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Insights for 20-somethings

September 1, 2010

This article in the New York Times Magazine dissects the current (and changed) state of people in their 20s. The article contains many insights, but to me, two concepts stood out the most.

The emergence of emerging adulthood. The psychologist Erik Erikson classically divided adulthood into three stages: young (ages 20-45), middle (45-65), and late (the rest). This division was based on the particular challenges each group had to go through before moving on to the next stage.

But this view doesn’t hold in regards to the change that is going on in the world. The need to pursue further education to keep track in an information based economy, the relative lack of entry level jobs, the chances for creative entrepreneurship, all that has led to the emergence of a new stage, between the ages of 18 and 30, with a different set of challenges which the psychologist Jeffrey Arnett calls “emerging adulthood.”

This stage has its distinct psychological profile, one that involves identity exploration, instability, and “a sense of possibilities”; a sense that dreams are entirely possible. But with that comes uncertainty, a sense of not understanding the rules of the game.

“The demands of imminent independence can worsen mental-health problems or can create new ones for people who have managed up to that point to perform all the expected roles — son or daughter, boyfriend or girlfriend, student, teammate, friend — but get lost when schooling ends and expected roles disappear.”

As a personal example, the comfort of being in college, with well defined roles and expectations suddenly disappears once I finished college. There is suddenly emptiness, and there is a decision I have to make: What do I want to do in my life? The dreams I once had would clash with reality and the societal expectations of a college graduate. Some people may even subconsciously delay that decision by opting for further education, e.g. a Masters degree.

Now for the second concept, this whole thing can be caused by the fact that the brain keeps maturing well into the 20s, after it was previously thought that it stopped growing at puberty. By using MRI images, it was found that the most significant changes that occur in the minds of emerging adults happen in the cerebellum and prefrontal cortex, areas responsible for emotional control and higher order cognitive function. While during puberty, there is growth in the limbic system, the origin of emotion. Translation, in teenagers, emotions outweigh rationality (a fact you can readily notice) , but as they grow older, the regulating center catches up and takes control.

Another thing that happens is the “trimming” of neural synapses. By shutting down unused neural networks, the brain conforms to the structure that is most efficient for the user. It’s as if the brain creates tracks of the most used pathways, much like carriages in a field of dirt. This got me thinking about the way I use my brain and how I’m molding it the way I use it, I guess I should take more conscious choices regarding what my thoughts and patterns. Indeed, I will have to use it or lose it.

I guess one can take solace in the fact that he is not alone in what he’s going through; such problems are universal. This phase of life has now its own listing in the stages of human development, and like any other phase, it has a set of challenges to be completed before moving on to the next.


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  1. I don’t know, but for my part I have always had the feeling that I became “adult” much later than my parents – I finished my Bsc when I was 21 so it’s not the education… and I started working straight after that. But I don’t know I have never really felt responsible enough to consider myself adult – if that makes sense? I don’t know if it’s the education that has changed – but my parents have always been very old fashinoned… Now that I am a mum, I feel responsible, obviously, but do I feel adult? I don’t know… Maybe I just don’t want to!… For the brain part, hm – I certainly know that it mutated when I was pregnant and I lost most of it on the way lol

  2. Yeah, I guess the older generations were thrown out in the wild regarding responsibility and making money so they had no choice, but for us the situation is different, we have to gradually assume responsibility, and are expected to make “better” choices than our parents did…

  3. Why I am not surprised! 6 months earlier I read somewhere that unlike the conventional wisdom in this regard, scientist come with their magnum opus in their late 30’s =) may be it has to do with experience, but one can not deny that we keep changing even when we are hitting our 20’s!

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