You probably know one or know someone who is worrying about one. If you don’t know one, let me introduce you to the average emerging adult in this “great again” first-world country of ours. You see I have a special seat the Hogwarts-banquet-turned-Hunger Games. I’m a psychotherapist and I work mostly with individuals in their twenties and early thirties. Sociologists call this time of life emerging adulthood. I’m also the parent of a twenty-seven-year-old son in recovery from opiate addiction and a twenty-four-year-old daughter with an average amount of student debt. I’ve been holding back my anger and my anxiety, in the name of mindfulness, but it’s time to be be mindfully angry. It’s time for us – the more established adults – to stand up and help this generation.
Emerging adults are not teenagers. They have finished their secondary education, but have not yet reached the traditional markers of adulthood, like stable income, access to health care, stable housing and long-term partnership. In our current cultural, economic, and political climate, it is much more difficult to bridge the gap from emerging to established adulthood than it was for prior generations.
Researcher Jeffrey Jenson Arnett from Clark University says emerging adulthood exists whenever there is a gap of at least a few years between completing secondary school and finding established roles in society, such as steady work and stable community. The path from adolescence to fully-formed adult is most decidedly expanded in our current culture. This is in part due to the fact that our knowledge-based, tech-based economy requires more training before most young adults can achieve economic security. The problem is, the average working class and even middle-class American family can no longer afford the training or education required to get their emerging adults at the middle-class starting line without taking on substantial debt. Instead, many emerging adults find themselves working two or more minimum wage jobs (a wage that has been falling behind the rate of inflation for decades), uninsured, and starting life on shaky ground.
“Oh those whiny, self-absorbed, special snowflakes, you might be thinking. “At least they didn’t have to go to war.” But if you look past the stereotypes, you will see that most emerging adults have good reason to feel overwhelmed. Many are sleep-deprived from working two or three jobs. Many need medical attention, but can’t afford a visit to the doctors.
And you may not realize this but they are at war. It’s called the opiate epidemic. More people died of opiate-related deaths in 2016 than in the nineteen-year span of the Viet Nam war. And this number includes a disproportionate amount of people in their twenties and early thirties. There are many parents out there who burned through one kid’s college fund to put another kid in rehab – many parents. Can these parents ask Big Pharma to sponsor scholarships for siblings of emerging adults in recovery? I’m serious. Can we?
So let me introduce you to the real emerging adult. Large collections of data like the Pew Research Study on Millennials show that emerging adults actually have a higher level of concern for the environment and greater participation in community service than past generations. Values like leading a meaningful life, having strong friendships, and finding steady work, have remained the same when compared to Baby Boomers and Gen-Exers. The stereotype of the narcissistic, over-coddled Millennial is a myth. The truth is, they just want to be able to pay their bills, go to the dentist when they need to, and be in community. Just like we did when we were young. It seems as if they could achieve these simple, middle-class goals they would turn their attention to the things that matter to them – creating equality, building strong communities, protecting the environment, or just starting a resasonably happy, health family of their own.
If you’ve read the above stats and you still think young adults are a bunch of coddled babies, consider this: Two of the fastest growing occupations in the U.S. are Professional Care Aides and Home Health Aides. These are the underpaid, often uninsured and overworked care workers who are taking care of the elderly and disabled. If you are a Baby Boomer, it’s very likely that your Professional Care Provider will be an emerging adult. Do you want that person to be stressed and distracted, or would you like them to have stability, so they might care for you with compassion?
Recently, in two separate conversations with two very different young adults, I was told that stability is one of the main priorities in their lives. Stability – not adventure, ambition, success, recognition, meaning or some other more spirited, optimistic value we might associate with young adulthood, but stability. It’s as if many young adults have resigned themselves to a rocky road full of potholes, afraid to take any chances, knowing there is no safety net to catch them if they fail.
If you love an emerging adult and they are doing well, thriving even, you are lucky. If you love an emerging adult who is struggling to pay medical bills or buy groceries or is battling addiction, you are not alone.
What do we do to help this generation being led by government policies that are basically saying, “Let them eat cake!” How do we counter the isolation and overwhelm that seems to be inherent in the digital age for both mature and emerging adults? Here are some suggestions for managing stress and replacing isolation and overwhelm with connection and confidence. They won’t solve every emerging adult problem, but they can help young adults and their loved ones problem-solve together, with a calm mind and with compassion. They might pull an emerging adult back from the edge, and help them connect with other emerging adults. Maybe together we can win The Hunger Games.
These suggestions apply to emerging adults as well as we “established” adults who are trying to help. For more suggestions, pick up a copy of Mindfulness for Emerging Adults: Finding balance, belonging, focus, and meaning in the digital age:
Suggestions for mentoring an emerging adult:
Normalize – You are not alone in feeling overwhelmed by the current state of the world, or even the state of your bank account. DON’T compare yourself to the 2D world of FaceBook. Instead, seek out like-minded friends and colleagues who are authentic enough to show and share their human vulnerabilities with you.
Create balance – Many, many circumstances may be out of your control. But many, many circumstances can be modified right now. The state of your nervous system, for instance, can be changed by taking a few deep breaths. Once tamed, your nervous system directs the brain to relax, and find solutions to problems that seemed unsolvable.
Create a healthy community – Balance is easier to find and maintain in a healthy community. Feeling lonely today? It is common to find your friend group shrinking and shifting in our mobile global culture. Creating and maintaining a healthy social circle takes work. It might be time for you step out of your comfort zone and broaden your idea of who your people are.
Take back focus – The power structure wants us stunned and overwhelmed, distracted and scared. The bully wants you isolated and alone. Be mindful of how you use social media and how it affects your outlook. In Mindfulness for Emerging Adults, I outline several exercises that help you regain focus if our digital society has left you with fractured concentration.
Create meaning – and of course, all of the above points are easier to obtain if we know what we value. When is the last time you sat down to write a list of values? Don’t fret. For most of us, it’s been a while. Where in our modern culture are we encouraged to do so? For a while, if shunned the idea of values, as some preachy idea co-opted by ultra-conservative Politicians. But the truth is, that we need some sort of compass, to combat the barrage of digital images that pull us this way and that? Do I want to save my money to go back to school? Oh, wait! Look that the trip my friends are taking? If you know that you value knowledge and education, or adventure and novelty, it’s easier to make decisions with confidence.
What is going right? – In a stressed-out world, filled with negative news, we need to make a concerted effort to notice what is going well. Cultivating positive emotions like joy, gratitude, and pride is a free way to boost your immune system, build resiliency, and stay healthy – no health insurance needed! It takes practice but it’s worth your time. Write down three small things that went well today.
Remember that you are part of nature – The digital age has many benefits. There’s no way I could write as clearly on my laptop as I could on the electric typewriter I had in high school. And working remotely has actually allowed me to spend more time in our home in the White Mountains. But we sometimes forget that we are not flesh-colored computers. We still need seven to eight hours of sleep on a regular basis even though we could stay up all night binging on Netflix. We still need in-person social connection and community to have a sense of safety even if we can spend all our time texting. Who is running the show, you or Facebook? Ask yourself this question often.
For more tools for finding balance in young adulthood including practical worksheets, pick up a copy of Mindfulness For Emerging Adults: Finding balance, belonging, focus, and meaning in the digital age.
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