What Alters the Experience of Emerging Adulthood? How the Experience of Emerging Adulthood Differs According to Socioeconomic Status and Critical Life Events


Monique Landberg, Friedrich-Schiller-University, Jena, Germany
Bora Lee, Korea University, Seoul, Korea
Peter Noack, Friedrich-Schiller-University, Jena, Germany


The proposed new stage of Emerging adulthood (EA) has evoked debates both in the academic world and in the media, mainly focusing on whether or not EA qualifies as a distinct developmental stage. Many also question whether it is a truly universal phenomenon as opposed to one only found among a restricted group of White, middle-class, and well- educated young people between 18 and 30 years of age. Regardless of these arguments, the proposed concept of EA has garnered a lot of attention among both researchers and the general public. Our study aimed to shed light on one of the main criticisms of EA, namely, that young people from lower socioeconomic classes do not have the option to explore and experience various alternatives. Hence, we examined the relationship between socioeconomic status and the experience of EA and critical life events (CLEs).


Our first study was based on data collected as part of a four-wave longitudinal study examining how young adults between the ages of 18 and 30 balance and master their life goals. Our variables of interest were measured during the first two waves of the original study. At T1, there were slightly more women than men in the sample (women: n = 1,923, 58.8%). The emerging adults were on average 23.61 years old (SD = 2.94). University students were the largest subgroup (54.9%), followed by employed young adults (19.5%), those in an apprenticeship (14.1%), unemployed (4.3%), and those who were doing something else (2.6%).

SES was measured based on the International Socio-Economic Index (ISEI) of occupational status. Additionally, we applied the Inventory of the Dimensions of Emerging Adulthood (IDEA) at T2 and measured CLEs during the 12 months preceding T2.

For study 2, twelve semi-structured interviews with Emerging adults in extra-vocational training were analyzed using thematic analysis to better understand the associations among SES, EA, and CLEs.


In Study 1, lower SES was associated with negativity/instability, other-focus, and possibilities. Furthermore, the association between SES and the perception of EA was mediated by CLEs for negativity. These findings support the argument that some aspects of the perception of EA are indeed associated with SES.

The results of our interview study indicated that low-SES youth experienced many CLEs, as well as some typical features of EA, such as optimism and self-focus.


Although many scholars have argued that the concept of EA only applies to a specific population (e.g., college students), we found evidence that even disadvantaged young adults experience key elements of EA, supporting the assertion that EA is a universal life stage that is not restricted to a certain group. However, some aspects of the perception of EA are indeed associated with SES. Low-SES youth perceived their life circumstances to be unstable, felt more committed to others, and had more responsibilities for other people. Although typical features of EA were clearly evident in our interviews with disadvantaged youth, these features seemed to reflect their different life circumstances.

Contact: landbergmonique@gmail.com

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