The Rise Of Emerging Adulthood

Kara Powell | Nov 9, 2010

Last week I had the chance to be a plenary session at the Princeton Emerging Adults Conference. What are emerging adults? Folks ages 18-29 who according to Dr. Jeffrey Arnett (who first coined the term) are marked by identity exploration, a feeling of being “in between,” instability, self-focus, and a sense of possibility.

The other plenary speaker was Dr. Christian Smith from Notre Dame. In Chris’ first session, he summarized some of the findings in the book he-coauthored called “Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults” by listing a handful of sociological factors involved in “The Rise of Emerging Adulthood”. Or as he put it, “The social forces that put off becoming a ‘real adult’”.

  1. Expansion of higher education in latter 20th Century.
  2. Delayed age of first marriage and childbirth.
  3. Macro-economic changes requiring flexibility and mobility.
  4. Substantial parental support well into the 20s.
  5. The pill and other accessible contraceptives.
  6. Cultural saturation of mass-consumer entertainment.
  7. Influence of postmodern relativism and skepticism.

While not one of the factors he listed, Chris mentioned an additional factor that I tend to think is one of the most important sociological factors that has contributed to this newly identified phase of life: lack of support. In my conversations with leaders of emerging adults who were gathered at Princeton, as well as our Sticky Faith/College Transition Project research, that consistently emerges as a dominant and fairly unique aspect of young adults today. Their relationships today leave them overstimulated and undersupported.

Kara Powell

Dr. Kara Powell is the Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Fuller's Chief of Leadership Formation. Named by Christianity Today as one of “50 Women You Should Know,” Kara serves as a Youth and Family Strategist for Orange, and also speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara is the author or coauthor of a number of books, including Growing Young, Growing With, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family, Sticky Faith Curriculum, Can I Ask That?, Deep Justice Journeys, Deep Justice in a Broken World, Deep Ministry in a Shallow World, and the Good Sex Youth Ministry Curriculum. Kara lives with her husband Dave and their three children, Nathan, Krista, and Jessica, in Southern California.


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