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Gary GillesGary Gilles, LCPC
Empowering and practical insights to grow your most important relationships

Understanding the New Concept of Emerging Adulthood

Gary Gilles, LCPC Updated: Jan 16th 2015

Sociologists have identified a new trend among young people and refer to it as "emerging adulthood." Emerging Adulthood is a term that applies to young adults who do not have children, do not live in their own home, or have a substantial income to become fully independent in their early to late 20's. It is a period where young people delay commitments to vital roles such as career, relationships, and financial obligations until they are more "stable."

group of smiling young adultsWhile there may be some benefits in this developmental delay, there are some concerns as well. Let's look at marriage as one important trend.

The delay in marriage

It's no surprise that many people who do marry end up regretting their decision for any number of reasons. The divorce rate would be one measure of this regret. But, many young adults are postponing marriage until later; some do not intend to marry at all. Currently, only about half of all adults in the U.S. are married. The average of age of first marriage is rapidly shifting as well. In:

  • 1970 the average age of marriage was 20.8 years
  • 1990 the average age was 23.9 years of age
  • 2014 it was 28.7 years of age for men and 26.5 for women

You can see that the age of marriage is going up. It's increased by almost 8 years in years in less than two generations. And it will continue to increase. Why?

Because this group of young people we refer to as emerging adults is particularly self-focused in their pursuits and often without any clear direction of where they want to go with their lives. Does that mean that they are irresponsible or have a poor work ethic? Not necessarily. There are many passionate and committed young people who are trying to find their path toward a meaningful contribution to society. The problem though is finding that purpose. Many want to wait until they can really make a mark in what they do.

This differs from previous generations where it was assumed that they would start at the bottom and gradually work their way up. Emerging adults are not inclined to start at the bottom. They want to do something significant now. But, because they aren't sure what that significant thing is, they spend an inordinate amount time in a "holding stage." That holding stage could be living at home with their parents indefinitely, saving up money, jumping from job-to-job or simply going off on an extensive travel experience to get clarity on their life direction.

What does this mean for parents of young adults?

In the past, when a young person reached their early 20s most parents assumed their children were on their own and their parenting responsibilities were finished. That no longer is true. Many of these young people still depend on their parents to a large degree. Yet, many parents seem unaware of the problem, perhaps because it is so prevalent in our culture. Furthermore, many parents do not see it as their responsibility to actively help their older children form plans for their future.

This problem does not simply start when high school or college graduation becomes a reality; it starts much sooner. Our culture makes it very difficult to be clear on one's purpose in life.

  • We are faced with unlimited choices. The more choices we have the more discerning we need to be to determine what is best
  • Relentless distractions - many of which revolve around entertainment
  • Consumerism - the notion that accumulation of material goods is the highest goal in life
  • Emphasis on money and status as the measure of "success."

As enticing as these options are, none lead to a clear sense of purpose. In fact, these merely cloud the quest for purpose.

As parents, we have to be clear on what our purpose is for our children so we can help them find purpose in their lives. The earlier we start the better.

Our kids are looking to us to provide this guidance. If we do they can avoid the emerging adult syndrome.


Gary Gilles, LCPC

Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC) in private practice for over 20 years. He is passionate about helping people live empowered, healthy lives. He works from the idea that we feel most contented and in control of our lives when we take action on what we value most. This typically involves choices around relationships and personal habits. He uses his expertise as a change agent in his counseling practice, his blog and his books to help people get their lives back on track. Gary's hundreds of published articles have appeared in a wide range of print and online publications. He currently publishes a popular blog entitled Relationship Matters at His books are available at You can contact Gary at:

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