Choose either transitions, emerging adulthood or the narrative approach to examine how young people’s lives are affected by their class.
The theory of Emerging Adulthood presented by Arnett (2000), suggests a new concept of development between the late teens through the twenties, focusing on ages between 18 and 25 years, which is characterised by a prolonged stage of identity exploration. Arnett (2000, p. 469) affirms that “emerging adulthood exists only in cultures that allow young people a prolonged period of independent role exploration during the late teens and twenties”. To that note, the transition to adulthood seems to be increasingly prolonged as a result of social and economic changes, with a high number of young people staying in education longer, marrying later and having children later in life than ever before (Arnett, 2004).
In industrialised societies the period from the late teens through the twenties is a period of overwhelming changes, where youth generally gain a level of education that will serve as the basis for their incomes and future professional achievements later on in life (Heinz & Marshall, 2003). However, late research has identified that emerging adulthood is dependent on cultural and social class (Heinz & Marshall, 2003) and thus is not a universal stage. Also, cross-cultural studies suggest that social class, ethnicity and gender appear to have a significant impact on young people’s lives in industrialised societies (Birgham, 2012), as new independence and choices are only available to those possessing an income or, for that matter, parents who can provide financial support for young people during the emerging adulthood phase (Furlong & Cartmel, 1997, Hendry & Kloep, 2010).
In terms of social class, the theory of emerging adulthood seems to be built-in on the assumption that most emerging adults will come from a ‘middle class’ section of the society; however, Birgham (2012) argues that families with low socioeconomic status were more likely to perceive themselves as having reached adulthood and less likely to be described as true “emerging adults” than their higher socioeconomic counterparts. This is not to say that emerging adulthood does not take place within the lower socioeconomic classes, but that it may indeed form a shorter life phase than it does for the middle and upper classes (Bigham, 2012; Furstenberg 2008; Galambos & Martinez 2007; Swartz 2008).
As it seems that social class has a great influence on young people’s ability to experience emerging adulthood, one might question ‘how much difference does social class background and its influence on educational and professional opportunities make emerging adulthood a positive or negative experience?’ (Hendry & Kloep, 2007). One could argue that higher economic conditions make it possible for young people to delay stability in their professional and personal lives well into their late 20s, as their families and societies around them are not in desperate need of their labour, allowing young people to gain a higher education (Padilla-Walker; Nelson & Carroll, 2011).
Subsequent literature following Arnett’s introduction to the theory of emerging adulthood, has uncovered possible flaws in Arnett’s claims for a new stage in the developmental process, by demonstrating, through the views of young people themselves that there are significant variations from the ‘standard emerging adult’ transition in the modern Western world (Hendry et al. 2007). Also, in developing countries emerging adulthood is experienced by a minority of the population, mainly the urban middle and upper classes with access to money (Hendry et al. 2007). On the same note, other studies undertaken in Asia also point to the fact that the emerging adulthood phase only applies to a relatively small proportion of young people, especially in China, as much of China’s population at present is rural and poor (Nelson & Chen, 2006).
To that effect, other researches around the world concludes that in Latin America, for example, Latin Americans experience emerging adulthood but only those in wealthier families, in urban areas, and more economically developed countries (Galambos & Martinez 2004). In Argentina for instance, emerging adulthood is widespread and resemble their counterparts in the United States, but with stronger and more enduring family ties and family obligations.
In Europe emerging adulthood is widespread with substantial variations in the nature of it, as Europeans emerging adults commit most of their 20s to study, travel and socialising before settling down; with exception to the southern European’s who’s emerging adults tend to live with parents through their 20s and, within the UK where sharp social class differences only allows for the experience of emerging adulthood by the higher social classes and not the working class (Carrie Douglas, 2000). Furthermore, the literature alludes to the fact that young people receiving no financial support during emerging adulthood are more likely to move towards adulthood at a quicker pace than those receiving financial support, which concurs with the claim that social class directly influences emerging adulthood. It’s also displayed in the research of Stanley (2011) that social class is a salient influence on personal outcome of emerging adults, as young people in disadvantaged situations are more likely to fall through the gaps of social and health services, therefore encountering crisis during emerging adulthood, rather than a period of self-indulgence and self-exploration.
As intriguing as it might be, the theory of emerging adulthood has inspired the question that examines the extent to which it applies to different cultural and social groups, as emerging adulthood literature focuses predominantly on young people in the West, especially in the United States, and perhaps, the emerging adulthood theory is not an universal period, but one that exists only for certain cultures and classes (Sciaba, 2006). Since most of Arnett’s findings originate from American university students, it’s safe to assume that there are a variety of paths to adulthood, but also that those paths encompasses young people within the higher education who are at the very beginning of Arnett’s emerging adulthood theory, which alienates the fact that young people from all walks of life may follow different routes into adulthood based on their social class, gender and ethnicity (Hendry & Kloep, 2010).
For this reason, it’s important to point out that there may be better options for middle-class youths following higher education routes than for ordinary working-class young people (Hendry & Kloep, 2010; Furlong & Cartmel, 1997).
Bynner (2005, p.1) acknowledges that Arnett’s identification of emerging adulthood has been responsible for a ‘new flurry of thinking, but in reality the theory only applies to young people who participate in higher education’, as other groups like the ones in Britain for example, between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ mean that the traditional avenues to adulthood remain for a marginalised minority, which seems to be the case also in New Zealand, where significant income inequality prevents many young people from achieving adulthood via conventional means and markers (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2010). Furthermore, Havering & Roberts (2011) provide another criticism of Arnett’s position in relation to emerging adulthood theory in relation to the New Zealand custom of ‘the overseas experience’, where the author implies that the overseas experience is a typical activity for emerging adults, in the sense that it is done by educated, middle class youth in their twenties seeking freedom and self-exploration.
In a nutshell the theory of emerging adulthood only seems to be applicable to those young people where culture and social class allows them to experience it, as most of the literature points to the fact that Arnett’s research has been solely based on “middle-class Americans attending college”. Therefore, it’s safe to assume that the theory itself does not take into account other cultures and social classes, which in turn limits the extent to which it can applied across the globe as a new phase of development. Also, in order for emerging adults to fully experience this phase of self-focused freedom and exploration it’s vital that those around them (family and society) are able to support them financially, instead of relying on their labour. To put it simply, a middle-class young adult attending college is more likely to receive support from their parents, and therefore be able to experience the emerging adulthood phase more fully, if compared to a young adult of a lower socioeconomic class who’s life is structured by work, family and community roles and obligations.
Therefore, in examining whether or not young people’s lives are affected by their class, this paper concludes that indeed, social class plays a big part in whether or not young people experience emerging adulthood, and if so, to which extend within the framework of Western industrialised societies.
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