students and those cohabitating did not value role transitions as markers of adulthood as strongly.

Young Adults Living Arrangements. In 2014, for the first time in more than 130 years, adults 18 to 34 were more likely to be living in their parents’ home than they were to be living with a spouse or partner in their own household (Fry, 2016). The current trend is that young Americans are not choosing to settle down romantically before age 35. Since 1880, living with a romantic partner was the most common living arrangement among young adults. In 1960, 62% of America’s 18- to 34-year-olds were living with a spouse or partner in their own household, while only 20% were living with their parents.

Graphs; see text for description. Title: Young men are now more likely to live with a parent than to live with a spouse or partner; not so for women
Figure 8.2

By 2014, 31.6% of early adults were living with a spouse or partner in their own household, while 32.1% were living in the home of their parent(s). Another 14% of early adults lived alone, were a single parent, or lived with one or more roommates. The remaining 22% lived in the home of another family member (such as a grandparent, in-law, or sibling), a non-relative, or in group quarters (e.g., college dormitories). Comparing ethnic groups, 36% of black and Hispanic early adults lived at home, while 30% of white young adults lived at home.

As can be seen in Figure 20.2, gender differences in living arrangements were also noted in that young men were living with parents at a higher rate than young women. In 2014, 35% of young men were residing with their parents, while 28% were living with a spouse or partner in their own household. Young women were more likely to be living with a spouse or partner (35%) than living with their parents (29%). Additionally, more young women (16%) than young men (13%) were heading up a household without a spouse or partner, primarily because women are more likely to be single parents living with their children. Lastly, young men (25%) were more likely than young women (19%) to be living in the home of another family member, a non-relative, or in some type of group quarters (Fry, 2016).

What are some factors that help explain these changes in living arrangements? First, early adults are increasingly postponing marriage or choosing not to marry or cohabitate. Lack of employment and lower wages have especially contributed to males residing with their parents. Men who are employed are less likely to live at home. Wages for young men (adjusting for inflation) have been falling since 1970 and correlate with the rise in young men living with their parents. The recent recession and recovery (2007-present) has also contributed to the increase in early adults living at home. College enrollments increased during the recession, which further increased early adults living at home. However, once early adults possess a college degree, they are more likely to establish their own households (Fry, 2016).

Cognitive Development in Early Adulthood

Emerging adulthood brings with it the consolidation of formal operational thought, and the continued integration of the parts of the brain that serve emotion, social processes, and planning and problem solving. As a result, rash decisions and risky behavior decrease rapidly across early adulthood. Increases in epistemic cognition are also seen, as young adults’ meta-cognition, or thinking about thinking, continues to grow, especially young adults who continue with their schooling.

Perry’s Scheme. One of the first theories of cognitive development in early adulthood originated with William Perry (1970), who studied undergraduate students at Harvard University.  Perry noted that over the course of students’ college years, cognition tended to shift from dualism (absolute, black and white, right and wrong type of thinking) to multiplicity (recognizing that some problems are solvable and some answers are not yet known) to relativism (understanding the importance of the specific context of knowledge—it’s all relative to other factors). Similar to Piaget’s formal operational thinking in adolescence, this change in thinking in early adulthood is affected by educational experiences.

Table 8.1 Stages of Perry's Scheme

Stage Summary of Position in Perry’s Scheme Basic Example
The authorities know “the tutor knows what is right and wrong”
The true authorities are right, the others are frauds “my tutor doesn’t know what is right and wrong but others do”
There are some uncertainties and the authorities are working on them to find the truth “my tutors don’t know, but somebody out there is trying to find out”
(a) Everyone has the right to their own opinion “different tutors think different things”
(b) The authorities don’t want the right answers. They want us to think in a certain way “there is an answer that the tutors want and we have to find it”
Everything is relative but not equally valid “there are no right and wrong answers, it depends on the situation, but some answers might be better than others”
You have to make your own decisions “what is important is not what the tutor thinks but what I think”
First commitment “for this particular topic I think that….”
Several Commitments “for these topics I think that….”
Believe own values, respect others, be ready to learn “I know what I believe in and what I think is valid, others may think differently and I’m prepared to reconsider my views”

Adapted from Lifespan Development by Lumen Learning

Some researchers argue that a qualitative shift in cognitive development tales place for some emerging adults during their mid to late twenties. As evidence, they point to studies documenting continued integration and focalization of brain functioning, and studies suggesting that this developmental period often represents a turning point, when young adults engaging in risky behaviors (e.g., gang involvement, substance abuse) or an unfocused lifestyle (e.g., drifting from job to job or relationship to relationship) seem to “wake up” and take ownership for their own development. It is a common point for young adults to make decisions about completing or returning to school, and making and following through on decisions about vocation, relationships, living arrangements, and lifestyle. Many young adults can actually remember these turning points as a moment when they could suddenly “see” where they were headed (i.e., the likely outcomes of their risky behaviors or apathy) and actively decided to take a more self-determined pathway.



Optional Reading: Current Trends in Post-secondary Education

According to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) (2016a, 2016b, 2016c, 2016d), in the United States:

  • 84% of 18 to 24 year olds and 88% of those 25 and older have a high school diploma or its equivalent
  • 36% of 18 to 24 year olds and 7% of 25 to 49 year olds attend college
  • 59% of those 25 and older have completed some college
  • 32.5% of those 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher, with slightly more women (33%) than men (32%) holding a college degree (Ryan & Bauman, 2016).

The rate of college attainment has grown more slowly in the United States than in a number of other nations in recent years (OCED, 2014). This may be due to fact that the cost of attaining a degree is higher in the U.S. than in most other nations.

In 2017, 65% of college seniors who graduated from private and public nonprofit colleges had student loan debt, and nationally owed an average of $28,650, a 1% decline from 2016 (The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS), 2018).

According to the most recent TICAS annual report, the rate of debt varied widely across states, as well as between colleges. The after graduation debt ranged from $18,850 in Utah to $38,500 in Connecticut. Low-debt states are mainly in the West, and high-debt states in the Northeast. In recent years there has been a concern about students carrying more debt and being more likely to default when attending for-profit institutions. In 2016, students at for-profit schools borrowed an average of $39,900, which was 41% higher than students at non-profit schools that year. In addition, 30% of students attending for-profit colleges default on their federal student loans. In contrast, the default level of those who attended public institutions is only 4% (TICAS, 2018).

College student debt has become a key political issue at both the state and federal level, and some states have been taking steps to increase spending and grants to help students with the cost of college. However, 15% of the Class of 2017’s college debt was owed to private lenders (TICAS, 2018). Such debt has less consumer protection, fewer options for repayment, and is typically negotiated at a higher interest rate. See Table 7.1 for a debt comparison of 6 U.S. States.

Graduate School: Larger amounts of student debt actually occur at the graduate level (Kreighbaum, 2019). In 2019, the highest average debts were concentrated in the medical fields. Average median debt for graduate programs included:

  • $42,335 for a master’s degree
  • $95,715 for a doctoral degree
  • $141,000 for a professional degree

Worldwide, over 80% of college educated adults are employed, compared with just over 70% of those with a high school or equivalent diploma, and only 60% of those with no high school diploma (OECD, 2015). Those with a college degree will earn more over the course of their life time. Moreover, the benefits of college education go beyond employment and finances. The OECD found that around the world, adults with higher educational attainment were more likely to volunteer, felt they had more control over their lives, and thus were more interested in the world around them. Studies of U.S. college students find that they gain a more distinct identity and become more socially competent and less dogmatic and ethnocentric compared to those not in college (Pascarella, 2006).

Is college worth the time and investment? College is certainly a substantial investment each year, with the financial burden falling on students and their families in the U.S., and covered mainly by the government in many other nations. Nonetheless, the benefits both to the individual and the society outweighs the initial costs. As can be seen in Figure 7.18, those in America with the most advanced degrees earn the highest income and have the lowest unemployment.



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