Emerging Adulthood

“You need to get over this fear of being an adult,” I remember my mom reproaching me during my senior year of high school.

“It’s not that I’m afraid of being an adult. It’s just that … being an adult kind of … sucks. And I don’t want to do it.”  

Now in my final semester of college, my defensive reply rings more and more true. When we’re children, it seems like all we want to do is grow up—to drive ourselves around, buy whatever we want, and eat cookies for breakfast (because we can). And sure, the ability to do those things is pretty liberating. However, lately I wish I could return to the days when I lacked this freedom—the days of others taking care of me, the days of no responsibility.

Still, at age 22, I can’t say that I personally have that much responsibility. In fact, so long as I’m still in college, I’m living the cushy life, which not all students can say. I can pat myself on the back as much as I want for taking out the trash, paying the internet bill, and getting my flu shot, but I’m still living without any true responsibilities, financial or otherwise. I am privileged enough to have my parents’ support for rent and food, and the little income I make I can put toward gas and frivolities.

I am, as my mom and therapist tell me, “in transition.” I’m in transition to becoming an “adult,” or “adultish,” or a person who practices the art of “adulting.” I imagine most, if not all, of my classmates recognize that they, too, are in transition. In fact, as part of my Third Block adolescent psychology course, we examined our own cohort: emerging adults. It was during this course that I truly came to terms with the reality that I was entering a new and distinct stage of my life.


As time has gone on, particularly now in the second semester of my senior year, I am compelled to come to my own conclusions about how one transitions to true adulthood with grace and genuineness, while grappling with feelings of shame and uncertainty about societal expectations. These unpleasant emotions typically emerge in the same way: someone asks me that classic cocktail party inquiry, “So, what are you doing after graduation?”

Despite the casual way it’s presented, this question often fills seniors with nausea, dread, and self-doubt. You mean I have to have everything figured out, beyond just taking out the trash, paying the internet bill, and getting my flu shot? I have to foster a career that offers me benefits? Not only is, “So, what are you doing after graduation?” a paralyzing, terrifying question, it’s a deeply existential one. It gives college students pause as to what they’ve been doing for the past four years and whether it was all even worth it. I feel particularly haunted by this question and the implications of my future decisions. But why? Because I have all the free time to think about it.

Fourth Block of junior year, I made an epic discovery: I could finish college in just three and a half years. I could be done with my major, two minors, and all-college requirements in exactly 12 months.

This discovery meant the world to me. It meant saving my family a semester’s worth of tuition, entering the workforce sooner than the rest of my classmates, and, most importantly, being done with tests, presentations, essays, and exams. That was huge because, during the first semester of my junior year, I decided that I was done with this whole “school” thing, done with this institution of cramming and regurgitation, of having to prove myself again and again.


At school, you’re never done. There’s always a way to get ahead, a meeting to attend or to plan, and an obligation to fulfill. So, after working my first real-ass, 9-to-5 job after sophomore year, I realized I just wanted to be in the real world, where I could finish my work at the end of the day, open a beer, and be done. In a sense, I was like a little kid again: I wanted to be an adult.

Well, here I am. I’m done with school, not yet graduated, with free time out my ears. I work part-time for Bon Appetit, network and job hunt relentlessly, and bide my time reading, listening to podcasts, and cross-stitching. I clean my housemates’ dishes and fold their laundry, sweep the floor, and buy the groceries. Whenever someone asks me if I’m free to do something, I respond jokingly, “Am I free? Please, I’m unemployed! Of course I’m free!” Though I’ve been slowly but surely making peace with my current position, there’s still a tinge of terror in my voice.

To be honest, I fluctuate between feeling completely secure in this job search process and feeling completely helpless and directionless. I could have taken a more conventional path. I could have just continued on with school, continued on with my work-study jobs, and pursued post-grad jobs when I could in between. But at what cost? At the cost of feeling like a robot, weighed down by constant stress, and left without time and energy to wholeheartedly explore my career options. As I watch my housemates cram for exams, furiously type last-minute papers, and spend hours at the library preparing presentations, I do not feel an ounce of jealousy. In this regard, I feel totally self-assured in my decision and recognize that taking time off is a viable option for someone experiencing burnout.

The real reason why I often feel like I’m in way over my head and going nowhere lies in shame. My housemate sent me an article from an advice column, entitled, “I’m Broke and Mostly Friendless, and I’ve Wasted My Whole Life.” The writer laments that at age 35, she has nothing to show for herself: she’s moved around constantly, worked multiple jobs with no upward mobility, and maintained few relationships, along with a myriad of other self-declared failures. In many ways, the writer was describing the life I feel destined for: a life of constant movement, never settling, but never really progressing, either.

Polly, the woman who runs the advice column, asks the writer to consider the root of all these feelings of inadequacy: shame. The writer is ashamed of moving around so much, rather than taking pride in the experiences she’s accrued by traveling. She criticizes her movement among industries, rather than applauding her adaptability and versatility as an employee. It’s all about frame of mind. Polly beautifully illustrates how the writer’s decisions don’t need to be viewed as destructive—perhaps she could have done things differently, but by making these choices, the writer has now brought herself to a point of wanting to change. And that’s good, too. At 35, she still has all the time in the world (so surely, at 22, I do as well).  

Shame creates an alternate universe; shame makes us believe that everyone is judging our choices and lifestyle. Like the writer, I periodically allow shame to dictate what I think others’ perceptions of me are. I think that everyone knows (and cares) how frustrated I am applying endlessly to jobs only to hear no response back or to receive flat-out rejection. I find myself pathetic for only being able to secure one part-time job, confronted with so much free time that I feel like doing my housemates’ dishes gives me purpose. I forget that I should be proud of myself for effectively graduating in only three and half years. I forget that, given my poor mental health record, having free time to cross-stitch, listen to podcasts, read, and even do dishes is inherently good for me. I forget that as aggravating as job hunting can be, at least I have the time and space to do it, without class, work-study, and extra-curriculars piled on. I am in an ideal position, thanks to my own hard work.

Still, the shame that many of my peers and I feel persists. It lies in the beliefs held by society at large about where we’re “supposed to be” and what we’re “supposed to do”—all insinuated by that cocktail party question. Luckily, the expectations that previous generations have laid out for us are shifting, and what we’re “supposed to be” and “supposed to do” are far murkier than they once were.

I learned in my adolescent psychology course that these shifts have to do with a new view of the human lifespan. Previously, developmental psychologists supported a simpler progression of life stages: infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood. However, in recent years, they have discovered that our age group—namely, those 18 to 25—are their own breed. Why? Because society finds us in the most diverse of circumstances.

In our liberal arts bubble, we often think that all 18 to 22-year-olds are in college. The reality is, at age 18, many aren’t in school. Some might be married, have children even; many take gap years; many work or travel. Some are taking time off and working part-time for their school’s catering service. Those who do go to college might do any number of things after graduation: attend graduate school, move back home, explore the world, begin their career, or just flat-out flounder. It’s no wonder that I feel overwhelmed by being (kind of) out in the real world; our paths as graduates are practically limitless.

The ambiguity associated with “emerging adulthood” comes with many negative stereotypes about our age group—stereotypes that may add to our shame as we navigate this tricky time. However, Clark University professor of psychology Jeffrey Arnett demonstrates how many of these myths are misguided.

For starters, people imagine the college-age group as suffering from enormous stress, experiencing a “quarter-life crisis.” Sure, our anxiety manifests itself through memes and the frequent alcoholic beverage, but in reality, we’re all just trying to make sense of ourselves and our experiences. Arnett notes that we’re simply in an age of “identity confusion,” a term coined by developmental psychologist Erik Erikson to describe the process of exploring different selves to ultimately arrive at that self which will help us flourish in true adulthood. He counters social psychologist Jean Twenge, who points to the increase in major depression over the 20th century as evidence of our duress (even though this rise in depression is evident across all age groups). In other words, everyone is stressed out by the world right now. Thus, we seniors should all take a deep breath, acknowledge that we’re in the same boat as everyone else, and not blow our position out of proportion (I would do well to take this advice).

Thankfully, this should not be too difficult—our age group is pretty optimistic, despite this era of investigations on Russia, fake news, and polarizing tweets. Arnett points to studies by Hornblower (1997) and Schulenberg and Zarrett (2006) that demonstrate that the overwhelming majority of 18 to 29-year-olds believe that they’ll get to the place they wish to be in life, and that overall well-being increases from age 18 to 26. I’m honestly unsurprised; I find myself and my peers often saying, even in times of duress, “It’ll all work out.” I, for one, really want to believe it will all work out—I just struggle to internalize this belief.

Those emerging adults who are overly stressed are typically the ones who struggle to cope with the unstructured time that comes with this developmental stage. This fact reminds me to shut up when I start lamenting that I’m free to binge-watch “New Girl.”

Another negative stereotype about emerging adults is our selfishness. We appear self-indulgent because we spend more time and money on ourselves than on others. This appears true; how many Colorado College alums can I name who decided to dirt-bag around the West rock climbing or travel to South America after graduation? Many students, at least at CC, have the financial means to indulge in a “gap year.” That being said, our generation is the most likely to engage in volunteer work, and Arnett argues that “selfishness” is a misinterpretation; in this time period, we are not necessarily obligated to work, marry, or have kids, so we foster our self-development. We travel, experience new places and jobs, or engage in further study, not because we’re selfish, but because we’re trying to be our best selves. If we did not practice this self-development, we wouldn’t be prepared to devote ourselves to others in the future, whether it be to a spouse, children, family, or co-workers. Especially after a school as rigorous as CC, taking time to recharge and reassess only seems healthy.

The final negative stereotype about emerging adults is the notion that we refuse to grow up. This one hits close to home. Yet our “refusal to grow up” may not be a refusal, but a necessity. Arnett comments that economic constraints nowadays have made it much harder for our generation than previous ones to settle down with a job, partner, and kids by age 25. Many jobs require more than an undergraduate degree—that’s a given now. But also, most emerging adults see the same bummers about adulthood as I do: Though independence is nice, paying bills, going to work, and caring for all your personal needs is onerous, and lacks spontaneity. Moreover, on the personal side, I feel as though adulthood means sacrificing bits of my childlike identity—wearing a turtle backpack skiing, making pancakes for dinner, and embarking on hairbrained schemes on late summer nights.

Still, Arnett says that by age 30, most of us settle down, whether it be through a job or a relationship or both. We land on our feet, much the same way that practically all of us end up at the right college. We experience some stress, we self-develop, and ultimately, we accept adulthood, for all its perks and suckiness. And I think that all of us, as confused as we feel currently, recognize this as our future.

Though I still feel frustrated and dip in and out of optimism, I have come to accept that all of the existential thoughts I’ve been having are not particular to me. Though my immediate peers may appear less jumbled by their class routine, they’re struggling with the same challenges as I am: getting responses from potential employers, questioning whether they’re making the right decisions, and feeling shame if they’re pursuing aspirations that others don’t find as meaningful. Even those who do have an answer to “So, what are you looking to do after graduation?” may feel a pit in the bottom of their stomach, unsure if this first step in their career path is really going to take them places or fulfill them adequately emotionally and mentally.

The bottom line: None of us really know how to transition into true adulthood, and there isn’t a prescribed way to do so, but we can still remain optimistic, foster personal growth, and embrace our transition. I still don’t know what “adulthood” means for me. Maybe it’s job stability; maybe it’s buying my own house; maybe it’s finding a significant other. For now, I can learn and define what my emerging adulthood, or adulting, means.

To me, it’s first sticking to my values: being a loyal friend, practicing self-care, and always working on my communication skills. Most of all, never accepting adulthood as a walk in the park, but learning to deal with the unfortunate aspects (taxes, health insurance) with grace. It means doing away with my shame at my current position and focusing on the positives. It means embracing my free time and using it to explore this chapter of my life, to cultivate the best Slaico I can be. And sometimes, it means eating cookies for breakfast.

Fill In The Blank Issue | April 2019