STAGE 1: The attainment of the stage of early adulthood is marked by the cessation of physical growth at about that time. In my own personal experience, this developmental milestone has profound consequences: I realized that I had achieved the fullness of my adult height. Indeed, one is confronted with certain physical constants, such as height and bone structure, that will be with one for the remainder of one’s life. The growth spurt has come to an end, and with it the active, eager metabolism of the maturing adolescent.
Again from personal experience, this fact is often discovered to the chagrin of many young people who enter college, upon the attainment of the ‘freshman fifteen’: as the metabolism shifts from furthering the process of physical growth to a more stable equilibrium in the body of the young adult, the individual’s habits of eating and patterns of activity may produce new consequences.
STAGE 2: Upon reflection, I realized that I could no longer take the growth of my youth for granted: that was at an end. I began making some generalizations about my eating habits, with the realization that these had been less than optimal with regards to healthful nutrition. I found these experiences very fruitful with regards to reflection, which in turn helped me to conceptualize myself as an adult, not a teen or a young person, and I know a great many of my friends felt the same way around this stage. This in turn led to experimentation: how could I eat more healthily and keep active in order to maintain high energy levels and a healthy weight?
Of course, there are novel physical demands confronting many young adults, or else novel levels of familiar physical demands. It is around this time that many young adults enter the workforce (my own first job was at the age of seventeen), and pursue at least some higher education. This job taught me the meaning of hard work: I learned what it was to work until I was falling asleep on my feet, and then get up and go to school the next day. Through reflection, though, I learned that I could take nothing for granted in life: one must work and be a productive member of society in order to take home a wage. That is life: nothing is truly free. Still, there is considerable variability here, and this variability dramatically affects life planning: some young adults choose college and not work, others choose work and not college, and quite a few choose some mixture of the two.
STAGE 3: These experiences will in turn shape how they think about themselves, the nature of their work and/or studies, and their own aspirations (or lack thereof, in some cases) for the future. There are actually two very key points of variability here: an academic career versus a lower-skilled job career, and having children versus remaining childless. Some young people become parents in this stage, or may even already be parents. The financial, social, occupational, and other woes of those who procreate at this stage of life have become a virtual byword. On the other hand, some young people prudently put off the begetting of children until they are financially stable, which in practice usually means after college and/or a number of years of work. The college versus lower-skilled job trajectories, like having children at a young age versus putting it off, also affect the financial, social, occupational, and other outcomes of young people in this stage.
STAGE 4: For me, work and school served as a very good opportunity to build character and cultivate the virtues of persistence, hard work, and thrift. Through the cultivation of such noble virtues, I perfected my discipline and increased my productivity. In other words, experience and reflection enabled me to conceptualize the world in a new way. I still so many young adults for whom the lessons learned or reinforced in this period are those of indolence, sloth, and dissolution. Many young people in this stage of life experiment with alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and other drugs for the first time, or else do so with more freedom now that they are on their own. Some become wastrels, in the fashion of the notorious stereotypes of the ‘college stoner’ and the ‘drunken frat-boy’ or ‘drunken sorority-girl’, wasting their educational opportunities as well as their health. By testing my own system of virtue against theirs of vice and dissipation, I have found the nobility of virtue confirmed: I am vastly more productive than my dissolute peers. Nor do I lack in the arena of social interaction, for many is the evening that I have passed in the company of like-minded peers, discussing matters pertaining to the cultivation of virtue and the living of the good life. Once we have done with our studies, we read and discuss Plutarch’s Lives and Plato’s The Republic, thereby combining the amiable pleasures of good company with the perfection of the mind.
Subtopic 2: Cognitive Development.
STAGE 1: When I was eighteen, it seemed that the whole world was before me, an almost unlimited vista of promise. College and the adult world beckoned, glimmering images of promise and achievement. At last, I thought, I had arrived. Reality has been steadily disabusing me from these notions ever since, starting with college and its workload. I now understand, for example, that the student debt that I and so many of my peers accumulate during this stage of our lives (those of us without rich parents to bankroll the whole thing) will follow us for many years until we have paid it all off. All those tens of thousands that I am in the process of borrowing right now will have to be paid back: I will not be able to get rid of this debt, not even by declaring bankruptcy.
STAGE 2: My point here is not to pontificate on the current structure of funding for higher education, an investment I still believe to be eminently worthwhile, but rather to make a very important point about cognitive development in early adulthood. As a teenager, I and so many of my peers lived in the moment: like the children we were, we did not think about the long-term consequences of our actions. Anyone who does not understand this about teenagers has never been one: the concerns of teenagers are overwhelmingly concerns of the present and the very near future, not the distant future. Teenagers live in the now in a way that most of them will only begin to outgrow in their twenties (if at all), as the portions of the brain responsible for the sort of reflective, contemplative thinking necessary for long-term planning complete their development.
My own experiences in this regard began, as stated, with college. My parents impressed upon me the enormity of the financial obligations which I was assuming, and bade me heed the lessons of all the virtues of temperance, prudence, perseverance, and thrift that they had worked so hard to instill in me. To be sure, I made mistakes early in my college career: I experimented with a bit of the profligate and dissolute living I now decry, and my grades in certain courses suffered due to a failure to plan on my part. Reflecting upon my current situation as a college student, however, I realized that the purpose of my college education was not the sort of dissolute living to which so many of my peers were committing themselves, but rather to study hard, graduate with a useful degree, and get a job.
STAGE 3: It was time that I put away childish things, to borrow the words of the Apostle. From this I was able to generalize those behaviors that were childish and puerile, versus those that were responsible, adult, and mature. I must, I realized, leave the world of childhood and become an adult, true and entire.
STAGE 4: Finally, through testing and application, I found that by acting like an adult, I felt more like one: I had more control over my life, and I was happier and more fulfilled. Cognitive maturation is a process, to be sure. Often I feel much older than many of my peers, notably the fraternity and sorority types who seem to be hell-bent on lives of dissolution and dissipation. Such immature behavior is still quite common amongst young adults at the younger end of the spectrum, but, from what I have seen and to some degree experienced, tends to peter out as the individual matures. Post-college—and I know this very well from talking to my parents and to older friends—many young adults must adjust to new rhythms of life, either in the workplace or in graduate school. For most, this will mean at least a partial rupture with the cognitive ‘college bubble’, and a renegotiation of their conceptions of self and of their work in their new post-undergraduate context.
Subtopic 3: Socio-Emotional Development.
STAGE 1: Perhaps the cardinal feature of the socio-emotional development of the young adult concerns their relation to their parents. This relation I deem cardinal, because it arguably underwrites, or at least profoundly affects, the individual’s experience of all the other socio-emotional changes associated with the attainment of this stage. Though individual experiences are highly varied, this is a time marked by much greater independence from parents, at least in contemporary Western societies. Though this will be discussed at greater length in the next section, the thing to note here is that it is at this stage that so many people leave home, and begin to develop their own socio-emotional ties of affect on very different grounds than when they were dependent minors.
STAGE 2: For me, this meant redefining my relationship with my parents, and starting my own social life. This, then, is the time at which the young adult determines how they would like their social life, and their life more generally, to be. Will they be gregarious or anti-social? Amicable and affable, or competitive, brash, even confrontational? The responsibilities, pressures, and opportunities of this stage call for new strategies of social behavior and affect. For me, this meant redefining my relationship with my parents, and starting my own social life. And all of this, I found, has precipitous ramifications for the most seminal feature affected by socioemotional development: the identity.
Through reflection, I realized that I needed a new way of relating to others: it was no longer me and my high school friends, doing high school things and going back home at the end of the day, but rather me and my college friends, living as quasi-adults without the supervision of our parents. This certainly produced plenty of experimentation, much of which I am not at all proud of. However, this enabled me to see the folly of spending time in the company of profligate hedonists, which in turn helped me to be better at choosing my friends according to certain criteria of character and disposition—generalization and testing and application, in Kolb’s model.
STAGE 3: Like so many in this stage, I embarked on a learning process of identity development and articulation. True, for some, much of the identity may already have been formed and defined to some extent over the course of adolescence, but it is this period that invites a great deal more reflection and conceptualization on the part of the individual regarding their identity. For me, it was more the case that very little of my current identity existed in my high school years. In contemporary Western societies, identity during late adolescence is determined to a considerable extent through the crucible of the high school; come early adulthood, the individual must rethink what they think they know about themselves. As I found through experience, the narratives of self built in high school, and particularly as dependent minors, no longer suit individuals who must now navigate the often far more difficult world of early adulthood, which calls for new narratives (conceptualization), experimentation, and thus, changed experiences as a result.
STAGE 4: Occupational and educational pressures exert a great deal of influence on socioemotional development during this phase. I cannot count the number of times friends have told me how much they hate their jobs, which, because so many of them are students, are often low-skilled, low-paying jobs—‘drone work’, ‘drudge work’, ‘wage slavery’, and so on. On the other hand, higher education offers prospects for much better jobs, and the chance to become both more productive and more wealthy, which is my own aspiration. In other words, not only does the socio-emotional development in this stage affect how the individual thinks about themselves, it also affects how they think about their work, their studies, and the general shape of their life in relation to the rest of society. Having worked a number of low-skilled ‘drone work’ jobs myself, I have long since resolved to secure employment in a sector that will enable me to enjoy the privileges of better hours, better pay, and a far more satisfying avocation.
Subtopic 4: Family, Culture, & Religion
STAGE 1: In many non-Western cultures, the attainment of adulthood is marked, not by the simple act of turning eighteen, but rather with rites of passage and, at least to some degree, by marrying and starting a family. Tribal cultures, in particular, initiate young men (in particular), into manhood, sometimes through extreme rituals involving the infliction of pain, and sometimes the marking of the body through tattooing or scarification, as documented by many anthropologists. And in many societies, not necessarily tribal but still far more tradition-minded, the attainment of adulthood is marked by the assumption of new responsibilities to one’s family and even the community. In essence, for traditional cultures in parts of the world such as East Asia, South Asia, the Islamic world, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America, becoming an adult means starting one’s own household and one’s own family. Though what this looks like may vary considerably across cultures, what most traditional societies have in common in this regard is that the adult has new responsibilities to the social collective, whether family, village, clan, tribe, or other. I emphasize this, because the conception in the modern West is almost entirely different. Here, adulthood is often delayed through college, which allows many young adults a cushion of social support, paid for by taxpayer dollars in the form of loans and/or grants, as well as (in at least some cases) financial support from parents, and perhaps some monies earned by the student. This model is not unknown in other parts of the world, but it is a rather sharp departure from the traditional pattern over so much of the non-Western world, and the pattern that once prevailed in the West as well.
STAGE 2: I learned the above through my own studies, as well as through talking to friends who live in the Muslim world. Broadly and generally speaking, the key difference here between the West and essentially every other traditional-minded society on Earth is that between individualism and collectivism. From my own experience, I have learned and seen that the Western early adult is an individual with minimal responsibilities to family, clan (extended family), or community; by contrast, the non-Western early adult usually has such responsibilities, and is typically on a fast track to starting their own family. Additionally, certain religions, notably conservative strains of said religions, favor large families and traditional gender roles, as seen with Catholicism (especially in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa), ultra-Orthodox Judaism, and Islam.
Family still defines status in many non-Western societies, and ties of obligation and expectation that would baffle many a Westerner are second nature to many people in these societies. For example, I know from friends who live in Muslim countries that it is very common for young men in those societies to stay with their (natal) families: they live at home and return there after work. Indeed, the traditional residence pattern in many Middle Eastern, Islamic societies has long been that of the extended family group. Growing up in these societies carries many, many more obligations to family, including extended family, than I think most Westerners would even be able to comprehend. Though this pattern may seem strange to many Westerners (as I indeed expect), in fact it is the West that is strange, not the ‘rest’. One need only revisit the social history of Europe to ascertain that in fact, Western civilization was run according to similar ideas about familial obligations until the very recent past.
Between talking to my friends in Muslim countries, reading, and observing the social world around me, through reflection I saw that as a young adult living in a Western society, I have the opportunity to choose my career path and my life-path: it is not expected that I beget children to carry on the family name. It is not even expected that I marry. I can hold whatever religious and political views I wish.
STAGE 3: What all of this has meant for me is that I have been able to choose the trajectory of my life more or less as I wish: that is the lesson that I have learned, and that has been reinforced, through generalization, testing and application. The choices, I learned, are nearly endless, making generalizations about early adulthood in this regard all the more difficult. The choices are much more limited in non-Western societies in general, although of course here there is tremendous difference and variation, the more since some non-Western societies have become high-income and quite modernized (cases in point South Korea, Japan, parts of China and India respectively).
STAGE 4: My own parents were quite flexible with regards to attitudes about gender norms and gender roles. Through my readings I have come to learn that in Western countries in general, feminism in the late 19th-early 20th centuries and the so-called ‘sexual revolution’ of the 1960s, coupled with generally rising education and lower birthrates, have greatly lessened the impact of traditional gender roles and expectations, though these persist in more conservative sectors of many Western societies, notably among certain religious communities. Upon reflection, I realize that although I have been socialized into some gender norms, these are far less strict and much more malleable than those of most other societies. To a very considerable extent, I can define my own engagement with gender as I wish, even if different sectors of society will reward or censure me to somewhat differing extents for this.
Subtopic 5: Society, Media, Current Events, & Economy
STAGE 1: The contemporary West is in the throes of a great economic shift away from such traditional industrial-era mainstays as manufacturing and other forms of often manual, skilled labor, and towards the new ‘service economy’. Though this process is a complicated phenomenon, the main thing of importance for our purposes here is its effect on the life choices of young adults. Chief among these has been an impoverishment of certain sectors of the population that were already marginal with respect to their socioeconomic outcomes: sadly, the move to outsource manufacturing has disproportionately hurt African-American and to some degree Hispanic-American communities.
My own experiences, however, fall under the domain of the ‘credentialing arms race’: those with the means to go to school have found it needful to acquire more and more education in order to have a shot at a decent job. I know from talking to friends who have graduated that unfortunately, many are in for a rude awakening, when they find that their four-year degree in anthropology or ‘gender studies’, etc., is of little interest to most respectable employers other than the (mostly) taxpayer-funded world of academia.
STAGE 2: Drawing on reflection here, I make the generalization that this, coupled with the recent recession and a political climate of partisan gridlock, seems to have produced a rather balkanized spectrum of opinions: some of my friends are firmly convinced that things are getting better, and that they will be able to land decent jobs and have higher standards of living than their parents, while I and the remainder of my friends are not nearly as confident. Still others are starkly pessimistic: fears of a financial Armageddon, of global warming, and other putative disasters all loom large in the consciousness of my peers.
STAGE 3: For my own part, I strive to be a realist above all. Having older friends, who have already graduated, has helped me to cultivate reflection and more intelligently determine the course of my college career.
STAGE 4: This in turn, I hope, will help me to be more productive and able once I enter the workforce full-time after graduation.
Subtopic 6: Age & Dying.
STAGE 1: To be perfectly honest, I don’t think I have yet to come to terms with the fact of my own future death. Talking to my friends, I don’t think that they have come to terms with it either. Though I can think about it rationally, it seems so far away—assuming I die of old age, that is, rather than by accident or disease.
STAGE 2: This seems to contribute to a tendency that I have noticed among my peer group especially: although we are capable of planning for the future, most of us discount it steeply. I don’t even have a 401(k), and have no plans to start one any time soon. My concerns are much more immediate: grades, time with friends, my job, paying my bills, etc. My experiences have encouraged me to reflect upon what I want from the next stage of life, but old age and dying are still very, very far away to me. Some of my peers are in serious relationships, and a few of them have even talked about marriage. I know some of my high school classmates have already married, and some even have children, both facts which make me feel old already.
STAGE 3: In this stage of our lives, life has not taught us to think so far ahead as our own deaths, and all of the changes that come with advanced age: loss of memory, loss of bodily capabilities and strength, loss of friends, family, and other loved ones. Instead, I and my peers generalize and develop theories for the next stages of our lives: work, possibly marriage, and possibly even children. Some of my friends talk about better cars and buying houses.
STAGE 4: All of this in turn produces testing and application of those conceptions regarding the next stages of our lives, working towards them in order to secure the next stage of our futures.