There is a new and important stage in life in American culture, and it is not entirely clear that the Christian church understands or particularly knows what to do with it. I am talking about what scholars call "emerging adulthood." This is the time of life between ages 18 and 30, roughly, a phase which in recent decades has morphed into quite a new experience for many. Researchers in sociology, psychology, and human development have been investigating the contours of this new life stage and have some fascinating stuff on the subject, whose findings are well worth pondering for their implications for church and culture.
To grasp the significance of emerging adulthood, it is necessary first to realize that life stages are not naturally given as immutable phases of existence. Rather, they are cultural constructions that interact with biology and material production, and are profoundly shaped by the social and institutional conditions that generate and sustain them. So, "teenager" and "adolescence" as representing a distinct stage of life were very much 20th-century inventions, brought into being by changes in mass education, child labor laws, urbanization and suburbanization, mass consumerism, and the media. Similarly, a new, distinct, and important stage in life, situated between the teenage years and full-fledged adulthood, has emerged in our culture in recent decades—reshaping the meaning of self, youth, relationships, and life commitments as well as a variety of behaviors and dispositions among the young.
What are the social forces that have given rise to this emerging adulthood? First is the growth of higher education. The GI Bill, changes in the American economy, and government subsidizing of community colleges and state universities led in the second half of the last century to a dramatic rise in the number of high school graduates going on to college and university. As a result, a huge proportion of American youth are no longer stopping school and beginning stable careers at age 18 but are extending their formal schooling well into their twenties. And those who are aiming to join America's professional and knowledge classes—those who most powerfully shape our culture and society—are continuing in graduate and professional school programs often up until their thirties.
A second is the delay of marriage by American youth over the last decades. Between 1950 and 2000, the median age of first marriage for women rose from 20 to 25 years old. For men during that same time the median age rose from 22 to 27 years old. The sharpest increase for both took place after 1970. Half a century ago, many young people were anxious to get out of high school, marry, settle down, have children, and start a long-term career. But many youth today, especially but not exclusively men, face almost a decade between high school graduation and marriage to spend exploring life's many options in unprecedented freedom.
A third is the American and global economy that undermine stable, lifelong careers and replace them instead with careers of lower security, more frequent job changes, and an ongoing need for new training and education. Most young people today know they need to approach their careers with a variety of skills, maximal flexibility, and readiness to re-tool as needed. That itself pushes youth toward extended schooling and delay of marriage. Far from being happy to graduate from high school and take the factory job their father or uncle arranged for them (which probably doesn't exist in any case), many youth today spend five to ten years experimenting with different job and career options before finally deciding on a long-term career direction.
Finally, parents of today's youth are aware of the resources often required to succeed and seem increasingly willing to extend financial and other support to their children, well into their twenties and even into their early thirties. Housing, educational expenses and food over the 17-year period between ages 18 and 34, these resources help to subsidize the freedom that emerging adults enjoy to take a good, long time before settling down into full adulthood, as culturally defined by the end of schooling, financial independence, and new family formation.
These social transformations have helped dramatically to alter the experience of American life between the ages of 18 and 30. Studies agree that the transition to adulthood today is more complex, disjointed, and confusing than it was in past decades. The steps through and to schooling, first real job, marriage, and parenthood are simply less well organized and coherent today than they were in generations past. At the same time, these years are marked by an historically unparalleled freedom to roam, experiment, learn (or not), move on, and try again.