Emerging Adulthood Theory

Original Manuscript

Does Emerging Adulthood Theory Apply Across Social Classes? National Data on a Persistent Question

Jeffrey Jensen Arnett1

Abstract The theory of emerging adulthood has been criticized as not applying across social classes. This article presents data from a national survey of 18- to 25-year-olds in order to test this critique. There were consistencies across social classes in the five features proposed in the theory of emerging adulthood: positive and negative perceptions of the time period; views of education and work; and views of love, sex, and marriage. Important social class differences were found in rates of feeling depressed and access to financial support for education. It is concluded that there are many commonalities in the experience of emerging adulthood across social classes in the United States and that emerging adulthood and other life stages can be useful guides to understanding development, provided that they are understood to be grounded in a social, cultural, and historical context.

Keywords emerging adulthood, social class, socioeconomic status, life stage, young adulthood

The theory of emerging adulthood has inspired a remarkable

amount of research and commentary since it was first pro-

posed in 2000 (Arnett, 2000). By August 2015, it had been

cited over 6,000 times (according to googlescholar.com).

Nevertheless, like any theory, it has had its critics. The most

common critique of the theory is that it does not apply broadly

to young people in the age period from the late teens through

the 20s (e.g., Heinz, 2009; Hendry & Kloep, 2007; Reitzle,

2006; Schoon, 2006; Silva, 2013; for a book-length debate

on this topic, see Arnett, Kloep, Hendry, & Tanner, 2011).

Specifically, say these critics, it applies to the middle-class

and upper middle–class young people who go to university

and have enough financial support from parents to experience

personal freedom and leisure during these years but not to the

working class and poor who have far fewer options. It is

young people in the middle class and upward who are able

to experience their late teens and early to mid-20s as self-

focused years of identity explorations and who look forward

to a future of promising possibilities. In contrast, young peo-

ple in the lower social classes experience their late teens and

20s as a time of struggling to enter an unpromising and unwel-

coming labor market (Edin & Kefalas, 2005; Furstenberg,

2010; Silva, 2013). They look at work not as a form of self-

expression and identity fulfillment but as a way to make a liv-

ing and seek only to get a stable job that pays a decent wage.

When they look to the future, they see not a wide open

expanse of possibilities but only a succession of closed doors.

In part, these criticisms are based on either a misunderstand-

ing or a misrepresentation of the theory of emerging adulthood

and the research on which it was based. I have emphasized

from the beginning the importance of taking education and

social class background into account in the study of emerging

adults. My research on emerging adults has consistently

included people with a variety of educational levels, not just

college students. The theory was originally based on a sample

of three hundred 18- to 29-year-olds from a wide range of

social class backgrounds (Arnett, 2004). In the first article

sketching the theory of emerging adulthood, I argued that one

of the benefits of the theory is that it would draw greater

research attention to the ‘‘forgotten half’’ of young people who

do not pursue further education after secondary school (Arnett,

2000, pp. 476–477).

The forgotten half remains forgotten by scholars, in the sense that

studies of young people who do not attend college in the years fol-

lowing high school remain rare. . . . Emerging adulthood is offered

as a new paradigm, a new way of thinking about development from

the late teens through the twenties, especially ages 18–25, partly in

the hope that a definite conception of this period will lead to an

increase in scholarly attention to it.

1Clark University, Massachusetts, MA, USA

Corresponding Author:

Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Clark University, 950 Main St. Worcester, Massachu-

setts, MA 01610, USA.

Email: arnett@jeffreyarnett.com

Emerging Adulthood 2016, Vol. 4(4) 227-235 ª 2015 Society for the Study of Emerging Adulthood and SAGE Publications Reprints and permission: sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.nav DOI: 10.1177/2167696815613000 ea.sagepub.com

 

 

Since then, I have often emphasized that obtaining tertiary

education—or not—marks a crucial turning point in the occu-

pational and social class destiny of emerging adults (Arnett,

2004, 2011, 2015). In a knowledge economy based mainly

on information, technology, and services, tertiary education

is more important than ever before in determining the course

of a person’s adult life. I have also noted the importance of

social class background in the likelihood of becoming a single

mother or having a successful lifelong marriage (Arnett, 2004,

2015). For all these reasons, it is not accurate to claim that the

theory of emerging adulthood is based on middle-class college

students and applies only to them.

Nevertheless, there is a serious point of difference here

between me and the critics. Both sides acknowledge that edu-

cational levels and social class background matter in this age

period but how much? Crucially, are the social class differ-

ences within the age period from the late teens through the

20s best understood as important variations within a group that

still has enough similarities in common to be called ‘‘emerging

adults’’? Or, are the experiences of working-class young people

in this age period so radically different from the experiences of

those in the middle class that they cannot reasonably be said to

belong to the same life stage?

The theory of emerging adulthood was originally proposed

for the purpose of drawing greater attention to the fact that

similar demographic changes have taken place in the lives

of young people across developed countries in the past half

century; specifically, longer and more widespread tertiary

education, a later entry to stable full-time work, and later ages

of entering marriage and parenthood (Arnett, 2000, 2004).

These changes opened up a new period of life from the late

teens through the 20s that was distinct from either the adoles-

cence that preceded it or the more established young adult-

hood that followed it. In my view, it did not make sense to

call it ‘‘late adolescence’’ or a ‘‘prolonged’’ or ‘‘extended’’

adolescence. It is more conceptually coherent to view adoles-

cence as a life stage bounded by puberty; it begins when the

first notable signs of puberty appear and ends when physical

and sexual maturity is reached, around age 18. In contrast to

adolescents, the (roughly) age 18- to 25-year-olds I proposed

to call emerging adults are not going through puberty.

Furthermore, they are not in secondary school, not dependents

of their parents (in a legal sense), and not minors under the

law. Similarly, to me it made no sense to view the entire

period from age 18 to age 40 or 45 as ‘‘young adulthood,’’

as had been the tradition in psychology since Erikson

(1950). For most people in developed countries today, the

period from age 18 through the mid-20s is radically different

from the 30s and early 40s. Ages 18–25 are rarely stable, and

for most people, the commitments have not yet been made in

love and work that constitute the stable structure of an adult

life. By around age 30, most people have made those commit-

ments, signifying the entry to a new life stage. Hence, the con-

cept of emerging adulthood, a life stage from the late teens

through the 20s, when people are no longer adolescents but

not yet adults, on the way to adulthood but not there yet.

In my first book on emerging adulthood (Arnett, 2004), I

proposed five features that I believed were distinctive to the

American emerging adults I had been surveying and inter-

viewing for the past decade: identity explorations, instability,

self-focus, feeling in-between, and possibilities/optimism.

I never proposed that those five features would prove to be

universal features of emerging adulthood. On the contrary,

I emphasized that there would surely be variations in the paths

that people would take through emerging adulthood, depend-

ing on cultural context and economic circumstances (Arnett,

2000, 2004). However, the five features that I proposed as

distinctive to American emerging adults were based on a

sample of three hundred 18- to 29-year-olds that was diverse

in ethnicity, region, and socioeconomic status (SES) back-

ground. The theoretical proposal of the five features repre-

sented my conclusions from those 300 interviews, and I

believed that they represented common characteristics that

applied broadly. Of course there would be variations across

cultures and countries, and even within American society

there would be diverse paths, as there would be in any life

stage. Nevertheless, I proposed that these features would be

found to apply to most emerging adults in the United States,

that is, they would be normative features of the American ver-

sion of this new life stage.

New Survey Data on Emerging Adulthood and Social Class

Given the division in points of view on emerging adulthood

and social class, it is important to present data that will help

to clarify the issue. In the spirit of promoting a constructive

exchange, here I offer data from a recent national survey show-

ing similarities and differences among 18- to 25-year-olds with

respect to social class background. In my view, the findings

show that even though there are clear and sometimes dramatic

differences in life prospects depending on social class, there is

enough similarity across social classes to merit the application

of ‘‘emerging adulthood’’ to the age-group as a whole. The data

presented here may help to generate further discussion on the

relations between social class and development during ages

18–25. Thus far, critiques of emerging adulthood theory have

been based mainly on small-scale, local, qualitative samples

(Hendry & Kloep, 2010; Silva, 2013).

I proposed the theory of emerging adulthood to apply

mainly to 18- to 25-year-olds in developed countries, and I

have sometimes used the age range from 18 to 29. Age 18

works well as an age marking the end of adolescence and the

beginning of a new life stage, as it is the age when most people

in developed countries finish secondary school, reach physical

and sexual maturity, and become adults under the law. How-

ever, the end of emerging adulthood and the beginning of an

established young adulthood are more difficult to mark pre-

cisely, as people ‘‘feel adult’’ at different ages and there is also

variation in when they make the role transitions to adulthood,

including stable work, a long-term partnership and having their

first child (Arnett, 2015). So, either 18–25 or 18–29 can be

228 Emerging Adulthood 4(4)

 

 

used, depending on the issue or question of interest. Here, I

focus on ages 18–25, as that is the age range I consider to be

the heart of emerging adulthood.

The survey included items on the five features as well as

items on a variety of other aspects of functioning, including

emotional well-being; school and work attitudes; and views

of love, sex, and marriage. It could be that even if emerging

adults do not exhibit social class differences in the five fea-

tures, there may be other important areas of life where these

differences are evident.

Mother’s educational attainment was used to represent

social class, as is common in social science research (Hamil-

ton & Hamilton, 2006). Mother’s educational attainment is a

better representation of emerging adults’ social class status

than their own educational attainment or income, because

many of them are still in the process of obtaining their educa-

tion and have little or no income during these years. Using

parents’ income would also be an inaccurate measure of emer-

ging adults’ social class background. First, many emerging

adults may not know their parents’ income and could not

report it accurately. Second, using parents’ income would

introduce the problem of whether to include the income of

noncustodial fathers in divorced families, whose income may

not contribute to the support of their children (Cherlin, 2009).

Third, parents’ income may have changed substantially over

the two decades or more of their emerging adults’ lives, and

attempting to use parents’ income to represent emerging

adults’ social class background would beg the question of

whether to use parents’ current income, which may not repre-

sent well their income when their emerging adults were

young, or to use some measure of income from 20 years pre-

viously, which emerging adults would be even less likely to

know. Given these considerations, mother’s education was

viewed as the best alternative for the present study.

The survey involved a national sample of 710 persons aged

18–25 (M ¼ 21.5, SD ¼ 2.3) residing in the United States. The data collection for this survey, the Clark University Poll of

Emerging Adults, was conducted in 2012 by Purple Strategies,

a survey research firm. Three methods were used to obtain par-

ticipants: 387 interviews were conducted via the Internet, 271

via cell phones, and 52 via landline telephone. The Internet

sample consisted of members of a preexisting online panel

assembled by the survey research firm. Participants in the pres-

ent study were selected randomly from this panel. The phone

participants were obtained via random-digit dialing. No partici-

pants were paid or provided with other compensation in return

for their participation.

The three methods were used in order to obtain a diverse

sample that would reflect the population of 18- to 25-year-

olds in the United States. Using landlines alone is no longer

viable for survey research on this population, as 60% of 18- to 29-year-olds use cell phones only (Blumberg & Luke,

2013). Survey sampling of cell phones via random-digit dialing

is restricted by federal law in the United States, and rates of

participation for those who are reached are low. Consequently,

the Internet sample was necessary to reach segments of the

population that would not be accessible via either landlines

or cell phones.

Half the sample was male (49%) and half female (51%). In terms of ethnicity, 58% identified themselves as White, 19% Latino/Latina, 13% African American, 5% Asian American, and 5% other. Most were unmarried (85%) and had not yet had a child (80%). Participants were obtained from all regions of the United States: Northeast (19%), Midwest (21%), South (28%), and West (32%). Their social class backgrounds were diverse, as represented by mother’s educational attainment:

34% high school diploma or less, 32% some college or voca- tional school, and 34% 4-year college degree or more. The par- ticipants’ own educational attainment was similarly diverse:

21% high school diploma or less, 51% some college or voca- tional school, and 28% 4-year college degree or more. Cur- rently, 43% were full-time students.

The total sample was demographically similar to the U.S.

population. With regard to ethnicity, the overall U.S. popula-

tion of 18- to 29-year-olds is 61% White, 19% Latino, 14% African American, 5% Asian American, and 2% other (Taylor & Keeter, 2010); in the present study, the sample of 18- to 25-

year-olds was 58% White, 19% Latino, 13% African Ameri- can, 5% Asian American, and 5% other. With regard to region, 18% of Americans live in the Northeast, 22% in the Midwest, 37% in the South, and 24% in the West (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012); in the present study, the distribution was 19% Northeast, 21% Midwest, 28% South, and 32% West. With regard to mother’s education, in the total U.S. population of persons aged

44–64 (the age range including nearly all mothers in the present

study), 31% have a 4-year college degree (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2014); in the present study, 34% of mothers had obtained a 4-year college degree.

The survey covered a wide range of topics: the five fea-

tures; expectations for adulthood; emotional well-being;

school and work attitudes; and views of love, sex, and mar-

riage. All items were answered on a 4-point Likert-type scale,

with one exception; for ‘‘Do you feel that you have reached

adulthood?’’ the response options were yes, no, and in some

ways yes, in some ways no.

How Important Is Social Class? The Clark Poll Results

w2 analyses were conducted for each item in relation to social class background. To enhance comprehension, Tables 1–5

show the percentages who responded strongly agree or some-

what agree on the Likert-type scale used for all but one of the

items. However, the w2 analyses were conducted with the entire 4-point Likert-type scale. For the item ‘‘Do you feel that you

have reached adulthood?’’ Table 1 presents the percentage in

each social class category who responded either no or in some

ways yes, in some ways no. However, in the w2 analysis for this item, the entire 3-point scale was used (yes, no, or in some ways

yes, in some ways no).

The analysis of the data used mother’s educational attain-

ment to represent social class background. Mother’s education

Arnett 229

 

 

Table 2. Views of Adulthood by Social Class.

Survey Item

% Agree by Social Class

Low Medium High Significant?

If I could have my way, I would never become an adult 40 32 28 ns I think adulthood will be boring 26 25 17 ns I think adulthood will be more enjoyable than my life is now 61 58 58 ns

Note. N ¼ 710. The numbers indicate the combined percentage of those who responded somewhat agree or strongly agree. ns ¼ not significant.

Table 3. Emotional Lives by Social Class.

Survey Item

% Agree by Social Class

Low Medium High Significant?

Positive At this time of my life, I feel I have a great deal of freedom 73 74 79 ns This time of my life is fun and exciting 78 80 90 p < .001 I am confident that eventually I will get what I want out of life 92 85 93 ns Overall, I am satisfied with my life 76 81 85 ns

Negative This time of my life is stressful 75 66 75 ns I often feel depressed 42 36 28 p < .01 I often feel anxious 58 58 56 ns I often feel that my life is not going well 43 32 26 p < .01

Note. N ¼ 710. The numbers indicate the combined percentage of those who responded somewhat agree or strongly agree. ns ¼ not significant.

Table 1. The Five Features by Social Class.

Survey Item

% Agree by Social Class

Low Medium High Significant?

Identity explorations This is a time of my life for finding out who I really am 82 77 85 ns

Instability This time of my life is full of changes 87 82 87 ns

Self-focus This is a time of my life for focusing on myself 72 73 78 ns

Feeling in-between Do you feel that you have reached adulthood? (% no or yes and no) 59 54 61 ns

Possibilities At this time of my life, it still seems like anything is possible 84 80 81 ns

Note. N¼ 710. Except for ‘‘feeling in-between,’’ the numbers indicate the combined percentage of those who responded somewhat agree or strongly agree. ns¼ not significant.

Table 4. School and Work by Social Class.

Survey Item

% Agree by Social Class

Low Medium High Significant?

One of the most important keys to success in life is a college education 79 76 85 ns It’s possible to get a good job even if you don’t have a college education 71 61 62 p < .05 I have not been able to find enough financial support to get the education I need 48 34 30 p < .001 I am in no hurry to get a job that I will have for many years to come 39 40 41 ns It is important to me to have a career that does some good in the world 88 77 90 p < .001 It is more important to me to enjoy my job than to make a lot of money 78 73 83 p < .05 I haven’t been able to find the kind of job I really want 69 63 59 ns

Note. N ¼ 710. The numbers indicate the combined percentage of those who responded somewhat agree or strongly agree. ns ¼ not significant.

230 Emerging Adulthood 4(4)

 

 

was divided into three categories: low (high school diploma or

less, 34% of the sample), medium (some college or vocational school, 32%), and high (4-year college degree or more, 34%).

The Five Features and Views of Adulthood

Do the five features proposed in the theory of emerging

adulthood apply across social classes in the United States?

Responses to the survey items suggest the answer is yes, as

Table 1 shows. For all items pertaining to the five features

proposed in the theory, the differences between the three

social class groups were minimal and were not statistically

significant.

With regard to views of adulthood, as shown in Table 2,

there were no differences across social classes in preferring

never to become an adult, in believing adulthood would be

boring, or in beliefs that adulthood would be more enjoyable

than life is now.

As noted earlier, the five features were proposed on the

basis of my original study of 300 emerging adults, as features

that seemed to apply broadly to most of them, across social

classes. These survey results appear to confirm that finding.

However, the finding of no social class differences in

responses to the question ‘‘Do you feel that you have reached

adulthood?’’ is in some respects surprising. Some qualitative

studies (e.g., Hendry & Kloep, 2010; Silva, 2013) and some of

my own case studies (Arnett, 2015) have suggested that emer-

ging adults who have experienced an especially difficult

childhood often feel adult earlier than their peers, because

they must take on serious family responsibilities at a young

age. One might expect that experiencing a difficult childhood

would be more likely among those from lower class back-

grounds, due to family economic stress, and that consequently

they would be more likely to feel adult by ages 18–25. The

absence of SES differences on this item in the present study

could indicate that the kinds of difficulty that provoke an ear-

lier feeling of being adult are distributed across social classes

(e.g., marital discord between parents and parental physical or

mental health problems) to enough of an extent that there is no

overall SES difference. However, this is a finding that would

seem to merit further investigation.

Emotional Lives

How does it feel to be an emerging adult? It has been proposed

as an emotionally complex life stage, in which elation and

anxiety are both common (Arnett, 2004, 2015). These com-

plexities apply across social classes, as Table 3 shows. A strong

majority of 18- to 29-year-olds agreed that this time of their

lives is characterized by freedom and is ‘‘fun and exciting.’’

They were satisfied, overall, with how their lives are going.

However, a majority also agreed that this time of life is stress-

ful, and reported frequently experiencing anxiety.

There were some significant differences by social class, and

these differences were consistent in revealing that emerging

adults from lower social classes experience their emotional

lives less positively and more negatively than their higher

social class peers. Specifically, those from the lowest social

class category were less likely to regard their lives as fun and

exciting, w2(6) ¼ 16.91, p < .01, and more likely to report feel- ing depressed, w2(6)¼ 26.55, p < .001, and to be concerned that their lives are not going well, w2(6) ¼ 16.80, p < .01. Neverthe- less, emerging adulthood was mostly experienced positively

across social classes, despite these differences. For example,

78% of emerging adults from lower social classes viewed their lives as fun and exciting—lower than the 90% in the highest social class but still a strong majority.

It is easy to understand why emerging adults from lower

social classes might feel less positive about their current lives

than emerging adults from higher classes. Those from lower

classes are less likely to be employed and more likely to lack

the family financial resources to allow them to get the tertiary

education that is so crucial to the good life in today’s knowl-

edge economy (Arnett, 2015; Carnevale, Smith, & Strohl,

2013; Hamilton & Hamilton, 2006). What is perhaps more

surprising is that, even with these disadvantages, most of

them remain remarkably positive about their lives and feel

a sense of freedom, fun, and excitement despite their formid-

able obstacles.

School and Work Attitudes

School and work are areas in which we might most expect to

find social class differences among emerging adults. Social

class background is often defined by mother’s educational

attainment, and it strongly predicts emerging adults’ own edu-

cational attainment (Hamilton & Hamilton, 2006). In turn, edu-

cational attainment predicts the kinds of work opportunities

people have throughout adulthood (Carnevale et al., 2013).

However, the data from the national Clark poll showed few

notable social class differences among emerging adults in their

Table 5. Views of Love, Sex, and Marriage by Social Class.

Survey Item

% Agree by Social Class

Low Medium High Significant?

Couples should be married before they have a child 69 69 72 ns I expect to have a marriage that lasts a lifetime 87 83 88 ns It’s OK for two people to have sex even if they are not emotionally involved with each other 40 35 49 p < .05 I expect to have to give up some of my career goals in order to have the family life I want 65 57 59 ns

Note. N ¼ 710. The numbers indicate the combined percentage of those who responded somewhat agree or strongly agree. ns ¼ not significant.

Arnett 231

 

 

views of school and work (Table 4). Regardless of social

class, a substantial majority of 18- to 25-year-olds believed

a college education is ‘‘one of the most important keys to suc-

cess in life,’’ yet also believed that is possible to find a good

job without one. Across social classes, about three fourths of

emerging adults endorsed the view that is more important to

find enjoyable work than to make a lot of money. Over half

of emerging adults reported that they have been unable to find

the kind of job they really want, across social classes, and

about one third were ‘‘in no hurry’’ to find a long-term job.

Emerging adults from the lowest social class category were

as likely as emerging adults from the highest social class cate-

gory to agree that it is important to them to find ‘‘a job that

does some good in the world.’’ There was a strong majority

on this item, across social classes, reflecting the striking ide-

alism of today’s emerging adults (Arnett, 2013; Arnett, Trzes-

niewski, & Donnellan, 2013).

Despite these similarities, one social class difference in

views of school and work was vitally important. Emerging

adults in the lowest social class were substantially more

likely than emerging adults in the highest social class to

agree that they have not been able to find sufficient financial

support to obtain the education they believe they need (48–

30%), w2(6) ¼ 28.21, p < .001. The fact that nearly half of emerging adults from the poorest backgrounds have not had

access to the kind of education they need represents an enor-

mous waste of human potential. Even among the emerging

adults from the highest social class category, over a quarter

reported that they do not have the financial resources to

obtain sufficient education. This unfortunate state reflects the

enormous rise in higher education costs in recent decades

(NCES, 2014). Among developed countries, it is a problem

of special concern for the United States. In 1995, the United

States led the world in the proportion of college graduates,

but by 2012, it had fallen well behind other developed coun-

tries such as Japan, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic

(Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development,

2014). Most developed countries provide access to tertiary

education free or for a minimal fee; the United States has the

most extensive but also the most expensive tertiary education

system in the world (NCES, 2014).

Views of Love, Sex, and Marriage

In the area of love, sex, and marriage, the results indicated that

American emerging adults across social classes combine tra-

ditional values with the modern ideal of a striking a balance

between work and family roles (Table 5). Fewer than half

agreed that it is acceptable for two people to have sex if they

are not emotionally involved, and about 70% across social classes believed that couples should be married before they

have a child. Over 80% across social classes also indicated that they expect to have a lifelong marriage. The modern twist

is that most expect to have to sacrifice some of their career

goals in order to reach their family goals. Again, these find-

ings applied across social class backgrounds.

The finding that there was no social class difference in the

belief that couples should be married before having a child was

somewhat surprising. Statistically, emerging adults from the

lowest social class category are considerably more likely to

have a child outside of marriage (Hymowitz, Carroll, Wilcox,

& Kaye, 2013). The fact that they were no less likely than

emerging adults from higher social classes to believe that this

is unwise calls into question the sociological claim that young

low-SES women often decide to have a child because they see

no hope for their educational or occupational prospects and no

reason to wait for marriage to a potentially unreliable and

impecunious man (Edin & Kefalas, 2005). Instead, the lack

of social class differences on this item in the present study is

more in line with research reporting that single motherhood

in the 20s usually takes place not as a planful choice but as a

consequence of insufficient knowledge of reproductive biology

and inconsistent use of reliable contraception (Kaye, Suellen-

trop, & Sloup, 2009).

The finding that there was no social class difference in the

expectation of having a lifelong marriage is poignant, in light

of the reality that emerging adults from low-SES families are

much more likely to divorce than higher SES emerging adults,

with important financial consequences for them and their chil-

dren (Hymowitz et al., 2013). Despite this hard fact, nearly all

emerging adults believe their love will prevail and endure,

across social classes.

The Variability of Emerging Adulthood: One Stage, Many Paths

The findings of the national Clark poll indicate that across

social classes, there are more similarities than differences

among 18- to 25-year-olds in the United States. There were

no differences in their responses regarding the five features

proposed in the theory of emerging adulthood, and no differ-

ences in their expectations of what adulthood would be like.

In their emotional lives, across social classes emerging adults

were similar in regarding their lives as free, fun, and exciting,

although most also reported experiencing stress and anxiety. In

their attitudes toward school and work, emerging adults across

social classes recognized the importance of a college education

and were idealistic in their aspirations for work that is enjoy-

able and does some good in the world. Regarding love, sex, and

marriage, most endorsed traditional values, but they expected

to make career sacrifices for the sake of family goals, regard-

less of their social class background. The social class differ-

ences reported here are important, undoubtedly, and need to

be taken seriously in public policy, especially in providing

more opportunities for lower SES emerging adults to obtain ter-

tiary education. However, I believe the findings clearly show

that American emerging adults are far more similar than differ-

ent across social classes, and there is enough similarity among

them to regard them as belonging to a common life stage.

It is important to acknowledge that the data presented here

are from the United States only. It remains an open question

whether or not the findings would be similar in other developed

232 Emerging Adulthood 4(4)

 

 

countries. However, it seems likely that the features found here

to apply across social classes in the United States would be just

as likely to apply across social classes in Canada, Europe,

Australia, Japan, South Korea, and other developed countries.

The United States has the starkest social class differences

and the highest level of inequality of any developed country

(United Nations Development Programme, 2014). One would

reasonably expect that if emerging adults were going to differ

by social class on features, such as possibilities/optimism, they

would differ in the United States. Social class differences may

be less likely in other developed countries, where social wel-

fare systems provide more equality of access to education and

training, and there is less poverty. Nevertheless, this is an

empirical question, yet to be definitively explored.

Social class is unquestionably an important element in the

lives of emerging adults in the United States, as it is in the

lives of people of other ages. Specifically, the pursuit of ter-

tiary education structures the lives of some emerging adults

but not others, and this difference has repercussions for their

lives in emerging adulthood and beyond (Arnett, 2015; Carne-

vale et al., 2013). For those who pursue tertiary education,

their daily lives are structured around going to classes and

doing course work. Many of them work at least part-time as

well, to support themselves and to pay educational expenses,

which can make for a very busy life. Those who do not enter

tertiary education following secondary school but seek full-

time employment face the formidable challenge of finding a

well-paying, enjoyable job without tertiary education creden-

tials, at a time when such jobs are becoming scarce. Further-

more, future prospects vary greatly for these two groups, with

those pursuing tertiary education having a higher likely social

class destination than those who do not, in terms of income

and occupational status (Carnevale et al., 2013; Hamilton &

Hamilton, 2006).

Although social class is important to how the years from the

late teens through the 20s are experienced, people in this age

range can be understood as emerging adults across social

classes. At its core, the rise of emerging adulthood over the past

half century is a demographic phenomenon, arising from the

substantial increase in median ages of entering stable work,

marriage, and parenthood in every developed country. A half

century ago most people entered these roles at ages 20–22, pla-

cing them in ‘‘young adulthood’’ right after adolescence, with

adult responsibilities of coordinating work and family life,

including maintaining a marriage or other partnership, running

a household, managing their own income and expenses, and

caring for children. Now that the median ages of entering stable

work, marriage, and parenthood have moved into the late 20s or

even the early 30s, a stage of emerging adulthood has opened

up between adolescence and young adulthood, during which

people are more independent of their parents than they were

as adolescents but have not yet entered the roles that structure

adult life for most people. Young people in lower social classes

may enter these roles a year or two earlier than their peers in the

middle and upper classes, but for most that still leaves a period

of several years between the end of secondary school and the

entrance to adult roles, certainly long enough to be called a

distinct life stage (Arnett et al., 2011; Yates, 2005).

My original research (Arnett, 2004), as well as the national

Clark poll presented here and many studies by other researchers

(see Arnett, 2016), has indicated other common features

among American emerging adults across social classes, beyond

the demographic similarities. For emerging adults in both the

lower/working class and the middle/upper middle class, the

years from the late teens through the 20s are a time of trying

out different identity possibilities in love and work, and gradu-

ally making their way toward more stable commitments. For

both groups, instability is common during these years, as fre-

quent changes are made in love and work. For both groups,

their hopes for the future are high, even though the actual pros-

pects for those with relatively low educational levels are not as

promising. However, other features of the age period may be

found to vary, between social classes within the same country

as well as between cultures and countries. Emerging adulthood

is growing as a worldwide phenomenon, in demographic terms,

and there is sure to be a great deal of variation worldwide in

how it is experienced (Arnett, 2011). For example, a study of

young women factory workers in China reported that they

viewed the most important criteria for adulthood as learn to

care for parents, settled into long-term career, and become

capable of caring for children (Zhong & Arnett, 2014); these

findings are in contrast to the ‘‘Big Three’’ of accepting respon-

sibility for one’s self, making independent decisions, and finan-

cial independence, reported across Western countries (Arnett,

2015; Nelson & Luster, 2016). Other differences are sure to

be found, as the cultural scope of research on emerging adult-

hood expands.

An analogy can be made here to the life stage of adoles-

cence. Cross-cultural studies, most notably Schlegel and Bar-

ry’s (1991) analysis of 186 cultures in the anthropological

literature, have found that adolescence exists in nearly all

human cultures, as a period between the time puberty begins

and the time adult roles are taken on. However, the length of

adolescence and the nature of adolescents’ experiences vary

vastly among cultures. Some adolescents attend secondary

school, and some drop out or never go. Most live in the same

household as their parents, but some become ‘‘street children’’

and live among other adolescents in urban areas. Some marry

by their mid-teens, especially girls in rural areas of developing

countries, whereas others will not marry until after adolescence

and a long emerging adulthood. Consequently, it makes sense

to speak not of one adolescent experience but of adolescences

worldwide (Larson, Wilson, & Rickman, 2010). Yet it remains

conceptually valuable to recognize adolescence as a life stage

that exists in nearly all cultures, in some form.

In the same way, we can state that there are likely to be

many emerging adulthoods, that is, many forms the experience

of this life stage can take depending on social class, culture, and

perhaps other characteristics such as gender or religious group

(Arnett, 2011). Some emerging adults obtain tertiary education

and some do not. Some live with their parents and some do not.

Some experience a series of love relationships, whereas others

Arnett 233

 

 

live in cultures where virginity at marriage is prized and love

relationships before marriage are discouraged. Yet they have

enough in common so that it is a useful heuristic to understand

them as experiencing a common life stage of emerging adult-

hood. Emerging adulthood can be considered to exist wherever

there is a period of at least several years between the end of

adolescence—meaning the attainment of physical and sexual

maturity and the completion of secondary school—and the

entry into stable adult roles in love and work.

The key conclusion is one stage, many paths. That is, for

emerging adulthood, as for other life stages, it can be helpful

to use life stage terminology in order to draw attention to some

of the common experiences of a given time of life. At the same

time, it is important to acknowledge that all human life stage

concepts are socially, culturally, and historically grounded,

rather than being biologically based and universal. There are

many possible paths through any life stage, with variations not

only by social class but also by gender, ethnicity, sexual orien-

tation, and cultural context. As long as this is understood, life

stages, including emerging adulthood, can be conceptually use-

ful and can help inspire and guide new research.

Acknowledgments

The author wishes to thank Clark University for providing the funding

for this research.

Author’s Note

The data file from which the data in this article are drawn is available

from the author upon request.

Author Contributions

Jeffrey Jensen Arnett contributed to conception, design, acquisition,

analysis, and interpretation; drafted the manuscript; critically revised

the manuscript; gave final approval; and agrees to be accountable for

all aspects of work ensuring integrity.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to

the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

Funding

The author received no financial support for the research, authorship,

and/or publication of this article.

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Author Biography

Jeffrey Jensen Arnett is a research professor at Clark Univer-

sity. He is the founding president and executive director of the

Society for the Study of Emerging Adulthood.

Arnett 235

 

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