A phenomenon of today: ungrown-up grown-ups

Experts at the MU Faculty of Social Studies are investigating a phenomenon of emerging adulthood.

When and why do young people begin to take on long-term commitments in the areas of work, studies, partnership and parenthood, and what their life goals are?According to the law and judging by their behaviour in public, they are grown-ups. Eighteen or over, in many cases they earn money and live with a partner, although many of them don't feel exactly adult. Experts at the Institute for Research on Children, Youth and Families at the MU Faculty of Social Studies are investigating a phenomenon connected with such a feeling, described as 'emerging adulthood'.

The concept of emerging adulthood first appeared in Euro-American culture in the 1990s as a good description of the experience of life and feelings of young people. In 2000 the journal American Psychologist published a major study by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett on the subject. At the dawn of the new millennium, certain demographic trends were strikingly evident in democratic countries with advanced economies. These included the postponement of marriage and an increase in the number of couples living together out of wedlock.

“Apart from particular, observable behaviour, an important criterion of emerging adulthood as a specific stage of development is the subjective feelings of the young person," says psychologist Lenka Lacinová. “Whether he or she continues to feel like an adolescent or now feels like an adult, or – and this is an important indicator of this phenomenon – something in between."

Last summer experts at the Institute embarked on a long-term study called Paths to Adulthood, by which they intend to gather data from respondents aged 18-25 over a period of five years. The young subjects will be asked by researchers once every three or four months to complete an online questionnaire. The first questionnaire gathered data from over 1370 respondents; preliminary analysis has revealed interesting results and produced further questions.

“Many of the respondents live in several places at once and their income is made up from several complementary sources – parents, part-time work, scholarships, benefits, short-term contracts" says Stanislav Ježek, another member of the research team. “It's possible that this dynamic mosaic is also characteristic of other areas of life. Once we might have termed this a pre-settling-down state. But today we should consider it a long-term stage or even a lifestyle. We've also found that the feeling of being something between an adolescent and an adult is highly individual and not heavily dependent on external characteristics such as gender. Nor is there a connection with whether a person feels good or bad."

Lenka Lacinová points out that several years ago Petr Macek, leader of the current research, published a study on this phenomenon in the Czech Republic. “So we're building on earlier cross-sectional research, which we intend to expand through the monitoring of different aspects," she says. “We shall attempt to discover how, when and why young people begin to take on long-term commitments in the areas of work, studies, partnership and parenthood, and what their life goals are. We'll be interested in how they view the process of gaining independence in different areas of life."

More options for what to do in life
Thirty years ago there were very few alternatives regarding the transition to adulthood. After secondary school a young man would enter military service, find a girlfriend, marry her and be given a flat by his employer. With young people who went to university, the same scenario would occur five years later. But today there are many more options for what to do with one's life, and young people have great freedom of choice. “Sociologists tell us that their options have changed significantly. What we don't know is how young people take all this choice," says Lenka Lacinová.

The researchers hope that after four years of monitoring they will learn how young people experience key moments in their lives, such as their choice of partner or profession, and what leads them to their decision. “We'll also find out something about their original family circumstances, helping us understand how, for instance, a young person develops in terms of gaining autonomy," adds Lenka Lacinová.

The Institute's team aims to attract 3000 respondents, bearing in mind that not all are expected to stick with the programme for its duration. They address young people through secondary schools and universities, companies and the Department of Employment. “Our initial success rate was not high," continues Lenka Lacinová, “so we decided to make use of social networking sites and created our own Facebook page. Thanks to this there has been a significant increase in the number of people willing to get involved in the research. Of course, we realize that in taking this step we lost some control over who participates in the research."