• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Wednesday 14th November, 2007

The long and winding road to the end of childhood

When does childhood end? The general view in the West would be that it probably happens some time between the end of high school and the mid-twenties. For some young people it will be earlier; for others later. There is no fixed point.So the concept of “emerging adulthood” to cover the range of possibilities and the fluid forces at work seems an obvious one when its value is pointed out. But it is little researched and our understanding of it is quite meager. Indeed, this emergence indicates a period clouded in ambiguity. When I ask young people in their late teens and early twenties if they are adult, fewer than five per cent say "no". But only a third will say "yes". The most common response is "yes-and-no".One of the respondents to my research expressed that sense of being "in between" very well when she said, "There's not a break and then you become an adult. It's just a long, gradual process. I'm more of an adult than I was when I was 15 or 17, but in five years I’ll probably be more of an adult than I am now".These properties seem to be peculiar to the industrialized nations. To take one indicator: the age of marriage in the economically-developed world is routinely five to ten years later than in the developing world. But as poor countries get richer, so the nature of childhood and early adulthood alters.Tonight at a seminar at the Children's Research Centre at Trinity College, Dublin I will encourage more reflection on these questions. The universities are an important focus for the discussion because the changeableness of emerging adulthood is altering their function. Of those graduating from Irish colleges next year, just over half will go straight into jobs in the country of their birth. Increasingly, a place of learning like Trinity College, despite its world standing, is merely a stepping stone to further knowledge-gathering and self development.I have interviewed 300 Americans aged 18 to 29 years for my studies. The evidence points toward emerging adulthood being a time for exploring identity, focusing on the self and allowing a degree of instability. For example, we change addresses between our twentieth and twenty-fourth birthdays more often than we do at any other time in our lives.Many parents and possibly some policy makers continue to be rather dismissive of the phenomena of emerging adulthood. But I am struck by how most young people see the period as one of high possibility. They may remain financially dependent, but they look forward to being independent. As one of my respondents put it, “I think financial independence has a lot to do with it. Paying your own bills – not going to mum and dad and saying, ‘Can I have $300 to go to Florida with the guys for spring break?’.”Emerging adulthood is firmly on the map. But there remains much to learn about what generates and shapes it and what it means for young adults. A lot of my work is sociological, but other scientists, neurologists for example, are equally intrigued by it as a stage in human development.I hope some of my remarks at Trinity College this evening will resonate with scientists and policy makers, and encourage continuing conversation on an important subject.•Jeffrey Arnett's lecture at the Children's Research Centre at Trinity College Dublin this evening is called "Growing up in the 21st Century: The new and longer road to adulthood". The Chair of the National Economic and Social Forum in Ireland, Dr Maureen Gaffney, will give the reply.See: Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett; published in 2004 by Oxford University Press.

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