Changing transitions to adulthood: a ‘golden age of youth’?

Rather than being an inherent life stage with intrinsic qualities and meanings, ‘youth’ has always been a socially constructed concept (see Chapter 1). This is especially evident in the history of ‘youth’ as a marketing category, where the symbolic values of youth culture - independence, energy, excitement - have been shaped, to a large part, by advertisers and marketers. And, in the early twenty-first century, the marketing industry steadily extended this category and its associated values to embrace a greater range of demographic groups. At the younger end of the age-scale, pre-teen children — especially girls - were increasingly configured as a lucrative consumer market aspiring to escape the constraints of childhood and embrace ‘teenage’ tastes and identities. In the US, particularly, this ‘tween’ market of 8- to 14-year-olds was viewed as a valuable commercial prize, market analysts Youth Market Alert estimating that in 2010 America’s 20 million ‘tweens’ already wielded an annual spending power of $43 billion (Krotz, 2010).18

Older age groups were also configured as a new ‘youth’ market. In a 2005 cover story for Time magazine, journalist Lev Grossman spotlighted what he called ‘the twixters’ — ‘young adults who live off their parents, bounce from job to job and hop from mate to mate’ (Grossman, 2005: 42). And in 2006 author Ghristopher Noxon coined the term ‘rejuvenile’ for what he saw as ‘a new breed of adult, identified by a determination to remain playful, energetic, and flexible in the face of adult responsibilities’ (Noxon, 2006: 2). Gommercial interests, meanwhile, quickly latched onto the potential of the protracted ‘youth’ market. For example, in its 2008 report The Golden Age of Youth, Viacom Brand Solutions International identified a distinct 25—34-year-old

‘Golden Youth’ market of consumers who were still actively and emotionally connected to youth culture, but were largely ignored by marketers and advertisers. Characterised by a lack of responsibilities but a relatively high disposable income, the group presented money-spinning possibilities. As Viacom’s report explained:

The traditional demographic definition of ‘youth’ is no longer applicable in today’s society, and marketers should target consumers based upon their engagement and participation with youth culture rather than their chronological age.

(Viacom Brand Solutions International, 2008: 1)

The idea of an older ‘youth’ market was prominent in pronouncements from the marketing industry, but the concept touched on some realities of social change. During the 1980s and 1990s young people in many countries were already experiencing less stability in their transitions to ‘adult’ life, with an increased complexity of pathways (in terms of educational courses, training, temporary and part-time jobs, and social relationships) into the roles and responsibilities traditionally associated with adulthood (see Chapter 2). The economists David Blanchflower and Richard Freeman, for example, argued that in North America and Europe young people were responding to a more challenging economic environment by enrolling in higher education in greater numbers, staying longer in their parents’ homes and postponing setting up their own families. ‘Taken together’, they concluded, ‘increased schooling and residence in parental homes have elongated the period of youthful preparation for the job market and family formation. The “young” are older than they were several decades ago’ (2000i: 7). The trends continued into the early twenty-first century19 and, for some theorists, amounted to a profound shift in the lifecycle of industrialised societies. From this perspective a new, distinctive phase had appeared, separating adolescence and adulthood — ‘emerging adulthood’.

The term ‘emerging adulthood’ was originally coined by Jeffrey Arnett in an article published in the journal American Psychologist in 2000, and Arnett subsequently developed the concept in a number of books, anthologies, and journal articles.20 For Arnett, trends in industrialised societies during the late twentieth century — specifically, the extension of education and the delay of marriage and parenthood - had altered the life experiences of young people aged between 18 and 25. Rather than being a time when young people settled into long-term adult roles, Arnett contended, the late teens and early 20s had more typically become ‘a period of frequent change and exploration’ (2000: 469). Basing his arguments on 300 interviews with Americans, aged between 18 and 29 (Arnett, 2004: 24), Arnett asserted that ‘emerging adulthood’ had come to constitute a new, distinct phase in life that separated the dependency of childhood and adolescence from the enduring responsibilities of adulthood. This new developmental stage, Arnett explained, was

Millennials and the media 55 characteristically a time of ‘independent exploration’ in the areas of love, work and worldview:

Emerging adulthood is a time of life when many different directions remain possible, when little about the future has been decided for certain, when the scope of independent exploration of life’s possibilities is greater for most people than it will be at any other period of the life course.

(2000: 469)

According to Arnett, ‘emerging adulthood’ was characterised by five key themes. It was, he suggested, a period of significant identity exploration in which young people were searching to find a meaning in work, relationships, and beliefs. It was a time of instability, when young people had a tendency to change their residence, job, and relationships more frequently. It was also a time of self-focus and relative freedom from obligations to parents, spouses, and children. Additionally, it was time of relative optimism, as young people looked forward to a future of opportunities and possibilities. Moreover, young people during this period of life were conscious that they were between adolescence and adulthood — they felt they were no longer adolescents, but also not quite adults (Arnett, 2004; Tanner and Arnett, 2011: 15). Taken together, Arnett maintained, these features marked out ‘emerging adulthood’ as ‘a new life stage that opened up when transitions in love and work that previously took place in the late teens or early 20s moved into the late 20s or early 30s’ (Tanner and Arnett, 2011: 15).

Arnett’s ideas garnered considerable academic and popular attention. The concept of‘emerging adulthood’ was widely referenced by journalists and policymakers and, in 2013, even spawned a dedicated academic journal. While it undoubtedly struck a popular chord, however, the theory also attracted criticism.21 Indeed, the notion that ‘emerging adulthood’ could be identified as a distinct phase in the life course was strongly questioned. Doubts were raised not only about how far this period constituted a discrete developmental phase (rather than simply being part of a continuous developmental process) but also about the precise nature of the developments that supposedly took place. As Leo Hendry and Marin Kloep observed, ‘in classifying emerging adulthood as a developmental stage, there should be “something” that develops during this time, and Arnett never clarifies what exactly that might be’ (2010: 178). Perhaps more damaging, however, were the criticisms of Arnett’s tendency to see ‘emerging adulthood’ as a relatively universal experience in young people’s lives.

To be fair, Arnett sometimes signposted limits to his claims. ‘Is emerging adulthood a period of life that is restricted to certain cultures and certain times?’, he rhetorically asked in his original article. ‘The answer’, he replied, ‘appears to be yes’ (2000: 477, orig. emphasis). As he went on to explain, emerging adulthood was a period that ‘exists only in cultures that postpone the entry into adult roles and responsibilities until well past the late teens. Thus, emerging adulthood would be most likely to be found in countries that arehighly industrialised or postindustrial’ (478). For his critics, however, Arnett’s claims remained too sweeping and over-generalised. Sociologist James Côté was especially withering, pointing to a raft of studies that suggest the idea of ‘emerging adulthood’ was at best overextended, and at worst a flawed myth (Côté, 2014; Côté and Bynner, 2008). For example, Jennifer Silva’s (2012) qualitative research on working-class Americans aged in their 20s and 30s uncovered a variety of ‘coming of age narratives’, several very different to that outlined by Arnett. Similarly, US-based quantitative research such as that produced by D. Wayne Osgood and his associates (2005) pointed to a diverse range of pathways to adulthood, none of which suggested the rise of a new ‘developmental stage’. Moreover, while Arnett tended to see young people’s frequent movement between different employment as a facet of their freely chosen ‘identity exploration’, Côté observed how, for many youngsters, this was actually a consequence of ‘coping with precarious, ambiguous, and exploitative job situations’ (Côté, 2014: 184).

Beyond the US, studies also cast doubt on the universality of ‘emerging adulthood’. Of course, Arnett, had always painstakingly qualified his claims and recognised that emerging adulthood ‘is a period of the life course that is culturally constructed, not universal and immutable’ (2000: 270). Nevertheless, evidence from around the world suggested notions of emerging adulthood as a new developmental stage were unduly presumptive. Indeed, while Arnett argued that emerging adulthood was a life stage most likely to be found in societies that were ‘highly industrialised or postindustrial’, even in such contexts studies pointed to a great diversity in young people’s lives. Hendry and Kloep’s (2010) qualitative study of Welsh youngsters aged 17—20, for example, found a highly diverse range of life experiences and attitudes, many very different to those outlined by Arnett. Furthermore, the majority of their sample (25 of their 38 subjects) self-identified as ‘adults’, while about half did not optimistically view the future in terms of possibilities (as Arnett had conjectured). Instead, they felt trapped by a decided lack of opportunities, and were resigned to their fate.

And, while John Bynner’s (2005) analysis of three longitudinal studies of British youngsters found elements of support for Arnett’s model, it also suggested that socio-economic inequalities ensured marked differences between young people. The most common feature to emerge from the research, Bynner concluded, was ‘growing polarization between the advantaged and the disadvantaged’. ‘Emerging adulthood’ was prominent among the former, but ‘the traditional accelerated routes to adult life were still as common as ever among the rest’ (Bynner, 2005: 377). Similarly, in their quantitative analysis of the transitions to adulthood made by two cohorts of youngsters from the US, UK, and Finland, Ingrid Schoon and John Schulenberg found marked differences and disparities. ‘There is’, they concluded, ‘a growing polarization of fast versus slow transition prevalences’, with:

... those from less privileged backgrounds making the transition to employment and parenthood earlier than others, potentially due to

Millennials and the media 57 insufficient resources to take advantage of educational opportunities and to support an extended period of education.

(Schoon and Schulenberg, 2013: 55)

Some theorists, nevertheless, maintain that the concept of emerging adulthood is applicable to a range of international contexts. Rita Zukauskiené, for example, assembles a variety of European studies which, she argues, provide ‘substantial evidence that many of the features of emerging adulthood, as conceptualized by Arnett ... can be observed among youth in Europe’ (Zukauskiené, 2016: 6). Reviewing these studies, however, Arnett himself acknowledges that, while many European countries share similar demographic trends, ‘Europe is highly diverse in other aspects of emerging adulthood’ — with transitions to adulthood differing between national contexts, and important differences existing between the experiences of working-class and middle-class youngsters (Arnett, 2016: 210—211).

In China, too, young people’s life experiences seem rather different to the model posited by Arnett. In their (2004) study of students at a Beijing university, for example, Larry Nelson and his colleagues found that the attitudes of their 207 respondents showed some similarities to Arnett’s concept of emerging adulthood. At the same time, however, the specific values and expectations of the young people’s culture also ensured important differences, with the majority of the students believing they had already reached mature adulthood (Nelson, Badger and Wu, 2004: 30).

Undoubtedly, the social and economic changes of the early twenty-first century had significant impact on young people’s life experiences. And there is certainly some evidence to show that transitions to adulthood have become extended and more complex. But whether these changes represent the rise of a new, relatively universal, condition of ‘emerging adulthood’ is moot. ‘As it stands’, Côté shrewdly observes, ‘it is a leap of logic to conclude that because it takes people longer to pass certain social markers of adulthood they are experiencing a new developmental stage’ (2014: 183). Moreover, while there may be many new twists, turns, and detours in young people’s pathways to adulthood, empirical research suggests that not only are these pathways characterised by a significant degree of difference, but that these differences remain — to a high degree - resolutely determined by ‘old’ social and economic inequalities.

Along with ternis like ‘millennials’, ‘digital natives’ and ‘Generation X’, ‘Y’ and ‘Z’, therefore, the notion of ‘emerging adulthood’ may, to a degree, point to real changes in the lives of young people. Indeed, the rise of digital technologies has clearly transformed many youngsters’ cultural landscape while, for many, transitions to adulthood have become complex and protracted. Configuring these developments in terms of a generational change, however, can be over-generalised and reductive; and glosses over the continued importance of structural factors in determining young people’s life experiences. Indeed, notions of an ascending cohort of new, technologically clued-up and mediasavvy millennials can be seen as just the latest instalment in a long history of

‘generational symbolism’ in which representations of youth are used to elaborate a very particular — and ideologically loaded - view of social change. The next chapter looks more closely at these symbolic constructions of ‘youth’, and assesses the ways shifting representations of young people have been related to wider patterns of social, economic, and political change.


  • 1 While the number of PewDiePie’s endorsements were relatively few, those he made were for major brands such as Mountain Dew and Legendary' Pictures — so they were high profile and reputedly well-paid (PMYB, 2017). At times, however, PewDiePie’s own ‘brand’ struggled to maintain positive associations. In 2017, for example, Disney ended a partnership with the star after it was alleged some of PewDiePie’s videos had featured anti-Semitic jokes and neo-Nazi imagery (Solon, 2017).
  • 2 The collection included Beckett (2010), Howker and Malik (2010) and Willets (2010).
  • 3 The Napster brand-name, however, survived as the company was bought up and reconfigured as a licensed music subscription service.
  • 4 Nevertheless, The Pirate Bay continued to operate via new Internet domains and other technical manoeuvres.
  • 5 Overviews of the early development of social network sites can be found in boyd and Ellison (2008) and Goff (2013).
  • 6 In 2009 Friendster was acquired by Malaysian owners and, from 2011, was reconfigured as a gaming site. It struggled against rivals, however, and finally closed in 2019.
  • 7 The decline of MySpace was inexorable, but the site continued to operate and in 2019 was still attracting around 8 million visits per month (Armstrong, 2019).
  • 8 Surveys of theories of media convergence are provided in Grant and Wilkinson (eds) (2009) and Dwyer (2010).
  • 9 TikTok and Douyin are effectively the same, but are run on different Internet servers to comply with Chinese censorship restrictions.
  • 10 See, for instance, Frand (2000) and Oblinger and Oblinger (2005).
  • 11 Examples include Facer, Furlong, Furlong and Sutherland (2003), Holloway and Valentine (2003), Livingstone and Bober (2005), and Livingstone and Haddon (eds) (2009).
  • 12 From Britain, the studies included Helsper and Eynon (2010), Jones et al. (2010) and Margaryana, Littlejohn and Vojtb (2011). Research on Chinese students was undertaken by Li and Ranier (2010), and on South African students by Thinyane (2010).
  • 13 Coupland’s title was taken from a UK punk rock band of the 1970s who, in turn, had poached their name from Hamblett and Deverson’s (1964) sociological study of British youth.
  • 14 See Brierly (2005: 35-38) and Fox (1985: 183-187).
  • 15 The term ‘guerrilla marketing’ was originally popularised in Levinson’s (1984) marketing manual.
  • 16 Sorrentino’s nickname - ‘The Situation’ — was derived from his talent at fermenting troublesome social scenarios. Indeed, in 2018 Sorrentino faced an especially troublesome scenario when he was sentenced to 8 months in prison for tax evasion. On release, in 2019, he resumed his reality-TV role (Cohen, 2019).
  • 17 Michel Aglietta (1979) was one of the first theorists to suggest the structures of ‘Fordist’ capitalism were transforming. From the late 1960s, Aglietta argued, declines in productivity and demand prompted American industries to move into more flexible forms of production and business organisation. Subsequently, other authors (for example, Murray (1990)) coined the term ‘post-Fordism’ to denote what they saw as a new economic order based on practices of flexible production and market segmentation.
  • 18 A more detailed analysis of ‘tween’ media and marketing can be found in Mitchell and Reid-Walsh (eds) (2005).
  • 19 In the UK, for example, 2019 saw the Office of National Statistics (ONS) report that (probably as a consequence of increasing housing costs) the preceding two decades had seen a 46 per cent rise in the number of young people aged between 20 and 34 living with their parents. According to the ONS, 32 per cent of men in this age group and 21 per cent of women lived in their parental home (ONS, 2019).
  • 20 See, for instance, Arnett (2004), Arnett and Hughes (2012), Arnett, Kloep, Hendry and Tanner (eds) (2011), Arnett and Tanner (eds) (2006) and Murray and Arnett (eds) (2019).
  • 21 An overview of Arnett’s theories, together with a summary of key criticisms, is provided in Syed (2016).
< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >