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Coming of Age: Finding Meaning While Facing the Transition to Adulthood

Forty years ago, a person in America in his or her early 20s typically was married, starting a family, and perhaps had a mortgage. In European countries such as Germany, young people were more footloose and unencumbered in their 20s.

What does coming of age mean? Coming of age means reaching full adulthood. It includes the process through which young adults reach a level of self-actualization that would categorize them as fully grown. The term has different meanings depending on if you are referring to developmental adulthood, which occurs around age 25, or legal adulthood, which occurs between 18 and 21.

The institutional and social structures that restricted and supported people as they became of age are not as strong as they once were. During the 19th century, young men in their late teens and early 20s had a Wandeschaft.

 It was a period devoted to self-exploration and travel before settling into adulthood. In Britain, upper-class young people men often had a ‘grand tour’ or continental tour’ of Europe before assuming their adult roles.

Only the elite young men took on the experience. Young women required a chaperone when traveling. In today’s industrialized societies, a time of exploration and instability is the norm for both young people in their late teens to mid-20s.

 Coming of Age: How its Modern Meaning Developed

People have less support but greater freedom on their journey to adulthood. Sociologists tell us there is an increase in individualization, and the process is deinstitutionalized (source). People need to rely on resources and a sense of agency of their own, regardless of the outcome.

In the 21st century, coming of age means, standing alone as a person who is self-sufficient and capable of making decisions and choices independently from a broad range of possibilities. Striking changes are in higher education and the timing of getting married and having children.

From 1960 to the middle of the 1990s, the median age for marriage rose in every industrial society. There is a parallel pattern for men and women, with women being consistently two years later.

The pattern for men and women is later in other industrialized countries than the U.S. The median age of marriage is the late 20s. There is an expanded variance. Marriage does take place in the late teens and early 20s for suspected reasons such as unintended pregnancy, conservative religious values, or exceptional maturity.

It is also not uncommon for people to get married late in their 20s or early 30s. There is a rise in the age women have their first child. Relatively few have a baby in their late teens to early 20s. It is not unusual for the first birth to occur in a woman’s 30s.

Marriage is no longer the exclusive context for childbirth. In the U.S., only seven percent of childbirths were by unmarried women in 1960. By 2000, the number rose to 33 percent. (source). The percentages are even higher in northern European countries.

Higher education is a key component of these new trends during emerging adulthood. Many people focus on obtaining a higher education and finding desirable employment before getting married and having a first child. In the past century, particularly in the last 50 years, higher education participation rose substantially.

Five Features that Shape the Meaning of Coming of Age

In the past decade, five distinct features have come to define what it means to come of age according to the research. They are:

●     Age of identity exploration

●     Age of instability

●     Age of self-focus

●     Age of feeling in-between

●     Age of possibilities

Age of Identity Exploration

Identity exploration is a developmental task. It is the time young people explore various options in a variety of areas, particularly love and work. This time is a prelude to making enduring choices that set the foundation for adult lives.

While exploring work and love possibilities, the person coming of age clarifies identities. He or she learns more about what they want from life. This period offers opportunities for self-exploration.

These young people are less dependent on their parents and no longer live with them. They are not ready for typical adult life enduring commitments such as marriage, parenthood, and a long-term job. They are, however, moving closer to those milestones. 

During the interval, they have no obligations to their parents or a list of adult roles. It is an exceptional opportunity to experiment with different lifestyles and possible work and love choices.

When seeking long-term romantic partners, emerging adults almost always address identity issues. To commit to another person, young individuals need to know the kind of people they are.

Their likes and dislikes and what they desire their daily lives to be like in adulthood need are taking shape, but often do not have a clear definition. Their skills and pleasures help them make decisions about pursuing education to find a desirable job ultimately.

Deciding on beliefs and values is of importance as they determine who they are. They ask themselves if their world views are similar or different than that of their parents. Identity issues typically arise in response to questions about religious beliefs, characteristics of a romantic partner, expectations for the future, and relationships with parents.

Age of Instability

Emerging adulthood is an eventful and exceptionally stimulating period in one’s life. It is also exceptionally unstable. The number of residence changes in the years between 18 and 24 serves as an illustration of instability.

Numerous moves reflect the exploration of different possibilities and the frequent change of direction in education, work, and love. A high rate of residential change is a communicates the profound difference that takes place in the lives of those coming of age.

The first residential change is usually when a person goes to college or moves out to be independent. Other changes follow. Perhaps a college student moves from a dorm to an apartment.

Those who leave college after a year or two often make residential changes. Most Americans coming of age cohabitate during their 20s. Residential changes occur when the cohabitation commences and when it ends.

Nearly 40 percent of emerging adults in their 20s move back with their parents for a temporary period, then move out again. Some of those coming of age go to a different country or a different part of the country in which they live to pursue adventure, accompany a romantic partner, or pursue work or education opportunities.

Age of Self-Focus

By and large, those coming of age are not self-centered or selfish. Research shows emerging adults are less egocentric than adolescents. They are better at understanding the point of view of others and are more considerate of their feelings.

While not self-centered, those coming of age are distinctly self-focused. They have few social obligations, commitments, or duties to others. They have new-found autonomy in running their lives. Self-focus is an enjoyable element of emerging adulthood.

Those coming of age are mindful that they have no one to answer to and have the freedom to do as they want with their lives before entering permanent or enduring adult obligatory roles. They know intuitively that there is a serious purpose for being self-focused, so they can competently and capably give of themselves later in life. 

These young people attempt to attain the self-sufficiency that they believe is the core of what it means to them to be an adult. After achieving self-sufficiency, they feel as though they reached adulthood. They begin to see themselves as ready to become other-focused and mature enough for marriage and parenthood.

This phase of maturation allows emerging adults to contemplate who they are and pursue education, work, and love opportunities that promote the knowledge of themselves. Few people want to be self-focused forever. It is a necessary step before committing to relationships with others in work and love.

Age of Feeling In-Between

Feeling in-between is the way emerging adults describe themselves developmentally. Children and adolescents live with their parents and abide by household routines and rules established by parents. Most people 30 and older have commitments to a long-term employer, spouse, and children.

Each of these relationships has daily obligations and requirements. For the most part, those who fall between adolescence and fully committed adults are free to make independent decisions. 

When asked if they feel like adults, common responses from 18 to 25-year olds include the words yes and no. Very few consider themselves adolescents. They graduated from high school, survived puberty, and most no longer live in their childhood home.

Most people in their late 20s or early 30s claim to be adults. Thirty percent still feel in-between. The ambiguity fades past age 35. For the majority of young people, the feeling of having reached full adulthood takes a long time.

The criteria for becoming an adult is not a transition event, such as graduating from school or getting married. The criteria most important to those coming of age gradually takes place. Through interviews and questionnaires conducted with a broad range of socioeconomic and ethnic status groups, research studies find the top criteria in reaching adulthood are:

● Accepting responsibility

● Becoming financially independent

● Making independent decisions

These are gradual, not transitional events. During the process, the emerging adult feels in-between full adulthood and adolescence.

Age of Possibility

This phase is a time of optimism. It represents a chance for young people to move away and steer lives in a favorable direction before making work and love commitments that structure adult life.

A national survey found 96 percent of 18 to 24-year-old Americans are confident of getting where they want to be in life. High hopes are cheap. No one expects to end up in a dead-end job or be part of the static that half of the marriages in America end in divorce.

Children reap the benefits when parents provide healthy conditions for development. Children, along with the parents, suffer the consequences when parents are dysfunctional. They grow up in a home where parents have trouble finding a decent job, a physical illness, a mental illness, a substance abuse problem, high marital conflict, or a bitter divorce.

The age of possibilities represents an opportunity to become free of an unhealthy environment and turn their lives in a better direction. Even those from relatively healthy and happy families attempt to transform themselves to establish an independent identity and make independent decisions as to the type of person they want to be and how they want to live.

Virtually all coming of age people enter long-term obligations in work and love. The new commitments set them on paths that are resistant to change. During emerging adulthood, young people carry family influences with them.

It places limits on what they become at the end of adolescence. Nevertheless, the age of possibilities is a time in which the fulfillment of hopes seems possible. During emerging adulthood, there is a lack of social control and strict norms for what to do with their lives.

Social norms and control set boundaries for acceptable behavior and punish behavior outside the boundaries. The broad limits of those coming of age allow expression based on individual preferences and tendencies. It is a volatile time in their lives. While there are common characteristics, there is diversity in almost any aspect of development.

Findings of Studies Conducted

Coming of age is a fascinating part of life. It is full of important decisions and changes that have profound implications on the course of one’s life. Until recently, coming of age received little attention. Psychologists believe achieving identity occurs only after exploring a wide variety of options (source). They suggest the following to find meaning:

Experiencing an identity moratorium is necessary to reach identity achievement (source). During this time, young adults should try out various career routes through informational interviews, online research, and internships before choosing the best fit.

They should also explore various philosophies and life paths without committing to one lifestyle or cause. Experiencing identity achievement provides an individual with a sense of uniqueness because they have constructed ideas that drive their beliefs and choices. It helps outline strengths and weaknesses and allows them to take a stand on issues as they choose a lifestyle, ideals, values, and a vocation.

Some parents balk at the possibility of their children developing lifestyles that seem to contradict theirs. It is of importance to allow young people to establish identities of their own. It is not unusual for emerging adults to directly challenge the careers, religion, and politics of their parents, only to embrace them as adults.

Child development studies find the emotional support children receive in the first 3½ years impacts their, romantic relationships, social life, and education 20 to 30 years later (source). 

Young children raised in a caring and supportive home environment tend to score higher on standardized tests and are more likely to earn higher degrees as adults. They also feel satisfied with romantic relationships and tend to get along well with peers.

 Coming of Age Based on Culture

The transition to adulthood is a significant step in everyone’s life. The age at which it occurs, what it means, and how people celebrate the rite of passage depends on where they live and the culture in which they grow up. Some are embarrassing and others amazing, but all deserve remembering.

The Jewish coming of age is a demonstration of commitment to faith and family and recognition as responsible for following the Jewish laws by young people 12 or 13. A Bar or Bat Mitzvah typically occurs to celebrate the young person’s accomplishment and hard work.

Hispanics in parts of South and Central America celebrate Quinceanera when young girls turn 15. At a Catholic mass, the girl solidifies her commitment to faith and family and renews her baptismal vows. A fiesta follows where family and friends dance and eat.

There are tribal rituals in which young boys demonstrate their readiness for manhood by enduring painful tasks. 

Sweet 16 is an American tradition. It marks the age young people can legally drive a car.

Final Thoughts

The age from 18 to the mid-20s is typically a time of instability and exploration. Young people find meaning and explore possible futures before making enduring commitments.

A quarter of the world’s population is currently categorized as emerging adults (source).  The transition is not smooth unless they have opportunities such as seeking employment skills or going to school. Parents and communities should invest in youth and help them unlock their potential to create a sustainable future for themselves while becoming contributing members to society.