Lexicon Valley

Is “Emerging Adulthood” Really a Thing? The Secret History of Words for Young People.

NARA, via Wikimedia Commons

In August 2010, the cover of the New York Times Magazine half-wondered, half-complained to the world, “Why are so many people in their 20s taking so long to grow up?” The article was a splashy survey of research being conducted by psychology professor Jeffrey Arnett into what he called “emerging adulthood”—better known as “your twenties.” For Arnett, establishing this time as a period marked by particular psychological and behavioral traits like “self-focus” and “identity exploration” was crucial to explaining why young adults in places like the US, Europe, and Japan are taking longer and longer to move out, get a job, get married, and have kids.

The article presented the psychological codification of emerging adulthood, like that of adolescence before it, as a “discovery.” But this is more than a little disingenuous. While society did become more sophisticated about its treatment of teenagers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and while there are important socioeconomic and cultural reasons why the social roles of young adults are in flux today, neither of these changes has really caused or been caused by a profound “discovery” about human development, let alone a fundamental change in the human life cycle.

From time to time, people cite the fact that the word “teenager” only came into use in the 1940s as evidence of what novel creatures they are historically, but all this really demonstrates is a shift in terminology.  Before that time, someone was more likely to refer to an “adolescent” (dating from Middle English), a “young adult” (a definite collocate at least by 1762), or a “pubescent” (first used in 1795). By 1818, it was possible to be a “teen,” and people could be “in their teens” way back in 1664. Though there was no “teenager,” the phenomenon of adolescence was widely known and discussed.

In fact, the oldest translation of the Latin word “adolescentia” into English reveals that, despite the relatively narrow meaning of “adolescence” in modern English, the first known form of the word applies the concept much more liberally to cover a much wider range of human experience. It appeared in a 14th-century translation of a text called On the Properties of Things written by the Parisian scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus. “Adholoscencia,” it asserts, lasts to the age of twenty-one. This remark is immediately qualified, however, by a remark that Isidore of Seville, a 7th-century archbishop, actually believed adolescence lasts until age twenty-eight, and that some physicians stretch the period still further, all the way to thirty or even thirty-five.

So there is really nothing new at all about the idea that human beings continue to develop and mature past the age of twenty-one. Ironically, the so-called “discovery” and formal definition of adolescence in the early 20th century seems to have caused the number of new terms for other developmental phases to explode, as stages and experiences that once were lumped into this period were squeezed out at either end.

At one end of the spectrum, “preteen” first appeared in the 1920s, and the word “tween” (despite its meteoric rise in popularity over the last two decades) actually first appeared in a 1941 beauty tips article in the form “tween-teens.” (The less common variant “tweenie” also first turned up in 1919.) At the other end of things, “pre-adult” made its debut in 1899. Much later, in the 1960s, words like “singles” and “bachelorette” also came into vogue as more neutral ways of talking about young adults who were not married.

But over the decades, another set of words was also coming into being. The sports “fan” in the 1880s, “flapper” in the 20s,  “hipster” in 1940 (and thus “hippy” in 1949), “teeny-bopper” in 1966, “gamer” in 1969, “valley girl” and “mall rat” in 1982, and finally “yuppie” in 1984 all offered ways of talking about young people in even more specific cultural contexts and with increasing transparency about one significant detail—their consumerism. Some of these terms could certainly be applied to older people too, but were often used to designate the young. The “discovery” of new psychological traits and behaviors was no longer a matter of academic interest for university psychologists but a very real job with huge financial incentive for advertisers and marketing demographers.

From such a perspective, then, it’s not hard to see “emerging adult” as just another way to summarize the changing consumption habits of people in their twenties. Fewer are buying houses and baby clothes; they buy iPads and Chipotle instead.

This isn’t to suggest that we don’t know more about the tweens, teens, and twentysomethings of today than demographers and statisticians knew about young people in the past. With the enormous growth of Internet usage and personal information therefrom, big data probably ‘knows’ even more about the members of these demographics than we can begin to imagine. What’s more difficult to prove, though, is that we know more about this phase of life in general.

In fact, a cursory glance at early modern literature amply shows that, even if there was no consistent definition for it, people were fully aware of what adolescence amounts to. How else could they understand the “star-cross’d love” of Romeo and Juliet? Or the unrequited love and suicide of Goethe’s young Werther? In 19th-century Russia, a figure known as the lishniy chelovek, or “superfluous man” became epitomized in figures like Eugene Onegin and Grigory Pechorin. These cynical antiheroes despised the world as vapid and wicked, recklessly gambling and dueling their lives away.

Unsurprisingly, the inspiration for such lishniy cheloveki was the melancholy Dane himself, Prince Hamlet, who, despite his quintessential moodiness, penchant for idle philosophizing, and emotionally stunted sexuality, is really not an adolescent by any modern definition of the word. In the first scene of Act Five, the gravedigger explains that he started digging graves “that very day that young Hamlet was borne.” He then clarifies, “I have bin Sexton here … thirty yeeres.”

Which perhaps makes Hamlet the world’s very first emerging adult.