Bridging the Gap to Adulthood

March 11, 2012

Contributor Rafael Gomes de Oliveira explores what it means to be adult:

Here on Bridging the Gap we often talk about the gap between the academic world and the professional world, but there’s another very important jump that happens almost simultaneously – from adolescence to adulthood.

Psychology professor Jeffrey Arnett calls this transition phase “emerging adulthood.” It takes place between the age of 18 and the late 20s and is a result of the social and economic changes that happened recently in modern industrialized nations. Changes to the social order have been affected by the need for more education, less pressure to marry early, and women choosing to have children later due to the availability of many career options (“Emerging Adulthood,” Arnett, 2006). Redefinition of the stages of life has been ongoing since “adolescence” emerged over a century ago as a term to describe the behaviors and needs associated with people in their teens.

The traits that characterize emerging adulthood are instability, identity exploration, self-focus, and a sense of possibilities (“Why are so many people in their 20s taking so long to grow up?” Henig, 2010). Some of those can be present in adolescence, but their exploration becomes much more in depth as people approach their mid-to-late 20s. People are taking more time to make the decisions that will affect them for the rest of their lives, and to a certain extent that’s a good thing in my opinion.

If we’re in a new transition phase, the question begs to be asked: what are we transitioning into? What defines adulthood? Biological adulthood is achieved when people attain reproductive capability. Religious adulthood is often celebrated as the passing of the religious teachings and values to the next generation (secular coming of age rituals to pass over humanistic or similar values are also becoming popular). Legal adulthood gives you civil rights and responsibilities such as driving, drinking, purchasing weapons, attending R-rated movies, voting, working, marrying, smoking, gambling, entering contracts, etc. Those definitions are all acceptable, but they seem to be things that just happen as you grow. I prefer to judge my advancements as challenges conquered.

I would like to determine a new definition for social adulthood… but first, let’s examine what it’s not. Social adulthood is not linked to a specific age or traditional milestones such as graduating college, and starting a family anymore. Some try to make the case that in order to transition into adulthood, one needs to put all childish things behind. They forget that not all childish things are useless and end up letting go of some of their more precious gifts such as joy, laughter, curiosity, the ability to wonder and trust.

The set of behaviors and responsibilities that defines a social adult will vary among cultures depending on that culture’s priorities. Some cultures are more individualistic and others hold the collective good to be more important. In many industrialized nations, the current baseline that defines social adulthood revolves around three main factors: taking responsibility for yourself, making independent decisions, and becoming financially independent (“Emerging Adulthood,” Arnett, 2006). I would add other factors such as the ability to overcome obstacles, the composure to resolve conflict, the capability to contemplate one’s place in the universe, and the empathy to understand others.

Self-awareness is, perhaps, the over arching theme of social adulthood. I could not consider myself a mature social adult without exhibiting the listed personal qualities. Only you can decide which values and behaviors represent the bridge to social adulthood.  You won’t realize what they are until you cross that path.


The best way to achieve this metamorphosis is to identify adults you look up to and find out which paths they took and what their ultimate goals in life were. Biographies and information about engineers such as Peter Rice, Ove Arup, Fazlur Khan and others can provide priceless insight into their lives and the profession. Since the transition to adulthood doesn’t happen exclusively to engineers, examples can be drawn from any real or fictional character you admire. Consider looking to your family for inspiration. Your parents and grandparents probably overcame some challenging transitions too. There is great value in intergenerational communication.

Certain knowledge is fundamental for maturation regardless of career or life path. Delayed adolescence does allow us to remain unaware or unprepared forever. On the contrary, the more prepared and qualified you are, the longer you can delay your adolescence because more doors will be open to “knowmads.” If you were looking for an excuse for moving back with your parents, joining something like Teach for America, or taking a gap year to travel, there you have it. Just don’t take too long…

How do you define adulthood? Were there any specific moments in your life that made you feel like you crossed the line, even if partially, between adolescence and adult life (your first job, financial independence, accepting your mortality, overcoming a certain fear, etc)? Do you think it is even relevant to label and define these developmental life stages or do you think life is much more complex and cannot fit this almost linear progression of social roles?

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  • Kalaivanan Murthy

    Can we put in this way..if one calls a female in the age between 19 to 21 as a girl, then he is in adolescence..on the other hand if he calls her as women he is an adult.

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