The age at which people think of themselves as adults has been creeping upward, to the extent that a new stage of development has been added to the familiar ones such as childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. “Emerging adulthood,” the term coined by social scientist Jeffrey Arnett, refers to those years when people are no longer adolescents but not quite established as adults either. (Other monikers have also been used, such as “adultolescents.”) Somewhere between 25 and 39, though, the majority of people feel that they have reached adulthood.
So what then? How do people feel about their lives during those early years of making it to adulthood? That’s what Arnett set out to explore in a national survey of a diverse sample of more than 1,000 Americans between the ages of 25 and 39.
In his sample, 51 percent were married, 12 percent were cohabiting, and 10 percent had a close boyfriend or girlfriend. He classified as single the other 27% (though legally, 49 percent were single).
When asked to indicate their current sources of enjoyment, which of the following do you think was mentioned most often? I’ll list the possibilities alphabetically so you can test your intuition:
- Exercise or playing sports
- Having time to myself
- Hobbies or leisure activities
- Relationships with friends
- Relationships with parents
- Relationships with siblings
- Travel or holidays
- Using social media
- Watching television
If you guessed “having time to myself,” you are right! Here is the same list of 10 possible sources of enjoyment (the 10 that were mentioned by more than half of all participants), this time ordered by the percent of people who endorsed each:
- 91%, having time to myself
- 86%, hobbies or leisure activities
- 83%, relationships with friends
- 82%, travel or holidays
- 79%, watching television
- 77%, relationships with parents
- 76%, using social media
- 66%, exercising or playing sports
- 65%, relationships with siblings
- 55%, pets
When reporting that “having time to myself” came out on top, Arnett and his coauthor Joseph Schwab speculated that time to oneself may be especially valuable because it is so rare. One of their other results seems consistent with that possibility. When asked to indicate their main sources of stress, the 25-39 year-olds most often mentioned “too much to do and not enough time to do it all” (64 percent; next in line was financial stress, mentioned by 60 percent).
I suspect that the time crunch explanation is only part of the story. In my preliminary research on people who are, and are not, single at heart, I found that just about everyone who identifies as “single at heart” feels very positively about having time alone. The key question in my survey is, “When you think about spending time alone, what thought comes to mind first?” Alternatives were “Ah, sweet solitude” and “Oh, no, I might be lonely!” Among people who are most clearly single-at-heart, 99 percent of them (!) chose “Ah, sweet solitude.” But even among those who are most clearly not single-at-heart, more than half (56 percent) also chose the sweet solitude answer. So maybe having too much to do and not enough time to do it all exacerbates the craving for time to yourself, but I think you can savor that alone-time even if you are not feeling stressed.
[Note: The Kindle countdown deals on almost all of my books are continuing for a few more days (through the 22nd in the US and the 23rd in the UK). Prices started at 99 cents on the first day and then increase gradually to the regular list price by the end of the 7th day. Also, some of my books are available in other languages.]