A Sixth Stage in Emerging Adulthood

The traditional benchmarks by which we once defined adulthood have changed dramatically in the past two decades. Events linked to maturity—completing education, living outside the family home, choosing and pursuing a career, achieving financial independence, marrying and raising a family, and contributing to the community—more frequently happen off time than in an orderly and expected progression.

What sociologist Jeffrey Arnett calls the “five pillars” of emerging adulthood period of life (18 to 25) are less benchmarks than developmental processes that culminate, finally, in a subjective sense of having achieved adulthood; he describes them as a time of possibilities, instability, identity explorations, self-focus, and ambivalence toward adult status. As many others have pointed out, this conception of emerging adulthood largely applies to white, middle-class students attending four-year colleges and universities. In a fascinating new piece of research, Dalal Katsiaficas examines how different their experience is from that of same-age students in community colleges, who are more typically non-white and of immigrant origin: “Such identities are difficult to disentangle, as emerging adults are often at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities.”

Among the most interesting conclusions of this study is that community college students, unlike the more homogeneous population of students at four-year colleges, do not share the same self-focus orientation that characterizes young adulthood, which Arnett explains as the result of having little in the way of duties and commitments to others, thus leaving them with a great deal of autonomy in running their own lives. It is the increase in levels of family responsibilities that extend beyond the self, such as family obligations and community engagement, particularly for those from an immigrant origin and ethnic minority communities, that Katsiaficas calls the sixth pillar of emerging adulthood for this population—caring for others.

"What’s a good investment? Go home from work early and spend the afternoon throwing a ball around with your son." - Ben Stein on CNN

I was particularly interested in this research because my own grandsons, who are or have studied at community college, seem to have absorbed this important aspect of adulthood from their classmates. They admire their work ethic, their sense of responsibility to their families and communities, and their more focused attitude toward their studies. "They take it as seriously as real grown-ups," says my 20-year-old. “It makes me check my white privilege a lot,” he says of friends and classmates, who feel much more responsibility to and for others than he does. “For them, just being able to go to college—any college at all—is a privilege, not a right or entitlement, the way it feels to a lot of my other friends. Just having to worry about yourself at this time of life—that’s the real privilege.”