When he was a professor at the University of Missouri, psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett began to wonder whether there wasn't something identifiably different about people in their twenties—if it wasn't in some ways a unique stage of life. The milestones in becoming an adult in modern society traditionally include completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child. The percentage of men and women who had passed all those milestones by age thirty decreased by almost half between 1960 and 2000. Arnett began his study in the college town of Columbia, Missouri, but then broadened it to include a widening sample of socioeconomic groups in New Orleans, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In her excellent article "What Is It About 20-somethings" (New York Times, August 18, 2010), Robin Marantz Henig notes that Arnett started a vigorous debate about recognizing this new stage of life, which he called "emerging adulthood."
The last time a phase of life was identified was about a century ago, with the recognition of adolescence as a distinct period in which people had their own very specific requirements for health, education and social services. In the 1970s, psychologist Erik Erikson divided adulthood into three stages—young (ages twenty to forty-five), middle (ages forty-five to sixty-five) and late. Erikson describes the struggle for intimacy as one of the traits of young people, but Arnett had a hunch that this challenge remains substantially more dominant in people in their twenties than in their forties. His [End Page 5] surveys showed that younger adults are also notable for focusing intently upon themselves, exploring identities, feeling in-between yet often having a strong "sense of possibilities." Although Arnett was doing his research during the Gen-X period of slackers, this positive sense of possibility seemed to be one of the distinct characteristics of emerging adulthood. It was counterbalanced, however, by the opposing tendency for young people to frequently suffer a sense of frustration, of uncertainty or of not quite belonging or understanding the rules. To Arnett, all these elements—the turbulence, the ambiguity, the tendency to float between strong emotions—seemed to be different enough to merit identifying another clearly defined life phase.
While there is disagreement about Arnett's new category of emerging adulthood, recent MRI brain research supports his ideas with evidence that the limbic system and prefrontal cortex continue to develop even past the midtwenties, affecting emotional and attention control as well as cognition.
Many of the stories and essays in this issue are about teenagers or young adults who are hacking their ways through the perils of moodiness, confusion and the paradoxical optimism of these phases. Patricia Bjorklund's essay "U.S. and Them, 1971" is a humorous recounting of growing up in a blue-collar family and pledging allegiance to the family's reactionary values at the time. Patricia's parents were leaders in the John Birch Society, and she became involved in the group, going to meetings and disseminating literature against "un-American" entities such as the United Nations. The essay is a droll personal tale of how the young can be pliant, participating in foolishness without being defined by it for life. John Hales's "Helpline," this year's Jeffrey E. Smith Prize winner in nonfiction, is a serious, contemplative view of the time when Hales was one of a group of young people who worked on a Salt Lake City crisis hotline. Often caught up in their conversations with suffering callers, disturbed by their proximity to potential tragedy and by doubts about the effectiveness of police and emergency personnel, this group of mostly college students coped through drugs, hanging out together and sex. Hales's memoir is a lyrical portrait of the powerful bonding of young people under common duress. In his author's note on the essay, Hales confesses that he had intended to write a nature essay and ended up producing, instead, a memoir about "early-twenties angst." Molly Schultz's essay "On Loneliness" is also about a young person in her twenties, trying to fit in and find love and connection as she transitions into adulthood. During...