Book By: Jeffrey Jensen Arnett
Review By: Cynthia Sarver
College of Engineering
Michigan State University


In 2003 a group of academics, including Arnett, gathered to discuss a growing phenomenon occurring in the lives of college-educated 18-25 year olds. Studies suggest that this generation is prolonging adolescence and delaying entry into adulthood. Arnett’s interesting and provocative theories explore the reasons for this phenomenon. After conducting 300 interviews with people he labels as “emerging adults,” Arnett concludes that this period of life should be recognized as distinctive and legitimate. Although some sociologists, economists, and psychologists view this generation as unfocused and noncommittal, Arnett contends that emerging adults are on a positive and reflective quest for personal growth and meaning that may last through their mid- to late twenties.

According to Arnett, transitioning into emerging adulthood can be defined by five features: (1) the age of identity exploration, (2) the age of instability, (3) the most self-focused age of life, (4) the age of feeling in-between, and (5) the age of possibility (p.87).  This transition begins in college as students grapple with identity and relationship issues, explore majors, and search for a career path. Noticeably absent is the impact parents have on the lives of their students in terms of developing self-reliance, accepting responsibility, and making independent decisions and judgments. Arnett should consider more adequately addressing the issue of parental influence and its ramifications in any second edition.

The road through college typically leads to personal and intellectual growth for most emerging adults. However, Arnett uses words like meandering, drifting, and floundering to describe their journey into the world of work (p.150). “They have high expectations for work. They expect to find a job that will be an expression of their identity. Most want to find a job that will make them ‘a better person’ and hopefully do some good for others as well” (p.143).  But typically they cannot describe the ideal job nor how to find it. 

What Arnett fails to emphasize is the importance of experiential learning during college.  Opportunities for career exploration exist for students who take advantage of internships, cooperative education programs, research programs, campus jobs in laboratories, alternative spring breaks with service-learning themes, and volunteer positions in community programs. These experiences help students identify their passions, abilities, and workplace values. I suspect students without this exposure will experience more post-graduation drifting than others.

Arnett also points out that “there is little assistance in making the school-to-work transition, and there are few programs or institutions that provide emerging adults with information and guidance” (p. 151).  Arnett makes an interesting point. Advising professionals need to know if “transition-to-work” programs exist at their institutions. If so, how are they publicized, attended, and evaluated? In fact, are they necessary? These questions are worthy of institutional discussion.

Emerging adults are likely to think: “Graduation…Now what?”  Because they intend to delay marriage, parenthood, and perhaps a career until their late twenties or beyond, they have the luxury of time to “meander” as long as they (or their parents?) can pay the bills. To Arnett, these critical years of self-discovery are justifiable and merit encouragement.  Herein lies the controversy: Are emerging adults soul searchers or slackers? To join in the discussion with the Emerging Adulthood Special Interest Group, go to:  www.s-r-a.org/easig.html.

I did. And like Arnett’s book, I learned more about the psychosocial development of the students I advise.  This is a book worth reading and a website worth browsing.


Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties. (2004). Book by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett. Review by Cynthia Sarver. New York. Oxford University Press.  228 pp. $29.95 ISBN 0-19-517314-7

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