Emerging adulthood is a relatively recent conception of development that encompasses individuals between the ages of 18 and 25. Emerging adulthood is regarded as a period of transition between adolescence and adulthood, being distinct from both periods. An issue that came up in class and in the readings was how this period may look different based on different social factors and whether or not this should even be a category which to group people. Because of how different emerging adulthood can look from person and its large variability, it becomes important to examine this period of exploration and transition and whether this is a period that occurs for everyone.
Emerging adulthood is seen as an area of experimentation and exploration for individuals. They are not adolescents anymore so they have much more independence, but they are not yet adults so they do not have to commit to any particular societal roles and responsibilities that correspond with adulthood (Arnett, 2000). A question to be answered is whether this looks the same or exists across social classes. For simplicity, the discussion will be centered in the American context. Social class can either be objective (education, income, occupation) or subjective (perceived social rank). Depending on which type of social class is being discussed, the ways that emerging adulthood can is influenced by class differs.
Objective social class via income, education, and occupation influence how and whether the period of emerging adulthood exists. The time of exploration that is discussed as a characteristic of this period may or may not be relevant depending on income level and education level. For example, a family from a wealthy background may be able to pay for their child’s college expenses. Without the pressure of having to pay for college, these individuals are more likely to be able to take advantage of this time to figure out their future or to try out different things. The same may not necessarily be true for individuals from low income families. Assuming they go to college, they may have to take out loans or work to pay their tuition. Having to work while they are in school would likely take away from the time used for exploration. The argument can be made that because of this, the period of emerging adulthood may not exist for these individuals. Another issue when looking at emerging adulthood across social classes is sample used for research. Many of the samples containing individuals who would be considered in this period consist of college students. There is a lack of research on emerging adults who are not in college. It is possible that the college experience of exploration and experimentation that occurs during this age range may be conflated with a distinct development period. It is likely that what is considered emerging adulthood is really characteristic of the college experience and the college environment. There is no way to say that what happens in this context can be applied to other situations, particularly for individuals who are unable to have that type of experience due to social barriers and constraints. What may be true for college students cannot and should not be generalized to the rest of the population.
For those individuals from low income communities who are unable to go to college for varying reasons, this conceptualization of emerging adulthood may not match their experiences either. They may have work in order to support their families. Adult responsibilities may have to be assumed during this period or maybe even during adolescence. This could definitely be attributed to the type of social environment. Lower-class social environments may promote more communal views about the individual. Individuals may come to see themselves as being connected to others, leading them to take more adult responsibilities in the family. Upper-class social class environments may promote more individualistic views, possibly leading individuals to not feel the same obligations to others and to feel that this period is a time for their own development (Kraus et al., 2012). That is an important thing to take note of. If individuals from lower-class backgrounds are unable to explore and take the time to figure out things, does that mean that they are not emerging adults? Or conversely, is emerging adulthood only a transition period characterized by experimentation and exploration or is there room for experiences of individuals who may have to assume adult responsibilities prematurely? These are important questions to ask. Considering the fact that it was relatively recent when this developmental period was conceptualized, there is definitely room for to be added in terms of creating a more uniform conceptualization or figuring out whether this conceptualization is relevant across different social strata.
Subjective social class also plays a role in how this developmental period may look. Perceived social class rank may be based on a number of factors, but the focus will placed on race and ethnicity. This is an area where class contexts (norms, values, and expectations) can play a key role. While expectations for individuals in this age range may be different may be looked at differently by people within their own social strata, society as a whole has different expectations for individuals along racial and ethnic lines. For African Americans, an expectation is that a large percentage of them will have been or currently are in the criminal justice sentence. The statistic has been thrown out so many times about how many African Americans in this age range are in prison or jail. Even in everyday interactions, people may be treated differently because of disparate expectations due to stereotypes. A young white woman may be asked if she has any children, in contrast, a young African American or Latina woman may be asked how many children she has. Although they each may be considered emerging adults, the societal expectations differ and they are treated differently. There are years of evidence of individuals from non-White backgrounds being treated in ways that society would deem not age appropriate if the individual was white. A recent instance of this is the Trayvon Martin case. The defense team would repeatedly refer to him as a young man, even though he would be considered an adolescent. It is as if there was an attempt to make the jury look at him as a man in order for them to see it as more justifiable to kill him. This is indicative an issue with the conceptualization of emerging adulthood, the larger society has different views of individuals within this age range based on characteristics such as race and ethnicity.
These issues are important because they are indicative of a larger problem within the field of psychology as a whole. Research and findings from samples that are predominantly White college students are generalized to a much diverse population. Their experiences are made out to be the norm while experiences of other groups are left out and ignored. Not only does it devalue those that it leaves out, it could also be seen as faulty science. If this is based mostly on White college student samples, it should be made more explicit that this developmental period as currently conceptualized is more applicable to that population. When one population is used as a baseline and a norm to be applied to other populations, it introduces the possibility of others who are different in some to be pathologized and viewed as deficient. The implications of these issues for understanding human diversity are that this construct should either be reconceptualized. In order to do that, research needs to be done on college students of color, individuals from low-income communities, and individuals who are not in college. Getting information from a more diverse range of experiences would help to enrich research on this developmental period and also help to redefine it in a way that could possibly apply to diverse groups. According to the current conceptualization of emerging adulthood, individuals from these groups do not go through this phase, but if it is a developmental period then why do these individuals do not go through this period? That question in itself shows that this developmental period needs to be redefined with consideration for a diverse population.