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Emerging AdulthoodThe Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties$

Jeffrey Jensen Arnett

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780195309379

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2007

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195309379.001.0001

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The Age of Possibilities

The Age of Possibilities

Four Case Studies

(p.189) 9 The Age of Possibilities
Emerging Adulthood

Jeffrey Jensen Arnett

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter highlights emerging adulthood as an age of possibilities by profiling four young people who have overcome difficult experiences to transform their lives. The lives of these adults raise doubts on the theory that our early years permanently decide the path we will follow in the future. All of the emerging adults studied experienced terrible events or circumstances in childhood, all of them had lives that were in disarray by the time they reached adolescence, and all of them transformed themselves in emerging adulthood and turned their lives in a dramatically different direction, toward health and happiness. Their lives suggest that whatever may have happened from infancy through adolescence, emerging adulthood represents an opportunity — maybe a last opportunity — to turn one's life around.

Keywords:   emerging adulthood, emerging adults, adult behavior, hope, resilience, life experiences, childhood

IS EMERGING ADULTHOOD ONLY FOR the privileged? Being an emerging adult means exploring different possibilities in love and work before settling on long-term choices, and it is true that coming from a family with substantial resources might make it easier in some ways to extend your period of exploration. With regard to work, certainly, if your parents can give you financial support through college and maybe even graduate school, you have more of an opportunity to explore possible careers than someone who feels compelled to go to work full time after high school just to pay the bills, instead of going to college.

But this is only part of the story. In another sense, reaching emerging adulthood is even more important and more promising for someone from a difficult background than for someone from a privileged background. Children and adolescents are at the mercy of their parents, for better or worse. If their parents are well-off financially, happily married, and loving toward their children, the children benefit from those advantages. But if their parents fight often, are physically abusive, go through a bitter divorce, are alcoholics, or are mentally ill—just a few of the problems exhibited by the parents of emerging adults we interviewed—then the children inevitably suffer from the kind of family environment that the parents' problems create. They cannot escape; there is nowhere else for them to go.

In emerging adulthood, however, this changes. Now they are capable of leaving home and living on their own. Their parents' problems need no longer be their problems, too. When they reach emerging adulthood, they have a chance to transform their lives and set out on a different path from their parents. This is one of the most important features of emerging adulthood, that it represents a possibility for people from difficult backgrounds (p.190) to transform their lives. Emerging adulthood is arguably the period of the life course when the possibility for dramatic change is greatest. Children and adolescents are too limited in what they can do on their own to have much opportunity for changing the direction of their lives. After emerging adulthood, once people make enduring choices in love and work and take on long-term obligations, especially the obligation of caring for a child, it becomes more difficult to change course. Emerging adulthood is the freest, most independent period of life for most people. For people who are unhappy, who feel their lives are headed in the wrong direction, who desire to make a dramatic change for the better, emerging adulthood is the time to do it.

But isn't it too late by then? If a person grows up in an unhealthy family environment, isn't that environment unfortunately but indelibly stamped on their personalities, for the rest of their lives? This is the view that has long been dominant in Western thought. “The child is father to the man,” the poet William Wordsworth famously declared some two centuries ago. At the dawn of psychology a century ago, Freud declared that the personality, and therefore one's fate in life, is more or less fixed by age six. Even today, there is more research on infancy and early childhood than on the rest of the life course combined, indicating that the belief still reigns that it is in the early years of life that our fate is determined once and for all.

Clearly many people believe this, scholars and nonscholars alike. But maybe this claim is exaggerated. Even if it is generally true, even if there is a correlation between childhood experiences and later development, there may be many people for whom this does not apply. And the proportion of people for whom it does not apply may grow sharply in emerging adulthood, the age of possibilities, as people gain greater freedom to run their own lives.

In this chapter, we look at four emerging adults whose lives raise doubts that our early years permanently decide the path we will follow in the future. All of them experienced terrible events or circumstances in childhood, all of them had lives that were in disarray by adolescence, and all of them transformed themselves in emerging adulthood and turned their lives in a dramatically different direction, toward health and happiness. Their lives suggest that whatever may have happened from infancy through adolescence, emerging adulthood represents an opportunity—maybe a last opportunity—to turn one's life around.

(p.191) Jeremy: “I'm Equipped to Make Better Judgments”

Jeremy, 25, was an imposing physical presence, six feet tall with a muscular build and a thick, strong neck. He had light reddish-blond hair and a beard to match, about one week's growth, neatly trimmed. We met at his sparsely furnished apartment near my office at the University of Missouri on a weekend afternoon, and he was dressed for leisure: black jeans and a T-shirt with a map of Australia on it. His warm smile made the big man seem gentle despite his size.

Hearing about his childhood, it was surprising that he smiled at all by now. From infancy through adolescence, his life was tumultuous and painful. His parents had divorced, remarried each other, then divorced again by the time he was three. Shortly after they divorced the second time, his mother married again, a different man this time. While she was at work, his stepfather “threw me in the closet as soon as she'd leave for the day.”

That marriage lasted only a year, and then he and his mother were on their own for a few years. He remembers that period as “probably the happiest time of my life,” even though his mother “had to leave me alone a lot because she couldn't afford baby-sitters.” What made it happy was that they “always got along. My mom was always more like my big sister than my mom.”

However, by the time he was eight his mother had married again, and his second stepfather was even more abusive than the first. “He'd come in and beat on me while she was in the bathtub or when she left. He'd hide it from her.” His mother and stepfather quarreled often, and the worst beatings took place when he tried to intervene to protect his mother. “They were fighting all the time, and I couldn't handle it. I couldn't ever help my mom, and I felt frustrated and helpless there. I'd go in and yell at him, and I'd get sent to my room. And then she'd leave, and he'd come beat the hell out of me for interrupting.”

This was the beginning of “the whole cycle, where I went from one abuse to the next.” At age 11, he moved to Arizona to live with his father and stepmother, but there he fought constantly with his stepmother. He “hung out with a bad crowd” of kids who “kind of accepted me when my parents didn't.” The younger boys in the gang went “back and forth with backpacks full of drugs” for the older boys, who paid them in pizza and video games. He got in fights and “got beat up real bad once.” He had altercations with the police, and spent time in a juvenile jail.

(p.192) Jeremy's father and stepmother got fed up and sent him back to his mother and stepfather, but they did not want him either, and he went to live with his grandparents for a while. They were Jehovah's Witnesses, and they set about “trying to take control of me and make me a Jehovah's Witness, which I didn't want to do.” Suspicious of outsiders, they would not let him have friends over, and he spent a lot of time alone. “It was hard enough to make friends, moving here from Arizona, but not being able to ever have anybody over made it harder.” He tried moving in with his mother and stepfather again, but the old pattern of conflict soon reemerged. Finally, all his other options exhausted, he moved out on his own. He was 15 years old.

How could Jeremy live on his own at age 15? His mother and stepfather were willing to pay the rent on his apartment to get rid of him, and he got a job to supply himself with food and other necessities. Not surprisingly, his school work “kind of took a back burner” to his job and the responsibilities of daily life on his own. With no parents around to keep an eye on him, throughout high school he got drunk often, smoked pot often, “just a lot of wild things.” He lived for the moment and gave little thought to the future. “When I was in high school, I didn't really think I'd make it to this age. I didn't really think about where I wanted to go or what I was going to do.”

To look at Jeremy's life as he entered emerging adulthood, you would have thought it was unpromising, to say the least. As he puts it, “Everybody says I should be some kind of a mass murderer or something after all the things I've gone through.” The physical abuse, the bitter divorce of his parents, the hostility from his stepparents, the experience of being “bounced around” from one household to the next, the substance abuse, the school problems, the gang involvement—any one of these experiences might have predicted a troubled future, and in combination, you would think his fate was sealed.

Yet here he is at age 25, engaged to be married, attending college full time while working 20–30 hours a week, no longer a substance abuser, seemingly at peace with himself and the world, an all-around good guy. What was it about his experiences in emerging adulthood that enabled him to overcome the influences of his childhood?

Meeting his fiancée three years ago was a big turning point. Their relationship “pushed me in a totally different direction than where I was headed.” He calls her “my best friend” and says, “She meets every requirement I could ever have in a friend. I feel like I can trust her. We just click (p.193) and get along.” Research on criminals has indicated that a solid love relationship is one of the strongest influences against future crime,1 and Jeremy'sstory suggests that maybe it works in a similar way for noncriminals who also have a troubled past. Love gives people something to live for, a compelling reason to plan for the future and stay out of trouble, and structures daily life in a way that makes opportunities for deviance less likely.

But the change in Jeremy's life is perhaps due even more to simply reaching emerging adulthood, because it meant gaining a new maturity in his understanding of his life. To Jeremy, becoming an adult entailed learning how to handle whatever life throws at him.

There's a lot of things that people say makes you an adult that I don't agree with, because I was doing those things when I was 16 or 17, and I was definitely not an adult then. Once you know how to handle most things that come your way and nothing really throws you for a loop and you don't get upset every time something goes wrong, I think that's one of the first steps toward being an adult.

This new maturity in his thinking has enabled him to see the potential benefits of his past trials. “Hopefully, with what I've got behind me and the experiences I've had, I'm equipped to make better judgments to push my life in a better direction.” He believes that coming through such difficult times has made him stronger and more resilient. “There's a lot of bad things that have happened in my life, and I just kind of feel like, anymore, they kind of roll off.”

It is not only that he has become better equipped to handle what others might do to him. He also takes a share of responsibility for the troubles he has had in the past, and he has tried to change how he treats others. “I take a lot more care to think about other people and think about how my actions are going to affect them, where before I was more interested in what I could get for myself. I've just become a lot less self-centered.”

As a consequence of these changes in himself, the changes in Jeremy's life have been profound. For several years out of high school, he worked in semiskilled manual labor for a company that did flood and fire restoration. At the time, he was happy enough to make some money and did not think much in terms of a long-term plan, but by his early twenties he started thinking about what his life would be like 10, 20, 30 years down the road, and he realized he wanted to do something other than manual labor. So he entered college at age 23 to pursue a business degree, and he has stuck with (p.194) it and maintained “a straight B average,” something that he does not think he would have been capable of doing when he was younger. “Before, it was difficult for me to put any energy in anything that I didn't get a paycheck out of. If I didn't get something immediately back for it, I didn't want to put the effort into it. I couldn't look far enough ahead. I wanted instant gratification.” Now, however, “I just kind of feel that I can see a goal. I'm much more prepared.”

A profound change has also taken place in his relationships with his parents and stepparents. “I get along fairly well with my stepmother and my stepfather now. Let bygones be bygones, you know, and I've let them go. And I've really grown to like my mom and dad. Moving out helped. And time's helped. Time's helped a lot of things. Everybody's grown up.”

Nicole: “I Needed to Experience Freedom”

Nicole, 25, met me for our interview at an outdoor café in Berkeley, California. She came straight from her job as a receptionist and medical assistant at a dermatology center, and she was dressed very professionally: a nice lavender dress and a silver necklace with matching earrings. An African American woman, her skin was very dark, and she had long, straight black hair. She was a small woman, but she had a large, expressive mouth.

To look at her, so polished and professional, and to listen to her, so thoughtful, articulate, and ambitious, you would never have guessed that she grew up in dreadful circumstances in what she called “the ghetto,” the housing projects of Oakland, with no father and a poor, mentally ill, entirely incompetent mother. Nicole was just six years old when her mother had “her nervous breakdown.” The functioning of the household was already shaky, but after her mother's collapse it totally disintegrated into disorganization and chaos. Nicole remembers “days, sometimes even weeks” when the only meal she got was the free lunch for poor kids at school.

It was Nicole, her mother's oldest of four children by three fathers, who took over and pulled the household together—at age six. “I became the mother. I had to be the strong one. It was never something that was put upon me. It was just, I saw it had to be done.” She made sure her brothers and sister got washed, dressed, and fed each day. She cleaned the house and kept it in order. By the age of eight, she was working in order to make money that would enable her to buy food and other essentials for the household. (p.195)

I swept stores, I baby-sat. I did whatever I could, because otherwise we went without. At like eight years old, I had neighbors who were like, “Oh, Nicole, can you watch my kid?” Everybody thought, “Well, she's older than her age. She can handle this.” And I could. I made a couple bucks and helped my mother out, helped my family out.

Still, the help she gave to her family came at a personal cost to her. Because she was so consumed with family responsibilities, she rarely had time or energy left over for school work, and through high school her grades were low. She graduated from high school, but she was never regarded as a promising student, the kind who might go on to college or even get a graduate degree.

It was only when she reached emerging adulthood that she was able to turn her attention to her personal goals. She got a full-time job, found an apartment, and moved out on her own. Soon, she started taking college courses in the evening. Despite having a full-time job in addition to taking courses, she got excellent grades. Removing herself from the chaos of her family household was the key.

I needed to experience freedom. I needed to experience living out of my mother's home in order to study. I couldn't really get my studying skills down pat until I moved out, and when I moved, I'm like, gosh, I always knew I could excel in school. In order for me to go to school and function properly, I need to be on my own.

Because she works full time and can only take evening courses, her progress toward a degree has been slow, but she is undaunted. “I'm going to get my degree, however long it takes.” She is within one course of an associate's degree, but that is just the beginning of her educational ambitions. She plans to get a bachelor's degree next, and eventually a Ph.D. in psychology. Talking about getting a Ph.D. sent her into rapture. “Ooooh, I love the word. I want to have it in 10 years, by 35. That's feasible.”

Still, she tries not to look too far ahead.

I'm just trying to get through the day-to-day. If I focus so long-term, I'll like get crazy. I'm so hard on myself. I really set unrealistic goals at times. So now I'm just like, OK, take it one step at a time. Look ahead, but just for five seconds. You know, “your future's still there.” It's like, “I'm just checking on you, Future.” And then move on.

(p.196) Her goal of getting a Ph.D. and becoming a clinical psychologist is inspired partly by her childhood experiences and partly by her interpretation of her mother's condition. Because of her own experiences, she plans to work with “so-called dysfunctional children and kids from broken homes.” She hopes to help children avoid the problems that plague her mother.

As a young child, I remember my mother working and just this beautiful woman. Then she had a nervous breakdown, and she went kind of crazy. She stopped working, she got on AFDC [Aid for Families With Dependent Children]. So that's something very important to me, to be constantly building a person's self-esteem and getting in touch with themselves and just accepting life, you know, no matter what happens to you. Just deal with it and move to the next level.

She talks about working with girls, in particular. “I'd like to have like a consultation agency, kind of like a wellness group—bring young girls in, talk to them about self-esteem and problems they were having at home.”

Nicole is so focused on work and school that love has been moved to the back burner for now. “Right now, I'm not really focusing too much on guys,” she said. “I don't have time. Most of the time, guys I meet, they're like time wasters or time thieves. So I'm just not into the whole dating scene right now.” She realizes her reluctance to get involved with a man makes her different than most of the women she grew up with. “I see my friends, and they're like, ‘Well, don't you want to get married? Don't you want children?’ I mean, by this time, 25, I'm an old maid, I'm over the hill. I might as well be 50. You know, by this time I should have two kids by two daddies. But I'm not ready right now. I can wait.”

She prefers to focus on her own goals and her own identity at this point in her life. Like many emerging adults, she feels that only after she has a fully formed identity and has learned to stand on her own will she be ready to commit herself to someone else.2 She believes she needs to be self-focused during this time in order to succeed. “I'm just trying to focus on me and get my life together. Right now, I guess this is kind of like a selfish time for me. I'm just really trying to get into myself so that when I come out of that, I can deal with someone else. Right now, I just gotta keep the tunnel vision.”

After so many years of being devoted to the needs of her mother and her siblings, she relishes the opportunity for her identity explorations and regards them as an exciting adventure. (p.197)

Every day that I wake up, I learn something new about myself. Learning about yourself is a really emotional thing because it's like you wake up one day and you think you're living the way you want to live, and then the next day you get up and it's like, “Wait a minute, I'm doing everything wrong. I don't know who I am.” And you have to be willing to take that step forward and say, OK, I'm going to get to know myself no matter if it's painful or if it's going to make me happy. I have to dig deep within myself and figure out who I am. And this is a learning process every day.

Nicole's optimism in the face of difficulties, her ability to see the potential benefits of even the most dire circumstances, is perhaps the most striking feature of her personality, and it is this ability that is at the heart of her resilience.3 She calls her childhood of growing up with a deficit of resources and an overload of responsibility “a big learning experience. I don't think I regret it because had I not gone through it, I wouldn't be the person I am today.” She believes the deprivations of her childhood have made her more appreciative of the things she has now. “It's like a blessing. If I see somebody on the street who's dirty and smelly, I think, gosh, at least I have some place to sleep. I mean, it always could be worse. Had I not experienced that, maybe I wouldn't think that way.”

Similarly, she sees no reason to regret her delay in going to college and the slow progress she has made so far. “I don't think everyone is set to go to college as soon as they get out of high school. Some people have life experiences that they need to get, and that's something I needed to do.” Shesees her current job in the same optimistic light. Although she does not find much satisfaction in the work she does as a receptionist and medical assistant, seeing it as a step on the way to something better makes it less onerous now. “I just look at it all as temporary because I know what I want to do in the future.”

Although Nicole is enjoying her emerging adulthood as a long-awaited chance to focus on her own goals and her own life, she still has a strong sense of duty and obligation to her family. I asked her if she had thought about working fewer hours in order to take more college courses. “The only thing is I would worry about my family because right now I think of them,” she said. “That's one thing I still battle daily is like if I should just waitress or do something part time and go to school full time and just worry less about my family, supporting them. I just feel like I gotta take care of them.”

(p.198) Her ambitions are driven in part by the dream of taking her mother's worries away so that she might finally recover from her psychological problems.

That's why it's so important for me to be really successful and make a lot of money, so I can buy my mother a house and put her in a situation where she doesn't have to worry about the bills. She doesn't have to worry about her clothes. She doesn't have to worry about having food. It will all be there. It's like, “now you've got everything—move on.”

If only she could bestow on her mother some of her own steely determination. “I just wish I could give her that strength to say, ‘I'm gonna take care of me. I'm gonna make a choice. I'm gonna do something with my life.’ It's never too late.” As for Nicole, in spite of a childhood full of adversity, in emerging adulthood her hopes are high, her optimism undiminished. “It's like, the more you come at me, the stronger I'm going to be.”

Bridget: “Now I Answer to Myself ”

Bridget, 23, arrived at my University of Missouri office one evening directly from her job as a supervisor at a temporary employment agency. She was sharply dressed in a green turtleneck, green plaid jacket, and blue skirt, and her shoulder-length blonde hair was nicely groomed.

“It wasn't a terribly happy childhood,” she said of her first 18 years, and as she described her family life that sounded like an understatement. Physical abuse, emotional abuse, alcoholism, bitter conflict, estrangement—“My family is the role model for the dysfunctional family,” she said. Her mother claims, “I caused her 18 years of unhappiness” just for being born, because the pregnancy forced her parents into a loveless marriage. Throughout her childhood her mother told her, “I would never have married him if it hadn't been for you.” Needless to say, her parents' marriage was no garden of delights. “They fought like crazy,” Bridget recalls. “It was very physically abusive. He hit her a lot. She has an alcohol problem. And he would come home from work sometimes and just beat the holy living crap out of her. He had the anger problem, and she had the alcohol problem.”

When her parents were not abusing each other, they abused Bridget and her younger sister. “Mom was good at verbal abuse, and Dad was good at the physical. Of course, the verbal was worse.” Bridget's mind still resonates (p.199) with all the nasty things her mother told her as she was growing up. “You're ugly. You're fat. You'll never have any friends. You're stupid.”

It is true she never had any friends as a child, mainly because her mother was so abusive to any kids who came around.

I never really had neighborhood friends because my mom would always find fault with their families or find fault with them. She made it very difficult for me to have friends as a child. Very difficult. Because she didn't get along with the parents. She was jealous of everyone. Anyone who was thinner than her, prettier than her, had hair that was nicer than hers, had a car that was nicer than hers.

How did Bridget emerge from this nightmare to become the happy, healthy young woman she is today? One key was the development of her religious faith.4 She had little exposure to religious training as a child. “My parents were atheists. They didn't believe in God.” However, when she reached high school she became involved in a religious organization almost accidentally, and something about it resonated with her.

I started going to church when I was a sophomore in high school, because I dated a boy that I had a really big crush on, and when he broke up with me I was devastated and I was like, “I'll just go to his church, and that way we'll have something in common.” So I started going, and I thought, “My gosh, I like this. I like these people.” And so by a year later, I was saved. Definitely, that was something that influenced my life.

Her church was a refuge for her during her otherwise painful high school years.

I wonder now what my life would have been like had I not had this positive influence. All throughout high school, because of that church group I was always around happy people, people that had fun with their lives, people that really enjoyed living. And out of all this gloom that I had in my home life, I could always escape to my friends, and I'll always be grateful for that.

She continues to attend the same church, and she remains close to many of the people there, and grateful to them. “I am so close to some families at church that just really helped me out. They give this unconditional love. (p.200) That's something I still don't understand, how people that barely knew me could give me unconditional love because of Jesus, so much more than my own parents. That just didn't make sense, and it still doesn't and it never will.”

Bridget's faith kept her afloat during high school, but the real turning point in her life came in emerging adulthood. Becoming an emerging adult made it possible for her to remove herself from her toxic family household. “It's always been bad, and now it's just not there, which I guess is good. I feel more peaceful. I don't have to deal with it on a daily basis. I don't have to worry about whether they would yell at me about something. Now I answer to myself.” Once she had moved out, it was easier to avoid their destructive influence. “I tried not to be around them a lot, not spending a lot of time at home, going away to college, getting away for a complete year in Sweden, where I had to do it or die.”

Her college year in Sweden was a watershed, “a huge turn of events,” Bridget says. It was there that she realized that she no longer needed to rely on her family, that she could stand alone as a self-sufficient person—that, really, she had no other choice. “I got to Sweden and I called to try to talk to them, and they wouldn't accept my calls. So I think that when I was thousands of miles away from home in a strange country not knowing what I'm going to do when I get back, I knew that kind of thrust me into adulthood, whether I wanted to or not.” It was then that she accepted responsibility for her life, it was then that she realized “that I had to be accountable for my actions, and that I am my own person and that what I do is going to directly affect my entire life.”

In emerging adulthood, not only has Bridget separated herself from destructive family influences, but she has also reinterpreted her past family experiences, so that she sees her suffering as something that has built her up rather than torn her down. “There's been a lot of pain and a lot of hurt, but I've really grown from it,” she says. She sees her experiences, even the bad ones, as an essential part of her identity. “It's made me the person who I am today,” she says. “It all happens for a reason.”

Coming back from Sweden, she knew she faced a challenge, being entirely on her own, but she accepted it with relish. “I could have, when I came back, worked at Wal-Mart for the rest of my life because, you know, I'd had the hard breaks or whatever.” Instead, she finished her college degree, paid for with her own hard work, and laid the foundation for a promising future. “I'm very proud of what I've done and how I got there,” she says. “I've worked my ass off to get where I am.”

(p.201) One of Bridget's definite dreams is to have a husband and children. Witnessing her parents' awful relationship has made her cautious about marriage, but not cynical. “I love the idea of falling in love and being with one person, and having someone to share your life with. I think I'd be ready for that if I found the right person. But I'm not going to rush it. I'm not going to settle for anything less than I deserve.” She envisions providing her own children with a family environment much different than her own: “A real loving household. Open communication. No violence. I will never strike a child.” Her resilience despite horrendous family conditions makes her optimistic about how her own children might fare in the world.

Something that I've noticed around people my age is that they're very cynical about “well, I'm not going to have kids because I don't want to bring them up in a world like this.” I don't really have that view because I look at myself growing up in a very bigoted household—prejudiced, backwards, any other negative term you could use—and I got out of it. So I have hope

She also has career ambitions, although they are not clearly defined at this point. “I do want a career in something like human relations,” she says, but shortly after she adds, “I would really like to teach high school. I think I would be a good teacher.” She also remains open to new possibilities. “Tonight if someone called and said, ‘You have an opportunity to go to Eastern Europe to teach English as a second language, would you do it?’ I'd say, ‘Yeah, when does my flight leave?’”

Although Bridget's life right now is uncertain, one thing she is certain about is that the future is bright. “I look at what's happened in the last 2 years of my life, and it's changed so much that I can't possibly see what's going to happen in 10 years. It'll be pretty exciting, I'm sure.”

Derek: “I Feel I've Been Very Fortunate”

Derek was 28 years old, but he had the look of someone in no hurry to reach adulthood. He was African American, but he had dyed his hair blonde, which made for a striking contrast to his coffee-colored skin. He had silver studs in his chin and his tongue. His tan felt beret was on backward, and he wore a striped T-shirt and light pants. In short, he looked much more like he was in the role of his part-time job, as a DJ in a San Francisco nightclub, than of his full-time job, as a server in a restaurant.

(p.202) His family history was so chaotic and tragic that if it were fiction it would be rejected as unbelievable. He was given up for adoption at birth, and after five months in a foster home he was adopted by a White, affluent New England family. But his adoptive father was an alcoholic, and when Derek was three years old his parents divorced, an event he calls “a catastrophe.” Then, when he was five years old, his mother died in a car accident, along with a sister and an aunt. Derek was in the car, too, and he remembers that the accident seemed to happen in “slow motion, and it was basically loud and confusing.”

Derek and his remaining two sisters and brother went to live with his father, but his father's alcoholism had worsened since the divorce, and he was in the midst of a downward spiral, in no condition to raise four children. “He started drinking more and spending his money and getting really extravagant,” Derek recalled. He was soon forced to sell his share of the advertising agency that had made his fortune, and the downward spiral continued as “he gambled, sold his cars, hit rock bottom.” Derek and his siblings were dispersed to other family members, and Derek was passed to an aunt and uncle, then to his grandparents, then to a boarding school for three years (from age 11 to 14), then to “a 60-acre organic commune” for a half year, then to another aunt and uncle through high school. His father did eventually stop drinking, when Derek was in fifth grade, but “the rest of his life was spent trying to recover, physically and financially,” and Derek never lived with him again. He died the year after Derek graduated from high school, from years of too much alcohol and cigarettes.

As an African American growing up in “90% White” areas of New England, Derek had substantial experience with what he calls “the brutality of childhood.” During recess at school, the other kids played a game they called “Chase the Nigger,” starring Derek. After school he ran all the way home, trying to avoid kids who were hoping to beat him up and who sometimes succeeded.

By high school, Derek was filled with anxiety. “I was in a constant panic. I was depressed a lot. I didn't think about the future.” His anxieties were projected outward in the form of fear of nuclear war.

I had a very nihilistic attitude toward the world, and I thought it was going to end from a nuclear war. I was mortified and petrified by the whole prospect of nuclear war. If I looked up in the sky and I saw a trail from a jet, I was worried that it was a missile. Any incident that was reported in (p.203) the New York Times would panic me, like the Persian Gulf War and terrorism, the whole Soviet empire—anything would stimulate that fear.

In Derek's case, this seems like a projection of his personal anxieties rather than a politically informed concern, because he was not politically involved nor interested in world affairs except for this one issue. He was extremely anxious about sexual issues as well. “I was a virgin until I was 20, and I was scared of women because, like, the only thing worse than nuclear war would be losing my virginity.”

How did he change from an adolescent wracked with anxieties to an emerging adult who is happy, confident, content with himself and his life, and hopeful about the future? For Derek, once he became an emerging adult, he was more in control of his life. He was no longer simply moved around from one place to another by other people. Perhaps for this reason, his anxieties about nuclear war eased soon after high school. “It just finally came to the point where I just had to let go of fearing war,” he recalls. It also helped ease his anxieties when, early in emerging adulthood, he had an intimate relationship with a woman for the first time, and sex no longer seemed more terrible than a nuclear holocaust. “My first girlfriend, I went out with her for two years, and we lived together and it was fun. The timing was right.”

For Derek, it has been important to have emerging adulthood as a selffocused time to recover from the upheavals of his childhood and get his psychological house in order.

In the last year or two, I've focused more on myself for the first time, where before, as a child, I was afraid to be alone. I was afraid to be with people, but I was scared to be alone. Then I started to communicate with people, but I was still completely petrified of being alone. Now, I'm comfortable being alone and being with people, and I don't have to be with as many people as I used to.

Although he is 28 years old, an age when most others have left emerging adulthood for the long-term commitments of young adulthood, Derek remains unsettled at this point in both love and work. He does have many female friends. “I have a strong base of female intimate friends that I've known for 5 to 10 years,” he says. And he now feels ready to find someone to commit himself to. “Lately, I've had ideas of marriage and engagement and long-term relationships. And I've just recently met a woman who has just broke off an engagement with somebody, so there's the potential for a (p.204) relationship right there.” As for work, he realizes that his jobs as a server and a DJ do not hold much potential as long-term careers. But his experience in his last restaurant job involved him in all aspects of the business, and he thinks of owning and running a restaurant or café as something he might want to do. Still, these dreams are amorphous right now, and he realizes that he is reaching a point in his life where it is time to focus his efforts. “I'm starting to feel like it's really time to explore my potentials.”

Derek's success in prevailing over his difficult childhood and adolescence is reflected not so much in definite accomplishments in love and work as in the kind of person he is. Despite being subjected to frequent upheavals as he was growing up, in emerging adulthood he has developed a strong sense of himself. “As I get older, I have learned not to sell myself so short. That's one thing about growing older, [you] take more pride in who you are and don't feel that you're not valuable. That crosses over into relationships. That crosses into living situations.” Despite being subjected to prejudice, he holds no grudges toward people of other ethnic groups. “My friends are so many different ethnicities and races and creeds that I forget what they are, as well as what I am. They're just my friends with a capital F. There are no hyphen-friends in my life.” Despite suffering more chaos and tragedy by age 28 than most people suffer in a lifetime, he sees the good that has come out of his past experiences. “I've had a good life. I don't feel that a lot of people have wronged me. For every like 50% tragedy, there's been like 150% support. I feel I've been very fortunate.”

Conclusion: Emerging Adulthood as a Second Chance

What is it that makes it possible for a person to transcend adverse family circumstances in childhood and adolescence and nevertheless become healthy and hopeful in emerging adulthood? Research on resilience has identified a number of factors that are echoed in the lives of the four emerging adults profiled in this chapter.5 It helps to be intelligent, and a fierce intelligence is evident in Nicole and Bridget, who have succeeded academically in spite of numerous obstacles. It helps to have a loving relationship with at least one parent, as Jeremy did with his mother, or with an adult outside the family, as Bridget had. Religious faith can be a source of strength and hope, as it was for Bridget. Personality characteristics such as persistence, determination, and optimism can be invaluable, and for all four emerging adults described here, it is striking how they were able to interpret terrible experiences in positive (p.205) ways. No matter what they suffered, they managed to see their experiences favorably and feel “very fortunate,” as Derek put it. They have managed to construct a healthy identity, and they accept even their worst experiences as necessary to make them into what they have become.

But in addition to these characteristics, which have been known for some time to be related to resilience among children and adolescents, there is something about reaching emerging adulthood that opens up new possibilities for transformation for people who have had more than their share of adversity during their early years. Perhaps most important, reaching emerging adulthood makes it possible to leave a pathological family situation. This is not an option readily available to children and adolescents. They do not have the skills and resources to leave a destructive home and go off on their own. Those who try often move from the frying pan into the fire, as the case of Jeremy illustrates.

In contrast, for emerging adults, leaving home is normal and expected, and most of them are quite capable of living on their own. For emerging adults whose family lives have been damaging them and undermining them for years, simply leaving that environment represents a great liberation, a chance to wipe the slate clean and start anew. Now, instead of being subjected daily to the slings and arrows of an unhappy family life, their lives become their own.

In addition to the effect of moving out on their own, there is another change that is more subtle but may be equally important in making it possible for emerging adults to transform their lives. It is their growing selfknowledge and self-understanding, the gradual clarification of their identities. Gene Bockneck calls this their sens de pouvoir, meaning a sense of one's own capabilities, experienced as a feeling of inner power.6 As they move away from the noise and confusion of adolescence, they become more capable of appreciating the power they have to change what they don't like about their lives. It is this that enables emerging adults to step back and assess their lives and to decide “this is why it is not working, and this is what Ineed to do to make it better.”

Even when emerging adults' lives change for the better, this does not mean that none of the effects of the previous 18 years of their lives will remain with them, and it does not mean that the transformation of their lives once they move out will be easy and immediate. As we have seen, for all of the emerging adults described in this chapter, it has taken them years in emerging adulthood to gain solid footing after being buffeted around so much in their youth. But once they reach emerging adulthood, it is possible (p.206) for people with difficult pasts to begin to take hold of their lives and make choices that will gradually enable them to build the kind of life they want.

Of course, it could be that some people's lives take a turn for the worse in emerging adulthood. Reaching emerging adulthood means making more of your own choices, and some people make choices that are unwise or unlucky. Others may suffer troubles in emerging adulthood that send a life once seemingly headed toward a bright future suddenly careening off the road—anything from an unintended pregnancy to a terrible automobile accident to an overdependence on alcohol or other substances. No one in my study seemed to have taken this path, but that could be because such people are too preoccupied with their current problems to be willing to take part in a study like this. I would predict that for emerging adults in general, the correlation between parents' characteristics and their own characteristics declines considerably from what it was in childhood and adolescence, as they make more of their own decisions and become responsible for constructing their own lives, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.7

Nevertheless, there is evidence that in emerging adulthood life is more likely to take a turn for the better than for the worse. National surveys show that emerging adulthood is a time of rising optimism and well-being for most people,8 whether they go to college or not, whether they have a stable job or not, whether they were doing well back in high school or not. Emerging adulthood is a time of looking forward and imagining what adult life will be like, and what emerging adults imagine is generally bright and promising: a loving, happy marriage and satisfying, well-paying work. Whatever the future may actually hold, during emerging adulthood, hope prevails.


(1.) Sampson & Laub (1990).

(2.) This pattern is in accordance with Erikson's (1950) theory: first identity, then intimacy.

(3.) See Seligman (2002) for more on optimism as a characteristic of resilience.

(4.) There is by now a substantial literature on the relation between religious faith and a variety of positive outcomes. For information related to young people on this issue, see the Website for the National Study of Youth & Religion, http://www.youthandreligion.org.

(5.) Masten (2001).

(6.) Bockneck (1986). Bockneck's book, a comprehensive look at the age period I call emerging adulthood, is a neglected gem, full of insights and information, and I highly recommend it.

(7.) This lack of correlation seems to be true for religious beliefs at least, as we saw in chapter 8.

(8.) E.g., Schulenberg, O'Malley, Bachman, & Johnston (2004).