Sociology of Young Adulthood
An Introductory Study of the Unknown
14 Mountain Road, Tenafly, NJ 07670
one thinks of the term youth, or more specifically young
adulthood, various images come to mind. An elderly man will have
a different idea of youth than his generation X granddaughter.
This is the case for any age group looking at another. Young adulthood,
however, is one of the most controversial and ambiguous life stages. As
early as 1532, people made rules for societys youth; they were seen
as corrupt (Schindler, 244) and needed guidance. By the 1920s, the
image of youth changed drastically. Youth subsequently was equated to
the cult of the Duce in Fascist Italy. Young adults were seen
as the most important element for national mobilization. As a result,
in the worldwide scheme, youth became desired; it was the unattainable
ideal that elder people strove to reproduce in lifestyle, fashion and
attitude (Malvano 232256).
ideas and definitions of young adulthood are ambiguous and intangible.
The controversy stems from both the resentment and envy of society toward
youth. Youth is disregarded by some and revered by others. These opposing
attitudes and lack of concrete data motivated this study. Young adulthood,
specifically, is the missing link to numerous studies in sociology and
psychology. My survey of the research on young adulthood found the topics
treated in six broad fields: sociology, social psychology, politics, generations,
media, and deviant youth culture. The information found was either extremely
specific to a certain case, or conversely, extremely general about young
adulthood. Examining these topics gives the researcher a decent source
of knowledge and insight to young adulthood. The most important idea learned
is that the information is not complete. The task then becomes to postulate
often define young adults as those who have reached sexual maturity, but
are not married (Schindler, 245). Custom in the United States distinguishes
young adults as those newly eligible to vote, at age eighteen. The
time phrase [young adulthood] embraces what has been called the most crucial
age range for the creation of a distinctive, self-conscious political
generation ( Jennings and Niemi, 7). Karl Mannheim relates young
adulthood with the ability to question and reflect upon life and experiences.
To him, this time begins about the age of seventeen (Mannheim, 300). He
justifies his age differentiation in further expressing the importance
of living in the present, the up-to-dateness of youth
therefore consists in their being closer to the present problems
Erik Erikson devoted his research to defining the eight stages of life.
Young adulthood, according to this model, falls in the sixth stage, intimacy
vs. isolation. The developing person up until that time has been
forming his identity. Now is the test to see if he can fuse his
identity with that of others. He is ready for intimacy, the capacity to
commit himself to concrete affiliations and partnerships... (Erikson,
and Society, 263). This stage can only
occur after the person has successfully completed the other stages. Often,
chronology of age is not the most important consideration. Eriksons
work on identity crisis singles out late adolescence and early adulthood
as a potentially important period for political character formation
(Jennings and Niemi, 8).
adds further explanation and insight to the definitions of young adulthood.
Gene Bocknek notes four theorists who especially contribute to the study
of young adulthood: Besides Erikson, who was the first theorist to use
the term young adult, Havighurst, White and Wittenberg. He
also accounts for the ideas of personalogists and developmental
psychologists. Bocknek comprehensively surveyed these works to learn their
specific thoughts about this stage of life.
Like Erikson, Robert Havighurst directed his attention in his studies
toward young adulthood as a separate stage in the life cycle. He studied
the concept of developmental tasks. Similar to Erikson, Havighurst
looked at growth and development and its effect on young adults. Havighurst
identified the young adult as a person between the ages of 18 and 30 (the
age range used in Europe). He classified the activities in this time period
as aiming toward beginning life; finding a mate, and starting a career
and a family. Havighurst, is therefore, one of the early writers
to locate young adulthood in the life span and to offer a systematic method
of identifying its features (Bocknek, 83). Havighurst rested his
entire theory on developmental tasks. This was the source of both the
strengths and the weaknesses of his study because he eliminated other
avenues of research. His research was limited to one culture, the North
American middle class. Developmental tasks are not universal, and could
not explain cross cultural ideas and values, but his study did comprehensively
define the various stages of the life span.
Robert White is an important theorist who did extensive clinical research
with young adults. He identifies five growth trends of young
adult development: (1) stabilizing of ego identity or feeling confident
within the newly found identity and not as apt to succumb to outside pressures;
(2) freeing of personal relationships in terms of dealing with problems
in the present, they are thus able to become more sensitive
to another person because they are less tied with their personal history;
(3) deepening of interests and the enjoyment of life which shapes a person
over time and is tied to both competence and commitment; (4)
humanizing of values distinguishing between abstract morality of
adolescence and the more functional morality of young adulthood;
and finally, (5) expansion of caring the stage of the growth trend
closely related to Eriksons idea of generativity (Bocknek,
Many of the theorists share similar views. Whites second growth
trend is reminiscent of Mannheims theory. Young adults are finally
able to deal successfully with their own problems. They have the ability
to think in the present, without the confusion of their personal experiences.
When White discusses humanizing of values, He makes the claim
that by the time people reach young adulthood, they have developed their
own sense of morals and ideas internally. They can look inside themselves
to know right from wrong. The final growth stage, the expression
of caring, represents the expansion of the young adult beyond himself,
into the community and into his friends and family. This is a stage that
is continuously evolving throughout ones life. The basis for it,
however, begins during young adulthood.
The fourth theorist Bocknek cites is Rudolph Wittenberg, one of the only
psychoanalytic theorists to assert that postadolescence represents
a specific phase of growth in the life cycle (Bocknek, 87). Wittenberg
identifies five metaphysic characteristics and three socioeconomic factors
in young adults.
A self image crisis, the person alternates between responding to superego
demands (parental/authority) and adhering to ones ego- ideal.
2. Brief states of depersonalization, a person experiences a loss of identity.
Accompanied by series of disembodiment, isolation and estrangement.
3. End of role playing. Reality sets in. Often accompanied by depression.
4. Awareness of time continuity. The sense of time passage become more
acute. It includes developing the ability to allocate and utilize time
in ones activities, plans or defenses.
5. Search for a partner. the young adult chooses a love object for permanent
The Socioeconomic Factors
The economic bind in which young adults want to pay their own way, but
society keeps them from the labor force. This is social rejection, because
it comes at a time when young adults are striving for autonomy.
2. Group formation, used to personify the young adults ego- ideal.
Membership in a social, political or religious group becomes part of ones
role and self definition.
3. Evolving a Weltanschauung, or a philosophy
of life. The character of this philosophy depends on the success the young
adults has had in coming to terms with all the above mentioned pressure
All of the characteristics deal with finding an identity, independence
in life style and the search for ideals. Wittenberg constantly notices
the qualitative changes that occur in young adulthood. He is among
the first of the group to describe adult forms of individuation and real
object relationships (Bocknek, 88).
This theoretical overview, although extremely general, does convey the
wide range of thought concerning young adulthood. Many other theorists,
such as Freud and Mannheim, share similar ideas. Those he mentions, however,
share the common theme of the young adults search for identity and
autonomy. Young adulthood is a brief period of life when many important
decisions are made, both consciously and not. It is a period of tremendous
growth. The growth extends to setting goals about careers, families and
mates. Young adulthood is especially important because for the first time,
not only are these goals set, but they have the potential to be realized.
determining characteristic of young adulthood is whether or not a person
is eligible to vote. Decisions about the representation of ones
country, state or county are important and need to be made by a capable
person. Some would argue whether an arbitrary age can determine ones
capability, and whether young adults take their rights seriously. Here
Eriksons works apply. He claims that regardless of age, a person
who does not successfully complete one stage in the life cycle cannot
mentally advance to the next. Politics, however, require that arbitrary
ages be set for such rights as voting and such duties as military service.
Political science took up the study of young adulthood only recently.
The 1970s are the first time that the influence of youth in politics was
studied (Hyman, 5). It began with the 1970 congressional election, as
a referendum of American electoral politics. Voting laws subsequently
became more liberal. The voting age was lowered from 21 to 18, absentee
voting was made easier and the literacy test was abolished (5). In his
study, Sidney Hyman considered those between the ages of 18 and 26 young
adults. These ages allowed him to observe the effects of the military
draft and first-time voting on young people (Hyman, 5). With the end of
World War II and the rise of the baby boom, youth had a greater influence
than ever before on politics.
In the era of political turmoil that continued into the 1970s, several
studies were done depicting the viewpoints of youth. Jennings and Niemi
studied how political views changed from one generation to the next. They
performed in-depth interviews to parents and their children over an eight
year period. Young adulthood is customarily thought of as a time
of lability and receptivity. We therefore had caught the young while still
in the formative stages and could observe more clearly the unfolding of
their political lives (Jennings and Niemi, 8). The young adults
interviewed were in a high state of transition. The leading hypothesis
is that this life of transition manifests itself in political fashion,
leading to high rate of change (Jennings and Niemi, 9) The final
studies show the underestimated potential for young adults in the political
arena (Jennings and Niemi, 386). Young adults are determining the future
for themselves and for generations to come. They are also more aware of
the importance of this than they are given credit.
Young adults are only beginning to form a stable identity. This identity
cannot be complete without political knowledge and ideas. Political campaigns
target young adults because once they form their ideas, they seldom reverse
them. Young people change with the times, but remain loyal to their party
and the ideas of that party. Politics are all part of the stabilization
of the ego and identity that Erikson and White discuss. Jennings and Niemi
also summarize these thoughts: the controversy regarding attitudinal
stability on matters of public policy is one of the preeminent ones in
the study of mass publics. Our understanding of political phenomena is
often enhanced by our study of the nonpolitical (1011).
is an inevitable part of life and growth. New inventions, technology,
politics, environment and the general feeling of society are causes and
effects of change. To fully understand change, one needs to look at the
past. Studying generations is an effective way to take control of the
present and also to see the past through the eyes of the people who lived
it. There has been research conducted on obvious generational topics,
such as the baby boom generation and other war babies. However,
studying the norm is as interesting as it is impossible. The
term generation has many connotations. It could mean a group of people
born in the same year, a cohort. Another view of the term
is to classify all parents into one generation and their children, who
are close in age, into the next generation. Nonetheless, there are always
changes and differences within age groups. Often these changes are represented
in political views, media use, and inter-personal relationships.
Young adulthood is a key phrase in forming each generation. Although,
the attitudes and beliefs of young adults change with the times, each
group of young adults faces similar adversities in society. Even though
the definition of young adulthood itself has changed with history, the
ambiguous life stage has been recognized throughout the modern era. At
some historical moments, a generation receives close study. Young adults
of the 1960s (at least a vocal minority of them) were in the center of
attention in part because they attempted to influence political decisions
being made and had a strong will to participate. These attitudes were
not always welcome. A high school student in Boston in the 1960s expressed
her frustration that our whole educational system in public and
private schools has been designed to make us think for ourselves. But
when we do, you older citizens call it rioting, what do you
want? Robots? (Fletcher, 17).
Certain generations have been forgotten, for a time or looked down upon
simply due to the times they grew up in. The war youth of 1914 is often
referred to as the lost generation. Robert Wohl studied that
generation to reconcile the term lost and explain why it is
a misnomer. How many of us could even identify with any degree of
certainty the so-called men of 1914? Indeed, one would be
tempted to argue that if the war generation is lost, it is
lost because it has no history; lost because its history is overlaid with
Generations are important to the study of the sociology of young adulthood,
regardless of which perspective of the term is taken. Generations form
when people of the same age group share similar strong experiences. Examining
a group of people through the lens of their common experience allows a
richer understanding, in part because it conveys the sentiment anchored
in a specific era.
current generation suffers from similar feelings of being lost
as did the Generation of 1914. Generation X was the name given
to a group of people that are seen by the rest of society as having no
direction, no common cause. The term began as a result of Douglas Couplands
1991 novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture.
It originally signified people who were underemployed, overeducated,
intensely private and unpredictable (Nicholson, 5). Generation
X caught on, and people ignorantly began to use it to signify a
group of young adults too lazy or apathetic to go out and get a
real job and a real life (6). This generation
is another one that will go down in history as highly misunderstood. News
about what the current generation is really like is sensationalized
by the media. People come to believe, for example, that all generation
Xers have body piercings, get tattoos, ride skateboards and watch MTV.
This is not the case.
Generation X is known for its skepticism. It is not persuaded as easily
by advertising as the previous generation once was. It is also the first
generation to be raised in the era of technology (Nicholson, 1997). Generation
Xers grew up watching television more than any other generation. The Saturday
morning cartoons of their youth were full of advertisements. J. Giles
of Newsweek magazine explains the skepticism of the current generation
toward advertising: the first time you realize that the super toy
you wanted is really only four inches tall you learn a hard lesson. We
created a whole generation that believes advertising is lies and hype
(Giles, 1994. qtd. in Nicholson, 1997). The media, now more than ever,
is a tie that holds the generation together in theory, if not in reality.
Their [young adults] common experience may forge a distinctive
identity as a generation, using the media to create their own subcultural
meanings (Barnhurst, 15).
Young adults are striving daily to formulate their identity. This is not
always a conscious effort that society influences. Young adults, perhaps
more impressionable than they would like to admit, use the media as a
major source of identity formation. The media also represent a common
ground that young people share. From the media they acquire a set of guidelines
to follow, both moral and stylistic.
culture and Deviancy
course, society does not come with a rule book. Ideas about how to dress,
act and perform correctly are arbitrary and develop
through social interaction. Young adults who stray from these rules are
sometimes seen as deviant or as members of a subculture. Youth,
its cultures and subcultures, have always been seen as a social problem
in the minds of general public and policy makers (Brake, 167). Youth
cultures began to take public attention in the 1960s, in American
society, the vision and analysis was distinctly different for middle class
youth by the 1960s, from that of their parents (Brake, 92). The
analysis favored is that of Mannheim (1952), who narrows age cohorts to
generational units, that is actively involved members of an age group,
who influence social change (Brake, 93).
Juvenile delinquency may have existed for some time; but only recently,
have social scientists begun to call it a severe problem. Sex maniacs
and dope addicts have been with us a long time. Maybe we were simply more
skilled at diagnosing the disease labeled juvenile delinquency
(Fletcher, 16). Some may argue that young adults today have more reason
to rebel. They were raised in the television age. Many come from families
where both parents work, the products of the latchkey phenomenon,
children who came home not to the arms of a mother or father, but to a
remote control. During periods of boredom, feelings of frustration
lead adolescents to drift into and out of delinquency
(Brake, 47). Young adults relate strongly to the each other and members
of their cohort. Youth culture has been used uncritically in post-war
American literature, favoring a generational rather than a class membership
Youth cultures received public attention in the United States in the 1950s,
with the Beatniks, and in the 1960 s with the Hippies. With the advent
of the Hippies, other cultures naturally gained force and confidence.
The Bohemian culture gained immediate expressivity (Brake,
95). The youth cultures began to mesh together. They spread across the
United States and Europe and took different forms. Youth cultures develop
languages, make their ideas of the world become concrete, and adapt styles
from the media, school and peers. As they begin to turn to each other
for understanding, criticism and advice, society sometimes describes them
as falling into a life of deviancy.
at youth through the various lenses of history, sociology, politics, media,
generations, and deviancy provides a substantial amount of information
and understanding. However, the research is usually done by people on
the outside looking in. Can a scholar really understand young adulthood,
regardless of the amount of research and field work? Also, scholars are
influenced by fashion. The studies of youth culture, for example, responded
to a style of thinking (and to media portrayals) of the time. How can
we correct the ways that the theorists and researchers are influenced
by fashion and the media of their own time? These are only some of the
To say that the study of young adulthood is not complete is an understatement.
There are comprehensive research literature dealing with children, adolescents,
adults and the aged. The important period of young adulthood is often
indeed missing. The research is scarce, the courses offered on college
campuses are few to none. Besides the ambiguity of the topic, what other
reasons may account for this gap? Young adults are as available to researchers
as other groups, but few have attempted to describe them. Youth may be
objects of resentment and envy for the researchers. As Fletcher suggests,
youth is fearfully and wonderfully made. (And if that sounds envious
on my part, it is!) (69). Another reason for the lack of study is
that people do not always distinguish this stage of life from others.
The theorists who did study young adulthood specifically were noteworthy
for that fact alone. Scholarly journals also tend to have a prejudice
toward studying young adults. Often, the studies are done by professors,
who use their students for subjects. This makes the research easier but
also makes the category of young adults seem a mere convenience.
Young adults are at the threshold of their lives. They are grappling with
decisions and choices that others may not see as important. To them, life
is new, and frightening. They are excited to embark on the journey but
unsure at the same time. They are caught between their generational cohort
and their historical connection to families who are trying to protect
and comfort them. It is a symbolic time, both an end and a beginning.
Further study on the subject especially by young adults themselves, would
perhaps re-teach the rest of society what it is like to be living through
these years. Young adults are a group that should demand more respect
and should, in turn be expected to achieve and accomplish more. A comprehensive
study on the subject would show the world the wealth of talents and capabilities
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