Adulthood more difficult to reach

By Assistant Sports & Health Editor

College students know more than anyone how hard it is to try to be an adult. Students living on their own suddenly must make decisions on their own, but oftentimes they feel lost and too intimidated to make those important decisions.

An Oct. 30 National Academies Press report examines the developmental attributes of young adulthood—which is approximately ages 18–26—in relation to modern society, claiming it is much harder for the current generation to transition into adulthood than it has been for previous generations.

The report is based on a consensus study conducted with funding from the National Academy of Sciences, which convened a committee of scholars and experts from varying disciplines relating to the research and understanding of this age group to discuss the period of young adulthood as a transition into adulthood.

What the report found, according to Richard Bonnie, chair of the committee and a law professor at the University of Virginia, was that young adulthood is a critical period of development with long-lasting implications for a person’s economic stability, health and general well-being and should therefore be viewed as a separate subpopulation rather than grouping young adults with everybody else who is older than 18.

“There’s nothing magic about the age of 18 from a developmental standpoint and indeed, from a social standpoint, adulthood is only beginning,” Bonnie said. “Young adulthood has to be understood as a continuation of the kinds of development that we think of in relation to adolescents and as a period of transition … into the tasks that we associated with being an independent adult.”

According to Bonnie, it is important to understand this period as transitional because if people do not have a steady progression into independent adulthood, it is difficult as time goes on to make up for the skills that were not developed.

Bonnie said the committee found that there are many factors making the transformation into adulthood more difficult for the current generation of young people. For example, Bonnie said this transitional period is elongated compared to what it used to be in previous generations. Some people take longer to develop skills needed for financial stability, healthy relationships and responsible decision-making. 

“The point is there is a distinct period of development and that we really need to be focusing on helping people navigate it successfully,” Bonnie said.

According to Bonnie, the pathway to adulthood has become much less predictable than it once was.

The report attributes this unpredictability to a number of factors, including the cost of college having substantially increased, a decrease in well-compensated entry-level jobs and the costs of living independently.

According to the report, one dominant pattern among young adults today is declining health, which could be a hindrance to the process of transitioning into adulthood.

In terms of mental health, the study reports that young adulthood is a time of increased psychological vulnerability and is often when the onset of serious mental health disorders becomes recognizable.

Margaret Wehrenberg, a clinical psychologist and director of curriculum development for the Candeo online education program for anxiety and depression management, said during young adulthood, the brain undergoes a process in which it opens up to new possibilities for connection to integrate brain structure and brain function, which makes people of this age more susceptible to suffering from mental illness.

Additionally, Wehrenberg said it is common for serious mental illnesses to emerge during this time and for people to suffer with anxiety or depression, both of which could make a person’s transition into adulthood more difficult.

“For people who have a serious mental illness emerging during this time, they’re going to have a very challenging transition into adulthood because these disorders tend to affect the development of appropriate social skills and therefore social relationships and the acquisition of appropriate skills to conduct yourself in a work environment,” Wehrenberg said. “And for an adolescent that develops depression or anxiety, you could have a slow development of mental and social skills.”

According to Wehrenberg, young adults are more vulnerable to developing addictions at this age, which could also stunt a young person’s development as they mature.

Wehrenberg said young adults are under a lot of pressure and they feel compelled to escape while their developing brains are searching for stimulation and desire new experiences, both of which could make drug use seem appealing to someone at that age.

“All of these factors make a perfect storm for addictions to develop,” Wehrenberg said.

Another concern the committee draws attention to in the report is that the current generation of young adults appears to be at the forefront of the obesity epidemic and is more vulnerable than previous generations to obesity-related health problems.

Alexis Conason, a psychologist and research associate at the New York Obesity Nutrition Research Center at Mt. Sinai-St. Lukes, said the focus placed on the obesity epidemic alone is affecting the health of young adults.

Many young adults are spending time and energy focusing on their physical appearances because of pressure to not be overweight rather than accomplishing life goals and achieving independence, success, a career, a family or healthy relationships, Conason said.

“When you don’t feel good about your body and you don’t feel good about yourself, it’s really hard to engage in healthy relationships with other people,” Conason said.

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