Jeffrey Arnett (2006) concluded that five key features characterize emerging adulthood:
• Identity exploration, especially in love and work. Emerging adulthood is the time during which key changes in identity take place for many individuals (Kroger, 2012; Schwarz & others, 2013).
• Instability. Residential changes peak during early adulthood, a time during which there also is often instability in love, work, and education.
• Self-focused. According to Arnett (2006, p. 10), emerging adults “are selffocused in the sense that they have little in the way of social obligations, little in the way of duties and commitments to others, which leaves them with a great deal of autonomy in running their own lives.”
• Feeling in-between. Many emerging adults don’t consider themselves adolescents or full-fledged adults.
• The age of possibilities, a time when individuals have an opportunity to transform their lives. Arnett (2006) describes two ways in which emerging adulthood is the age of possibilities: (1) many emerging adults are optimistic about their future; and (2) for emerging adults who have experienced difficult times while growing up, emerging adulthood presents an opportunity to chart their life course in a more positive direction.
Recent research indicates that these five aspects characterize not only individuals in the United States as they make the transition from adolescence to early adulthood, but also their counterparts in European countries and Australia (Arnett, 2012; Buhl & Lanz, 2007; Sirsch & others, 2009). Although emerging adulthood does not characterize development in all cultures, it does appear to occur in cultures that postpone assuming adult roles and responsibilities (Kins & Beyers, 2010). Criticism of the concept of emerging adulthood is that it applies mainly to privileged adolescents and is not always a self-determined choice for many young people, especially those in limiting socioeconomic conditions (Cote & Bynner, 2008).
An important aspect of emerging adulthood is the resilience that some individuals have and their ability to change their life in a positive direction following a troubled adolescence (Burt & Paysnick, 2011; Masten, 2013; Masten & Tellegen, 2012). Consider the changing life of Michael Maddaus (Broderick, 2003; Masten, Obradovic, & Burt, 2006). During Michael’s childhood and adolescence in Minneapolis, his mother drank heavily and his stepfather abused him. He coped by spending increasing time on the streets, being arrested more than 20 times for his delinquency, frequently being placed in detention centers, and rarely going to school. At 17, he joined the Navy and the experience helped him to gain self-discipline and hope. Aft er his brief stint in the Navy, he completed a GED and began taking community college classes. However, he continued to have some setbacks with drugs and alcohol. A defining moment during his emerging adulthood came when he delivered furniture to a surgeon’s home. The surgeon became interested in helping Michael, and his mentorship led to Michael volunteering at a rehabilitation center, then to his taking a job with a neurosurgeon. Eventually, he obtained his undergraduate degree, went to medical school, got married, and started a family. Today, Michael Maddaus is a successful surgeon. One of his most gratifying volunteer activities is telling his story to troubled youth.
In a longitudinal study, Ann Masten and her colleagues (2006) found that emerging adults who became competent after experiencing difficulties while growing up were more intelligent, experienced higher parenting quality, and were less likely to grow up in poverty or low-income circumstances than their counterparts who did not become competent as emerging adults. A further analysis focused on individuals who were still showing maladaptive patterns in emerging adulthood but had gotten their lives together by the time they were in the late twenties and early thirties. The three characteristics shared by these “late-bloomers” were support by adults, being planful, and showing positive aspects of autonomy.