Is “Emerging Adulthood” a new developmental stage?

Jeffery Arnett (2000) proposed a new development stage, “emerging adulthood” to better describe individuals aged 18+ who are not yet independent and don’t think of themselves as adults. Arnett proposed this term in place of “early adulthood” which is traditionally used to describe people 18-25 years old. Arnett argues that early adulthood is often an inappropriate classification because it implies that these individuals have achieve adulthood despite showing dramatically different characteristics (e.g. not ready for children, live with parents, etc.).

The primary argument against emerging adulthood as a stage of development claims that it is not universal. In defense of Arnett’s theory, Nelson et al. (2004) attempt to show that emerging adulthood may be present in other cultures, but conceptualized in different way. They examined emerging adulthood as a cultural construct by exploring Chinese student conceptualization of adulthood. The authors attempt to compare these conceptualizations to a mainstream United States student population in an attempt to show that emerging adulthood is a construct influenced by culture.

The major weakness of Nelson et al. (2004) lies in the method implemented. The authors compared US to Chinese students of the same age, however failed to gather evidence that the younger and older Chinese populations differ. It would have been more fruitful to compare discrepancies between two age groups within each cultural group. For example, the article suggests that some items suggest that Chinese students share attributes of U.S. emerging adults, the question “How certain are you about your religious/spiritual beliefs?” revealed that only 6.3% of students were certain in their belief system. The authors suggest that this may be an indication that Chinese students of this age are still exploring in a similar way to U.S. students. This claim is unwarranted, as a direct comparison between Chinese students and the older population (to examine the uniqueness of this phenomenon within the culture) was not conducted.

Future research should compare more within-culture differences to determine the presences of emerging adulthood in other cultures. Arnett makes the argument for emerging adulthood in the United States by performing  within-culture comparisons across ages and examining how they have changed over time. It is reasonable to believe that similar changes are occurring in other cultures; however, the indicators may be distinct as they are culturally sensitive. Cross-cultural methodology is challenging; the study of developmental constructs will require creative experimental design to establish meaningful and/or causal relationships.

Arnett, J.J. (2000). Emerging adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. American Psychologist, 55(5), 469-480. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.55.5.469

Nelson, J.L, Badger, S., & Wu, B. (2004). The influence of culture in emerging adulthood: Perspectives of Chinese college students. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 28, 26-3.


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