Do you remember the scene in the movie The Graduate, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) lying on an inner tube drifting around a swimming pool with his head submerged? It is a wonderful cinematic image symbolizing how aimless he is feeling having just graduated from college and uncertain about his future. It encapsulates not being ready for adulthood. His father asks about his plans.
Mr. Braddock: Ben, what are you doing?
Benjamin: Well, I would say that I’m just drifting. Here in the pool.
Mr. Braddock: Why?
Benjamin: Well, it’s very comfortable just to drift here.
Mr. Braddock: Have you thought about graduate school?
Mr. Braddock: Would you mind telling me then what those four years of college were for? What was the point of all that hard work?
Benjamin: You got me.
Later his father‘s business partner and friend Mr. McGuire believing he has the best advice for Ben.
Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?
The transition to adulthood has always been a challenging one. These days, that transition to adulthood is more complex and is taking longer than it was for parents, who went through it 30-40 years ago. Today’s young adults are stretching the transition to adulthood on the following five milestones of independence:
- length of time to complete post-secondary education,
- financial independence through full-time employment,
- living independently from their parents permanently,
- living in a common law partnership or marriage
- having children
In fact, the transitions of today’s young adults are both delayed and elongated. They are delayed, because young adults take more time to complete their first major transition (leaving post-secondary school), thus postponing all four subsequent milestones. It is elongated, because each subsequent transition also takes longer to reach. The process of emerging into adulthood has shifted from the early 20’s to the early 30s. That is, the 1970s young adult cohort, packed more transitions into the years from their late teens to their mid-20s and fewer stretched these five milestones into their early 30s.
So, if the transition to adulthood is delayed and elongated for our young adult “children”, we must be careful not judge them by our own “when I was your age” frame of reference. This is not easy as parents. We have invested so much effort, time and money all these years to help them become independent. It requires great emotional patience and, for many, more financial support. We need to adjust our expectations.
This elongated transition also challenges us to figure out what is ‘normal’ in these times and what needs our attention. What are beyond the normal struggles, exploration and experimentation for our young adult children at this time? Are they really lost and directionless, lacking the skills to succeed or is uncertainty and confusion just the normal stage of self discovery and learning?
What are the Developmental Tasks of Young Adulthood?
The 20’s are a decade of intense change and exploration that can impact many aspects of young adults’ future. These are the developmental challenges that all young adults must face.
1. Their Body and Sexual Identity
- Becoming comfortable with their physical sense of self, and accepting their physique.
- Adjusting to their sexually mature body and feelings about it.
- Achieving a clear sexual identity: heterosexual masculine, feminine, homosexual, bi-sexual or transgendered.
2. Their Developing Brains
- Applying abstract and critical thinking skills to all aspects of their life and developing an increased curiosity for the unknown.
- By 6 years of age, we have 95% of the size of our brain, but it continues to develop in the teen years and into the mid-20s. The front part of the brain, responsible for functions such as complex reasoning, problem-solving, thinking ahead, prioritizing, long-term planning, self-evaluation and regulation of emotion, begins to develop in early adolescence with a final developmental push starting at age 16 or 17. It is not that these tasks cannot be done before young adulthood, but rather that it takes more effort and requires practice.
3. Their Emotions
- Accurately identifying their emotions such as anxiety, anger, sadness, guilt and shame
- Regulating or managing their emotions especially when disappointments in school, job, and relationships occur.
- Emerging confidence and self-esteem helps take on new unfamiliar challenges
- Developing will power, self-discipline, determination, ambition, and accountability to self and others
4. Their Values
- Defining a personal sense of identity – who they are and what they hold as important
- Acquiring a set of values and an ethical system as a guide to behavior.
- Desiring and achieving socially responsible behavior
5. Their Parents
- Achieving emotional separateness from their parents. Working toward or achieving economic independence from parents and other adults.
- Relationship with parents changes to becomes more adult-like and egalitarian
6. Their Peers
- Achieving new and more mature relationships with others in their age group and expanding beyond it.
- Developing stable and productive peer relationships
7. Their Education and Career
- Preparing for employment or a career through education and employment apprenticeship.
- Meeting demands of increasing responsibilities
8. Their Romantic Relationship
- Learning about themselves and what they need in a healthy close relationship through positive and negative dating relationships
- May be preparing for a life-long relationship, marriage and family life.
This list above could be a checklist for you to identify where your young adult is succeeding, delayed or failing.
Some young adults are failing to successfully become independent because they are stuck at one or many of these developmental tasks. Others just delayed in accomplishing the developmental steps that are needed to develop age appropriate autonomy.
The Best Ways Parents Can Communicate to Assist Young Adults Progress
- Be tolerant and patient – The transition takes longer for all young adults these days for reasons mentioned above and many others. Also some people take longer to settle into a career.
- Offer advice – try to give advice when requested or when they are receptive. Make sure it is realistic, well informed and not moralistic. Admit when you don’t know something and suggest how they can get better advice from another adult.
- Be a Sounding Board– Listen and help review options with them as a low-key consultant
- Protect when needed –Step in when needed being careful not to convey that you do not trust their judgement. Share your wisdom through life lessons you learned by mistakes you made.
- Show respect for their current lifestyle – It is critical that no matter how disappointed you may feel as a parent that you demonstrate love and concern for them as a person with their own individuality. Cutting them off eliminates your influence in the future.
- Preach or lecture – it is an ineffective way to convey your ideas and alienates young adults
- Criticize or accuse – It is not an effective way to influence and can damage confidence
- Let them know you’re disappointed in them – You are the one they want to impress, so your disappointment could ruin their self-esteem and motivation
Like Benjamin’s (Dustin Hoffman’s) journey in The Graduate, the transition to adulthood includes mistakes and misadventures. At the end of the film, Benjamin dramatically rescues his true love Elaine (Katherine Ross) from marrying the wrong guy. When he drives away from the church in his convertible sports car with her, still wearing her wedding dress, his future remains uncertain. However, one is left with a distinct sense that Dustin Hoffman, like most young adults, has learned more about himself, others and important lessons about life along the way.