Emerging Adult versus Adult Status among College Students: Examination of Explanatory Variables

By Blinn-Pike, Lynn; Worthy, Sheri Lokken et al. | Adolescence, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview
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Emerging Adult versus Adult Status among College Students: Examination of Explanatory Variables

Blinn-Pike, Lynn, Worthy, Sheri Lokken, Jonkman, Jeffrey N., Smith, G. Rush, Adolescence


Arnett (2000) proposed that individuals between approximately 18 and 25 years of age are in between adolescence and adulthood. He referred to this stage as "conceptually, theoretically, and empirically" different from the other two and labeled it "emerging adulthood" (p. 463). Emerging adults are characterized by less stable financial situations, interpersonal relationships, living arrangements, cognitive and emotional development, and religious beliefs. In the study of the transition to adulthood, it is often assumed that 18- to 25-year-olds are a homogeneous group and are all emerging adults. Individuals in this age range who have attained adulthood have received less attention than emerging adults. Arnett (1997, 1998, 2001), Nelson (2003), and Nelson and Barry (2005) have reported that some in this age group do report that they are adults but their numbers are relatively small. According to Nelson and Barry (2005), those in this group who perceive themselves as adults are in the minority among their peers and represent a group that is worthy of further study. The first purpose of this study was to report how many undergraduate college students are classified as "emerging adults," "undecideds" or "adults." The second purpose was to determine how emerging adults and adults compare on background characteristics, risk-taking behaviors, sensation-seeking scores, and income.


Classification as Adult versus Emerging Adult

Nelson and Barry (2005) systematically compared college students who perceived themselves as adults with their peers who did not. They attempted to identify college students who perceived themselves as adults and to explore whether differences in adulthood criteria, achievement of those criteria, identity issues, risk-taking behaviors, and depression were based on perceived adult status. Nelson and Barry (2005) asked if the students thought that they had reached adulthood. The response choices were "yes," "no," and "in some respects yes and in some respects no." Findings from 232 college students' responses revealed that there was a small group of perceived adults (25%). When compared to their emerging adult peers, those who perceived themselves to be adults (a) did not differ on the adulthood criteria they used; (b) had a better sense of their overall identity, as well as what type of person they wanted as a romantic partner; (c) were less depressed; and (d) engaged in fewer risk behaviors (e.g., illegal drug use and drunk driving). The researchers reported that adults in this age range deserved more attention than has been given in previous research.

Ethnicity and Emerging Adulthood

Arnett (2003) found several differences in conceptions of the transition to adulthood among ethnic groups, African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans were more likely than Whites to think that a man or a woman should "become capable of supporting a family financially" in order to be considered an adult. Arnett reported that family obligations were valued more highly by American ethnic minority groups than by Whites. He also found that ethnic minority groups were more likely to assume collectivistic values than Whites by emphasizing consideration for others. For example, they may be more likely to avoid embarrassing or bringing trouble to the family or extended family unit by driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or having significant gambling debts.

Additionally, Arnett (2003) found differences between American ethnic minority groups (African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans) and Whites on values related to getting married, completing their education, and becoming employed full time. Ethnic minorities placed more value on achieving these "role transitions" than did Whites. However, the percentage of respondents finding these achievements important for adulthood was low across all groups. According to Arnett (2003), all three ethnic groups felt that independence was an important component of becoming a self-sufficient person or adult.

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