young womanIf you are a young single person, look out! Your parents and grandparents, along with others their age, may think of you as self-centered slackers who need to grow up already. They think you are narcissists, the “me generation.” Actually, they are wrong. Here’s why their perceptions are so distorted.

“Kids these days!” When people of a certain age express that exasperation, they are not talking about children. They are rolling their eyes and tut-tutting about those who have graduated from high school and should be on their way toward a conventional path though adult life. The problem is, the older generations are judging the younger ones by the standards of their own times, and the young adult years have changed dramatically in a short time.

So says Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a leading scholar of what he calls “emerging adulthood.” That’s a new life stage – from the late teens until at least the late 20s – that did not even exist in previous generations. As Arnett notes:


“The parents and grandparents of today’s emerging adults may be tempted to apply the norms of their time to their progeny. ‘By the time I was 23,’ they may think, ‘I was married, had a child on the way, and had been working in a stable job for 5 years. Yet these kids are around that age now and seem nowhere near any of these transitions. What’s wrong with them? Why are they so selfish?’”

Young adults of the 21st century are in a whole different world from just three or four decades ago. In industrialized and knowledge-based economies, higher education is more important than it was in the past. Many occupations and professions require it. Many more of today’s young adults – especially women — are pursuing a college education. They are marrying much later than they once did, and more of them are not marrying at all, or not having children.

When older generations see young adults in college or graduate school or professional school instead of work, they sometimes see selfishness. They don’t always view that pursuit of higher education as a good investment in the future, and one that can require focus, enormous effort, and dedication.

Young adults in contemporary times have higher expectations for their work lives (or they did before the recent recession). They are not just looking for a way to pay the bills, but for meaningful work. That attitude, too, is sometimes misperceived as useless self-indulgence.

Maybe it is the higher hopes and higher expectations of today’s emerging adults that get them dubbed as narcissists. That criticism is often unfair, too. For example, young adults’ beliefs about how smart they are, relative to their peers, have not changed in the past three decades. They actually don’t think they are smarter than everyone else. Nor do they differ much from young adults of previous generations in self-esteem, loneliness, life-satisfaction, or antisocial behavior.

The new stage of emerging adulthood is not specific to the United States. It is the norm in other industrialized countries and even in some developing ones. We are not likely to return to the old model anytime soon.


Arnett, J. J. (2010). Oh, grow up! Generational grumbling and the new life stage of emerging adulthood. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5, 89-92.

Young woman photo available from Shutterstock.