The Sociology of Young Adulthood
An Introductory Study of the Unknown

Rosie Ornstein

14 Mountain Road, Tenafly, NJ 07670
(201) 567-1006

Defining Young Adulthood
Sociology/Social psychology
Media Studies
Youth culture and Deviancy

When one thinks of the term “youth,” or more specifically “young adulthood,” various images come to mind. An elderly man will have a different idea of youth than his “generation X” granddaughter. This is the case for any age group looking at another. Young adulthood, however, is one of the most controversial and ambiguous life stages. As early as 1532, people made rules for society’s youth; they were seen as corrupt (Schindler, 244) and needed guidance. By the 1920’s, the image of youth changed drastically. Youth subsequently was equated to the “cult of the Duce” in Fascist Italy. Young adults were seen as the most important element for national mobilization. As a result, in the worldwide scheme, youth became desired; it was the unattainable ideal that elder people strove to reproduce in lifestyle, fashion and attitude (Malvano 232–256).


The ideas and definitions of young adulthood are ambiguous and intangible. The controversy stems from both the resentment and envy of society toward youth. Youth is disregarded by some and revered by others. These opposing attitudes and lack of concrete data motivated this study. Young adulthood, specifically, is the missing link to numerous studies in sociology and psychology. My survey of the research on young adulthood found the topics treated in six broad fields: sociology, social psychology, politics, generations, media, and deviant youth culture. The information found was either extremely specific to a certain case, or conversely, extremely general about young adulthood. Examining these topics gives the researcher a decent source of knowledge and insight to young adulthood. The most important idea learned is that the information is not complete. The task then becomes to postulate why.


Defining Young Adulthood

Theorists often define young adults as those who have reached sexual maturity, but are not married (Schindler, 245). Custom in the United States distinguishes young adults as those newly eligible to vote, at age eighteen. “The time phrase [young adulthood] embraces what has been called the most crucial age range for the creation of a distinctive, self-conscious political generation” ( Jennings and Niemi, 7). Karl Mannheim relates young adulthood with the ability to question and reflect upon life and experiences. To him, this time begins about the age of seventeen (Mannheim, 300). He justifies his age differentiation in further expressing the importance of living in the “present,” “the up-to-dateness of youth therefore consists in their being closer to the ‘present’ problems” (300–301).

Erik Erikson devoted his research to defining the eight stages of life. Young adulthood, according to this model, falls in the sixth stage, “intimacy vs. isolation.” The developing person up until that time has been forming his identity. Now is the test to see if he “can fuse his identity with that of others. He is ready for intimacy, the capacity to commit himself to concrete affiliations and partnerships...” (Erikson,
Childhood and Society, 263). This stage can only occur after the person has successfully completed the other stages. Often, chronology of age is not the most important consideration. “Erikson’s work on identity crisis singles out late adolescence and early adulthood as a potentially important period for political character formation” (Jennings and Niemi, 8).


Sociology/Social psychology

Sociology adds further explanation and insight to the definitions of young adulthood. Gene Bocknek notes four theorists who especially contribute to the study of young adulthood: Besides Erikson, who was the first theorist to use the term “young adult,” Havighurst, White and Wittenberg. He also accounts for the ideas of personalogists and developmental psychologists. Bocknek comprehensively surveyed these works to learn their specific thoughts about this stage of life.

Like Erikson, Robert Havighurst directed his attention in his studies toward young adulthood as a separate stage in the life cycle. He studied the concept of “developmental tasks.” Similar to Erikson, Havighurst looked at growth and development and its effect on young adults. Havighurst identified the young adult as a person between the ages of 18 and 30 (the age range used in Europe). He classified the activities in this time period as aiming toward beginning life; finding a mate, and starting a career and a family. “Havighurst, is therefore, one of the early writers to locate young adulthood in the life span and to offer a systematic method of identifying its features” (Bocknek, 83). Havighurst rested his entire theory on developmental tasks. This was the source of both the strengths and the weaknesses of his study because he eliminated other avenues of research. His research was limited to one culture, the North American middle class. Developmental tasks are not universal, and could not explain cross cultural ideas and values, but his study did comprehensively define the various stages of the life span.

Robert White is an important theorist who did extensive clinical research with young adults. He identifies five “growth trends” of young adult development: (1) stabilizing of ego identity or feeling confident within the newly found identity and not as apt to succumb to outside pressures; (2) freeing of personal relationships in terms of dealing with problems in the “present,” they are thus able to become more sensitive to another person because they are less tied with their personal history; (3) deepening of interests and the enjoyment of life which shapes a person over time and is “tied to both competence and commitment;” (4) humanizing of values distinguishing “between abstract morality of adolescence and the more functional morality of young adulthood”; and finally, (5) expansion of caring the stage of the “growth trend” closely related to Erikson’s idea of “generativity” (Bocknek, 85–86).

Many of the theorists share similar views. White’s second growth trend is reminiscent of Mannheim’s theory. Young adults are finally able to deal successfully with their own problems. They have the ability to think in the present, without the confusion of their personal experiences. When White discusses “humanizing of values,” He makes the claim that by the time people reach young adulthood, they have developed their own sense of morals and ideas internally. They can look inside themselves to know right from wrong. The final growth stage, the “expression of caring,” represents the expansion of the young adult beyond himself, into the community and into his friends and family. This is a stage that is continuously evolving throughout one’s life. The basis for it, however, begins during young adulthood.

The fourth theorist Bocknek cites is Rudolph Wittenberg, one of the only psychoanalytic theorists to assert that “postadolescence represents a specific phase of growth in the life cycle” (Bocknek, 87). Wittenberg identifies five metaphysic characteristics and three socioeconomic factors in young adults.


The Metapsychologic Characteristics

1. A self image crisis, the person alternates between responding to superego demands (parental/authority) and adhering to one’s ego- ideal.

2. Brief states of depersonalization, a person experiences a loss of identity. Accompanied by series of disembodiment, isolation and estrangement.

3. End of role playing. Reality sets in. Often accompanied by depression.

4. Awareness of time continuity. The sense of time passage become more acute. It includes developing the ability to allocate and utilize time in one’s activities, plans or defenses.

5. Search for a partner. the young adult chooses a love object for ‘permanent affiliation.’

The Socioeconomic Factors

1. The economic bind in which young adults want to pay their own way, but society keeps them from the labor force. This is social rejection, because it comes at a time when young adults are striving for autonomy.

2. Group formation, used to personify the young adult’s ego- ideal. Membership in a social, political or religious group becomes part of one’s role and self definition.

3. Evolving a
Weltanschauung, or a philosophy of life. The character of this philosophy depends on the success the young adults has had in coming to terms with all the above mentioned pressure (Bocknek, 87).

All of the characteristics deal with finding an identity, independence in life style and the search for ideals. Wittenberg constantly notices the qualitative changes that occur in young adulthood. “He is among the first of the group to describe adult forms of individuation and ‘real object’ relationships” (Bocknek, 88).

This theoretical overview, although extremely general, does convey the wide range of thought concerning young adulthood. Many other theorists, such as Freud and Mannheim, share similar ideas. Those he mentions, however, share the common theme of the young adult’s search for identity and autonomy. Young adulthood is a brief period of life when many important decisions are made, both consciously and not. It is a period of tremendous growth. The growth extends to setting goals about careers, families and mates. Young adulthood is especially important because for the first time, not only are these goals set, but they have the potential to be realized.



One determining characteristic of young adulthood is whether or not a person is eligible to vote. Decisions about the representation of one’s country, state or county are important and need to be made by a capable person. Some would argue whether an arbitrary age can determine one’s capability, and whether young adults take their rights seriously. Here Erikson’s works apply. He claims that regardless of age, a person who does not successfully complete one stage in the life cycle cannot mentally advance to the next. Politics, however, require that arbitrary ages be set for such rights as voting and such duties as military service.

Political science took up the study of young adulthood only recently. The 1970s are the first time that the influence of youth in politics was studied (Hyman, 5). It began with the 1970 congressional election, as a referendum of American electoral politics. Voting laws subsequently became more liberal. The voting age was lowered from 21 to 18, absentee voting was made easier and the literacy test was abolished (5). In his study, Sidney Hyman considered those between the ages of 18 and 26 young adults. These ages allowed him to observe the effects of the military draft and first-time voting on young people (Hyman, 5). With the end of World War II and the rise of the baby boom, youth had a greater influence than ever before on politics.

In the era of political turmoil that continued into the 1970s, several studies were done depicting the viewpoints of youth. Jennings and Niemi studied how political views changed from one generation to the next. They performed in-depth interviews to parents and their children over an eight year period. “Young adulthood is customarily thought of as a time of lability and receptivity. We therefore had caught the young while still in the formative stages and could observe more clearly the unfolding of their political lives” (Jennings and Niemi, 8). The young adults interviewed were in a high state of transition. The “leading hypothesis is that this life of transition manifests itself in political fashion, leading to high rate of change” (Jennings and Niemi, 9) The final studies show the underestimated potential for young adults in the political arena (Jennings and Niemi, 386). Young adults are determining the future for themselves and for generations to come. They are also more aware of the importance of this than they are given credit.

Young adults are only beginning to form a stable identity. This identity cannot be complete without political knowledge and ideas. Political campaigns target young adults because once they form their ideas, they seldom reverse them. Young people change with the times, but remain loyal to their party and the ideas of that party. Politics are all part of the stabilization of the ego and identity that Erikson and White discuss. Jennings and Niemi also summarize these thoughts: “the controversy regarding attitudinal stability on matters of public policy is one of the preeminent ones in the study of mass publics. Our understanding of political phenomena is often enhanced by our study of the nonpolitical” (10–11).



Change is an inevitable part of life and growth. New inventions, technology, politics, environment and the general feeling of society are causes and effects of change. To fully understand change, one needs to look at the past. Studying generations is an effective way to take control of the present and also to see the past through the eyes of the people who lived it. There has been research conducted on obvious generational topics, such as the baby boom generation and other “war babies.” However, studying the “norm” is as interesting as it is impossible. The term generation has many connotations. It could mean a group of people born in the same year, a “cohort.” Another view of the term is to classify all parents into one generation and their children, who are close in age, into the next generation. Nonetheless, there are always changes and differences within age groups. Often these changes are represented in political views, media use, and inter-personal relationships.

Young adulthood is a key phrase in forming each generation. Although, the attitudes and beliefs of young adults change with the times, each group of young adults faces similar adversities in society. Even though the definition of young adulthood itself has changed with history, the ambiguous life stage has been recognized throughout the modern era. At some historical moments, a generation receives close study. Young adults of the 1960s (at least a vocal minority of them) were in the center of attention in part because they attempted to influence political decisions being made and had a strong will to participate. These attitudes were not always welcome. A high school student in Boston in the 1960s expressed her frustration that “our whole educational system in public and private schools has been designed to make us think for ourselves. But when we do, you older citizens call it ‘rioting,’ what do you want? Robots?” (Fletcher, 17).

Certain generations have been forgotten, for a time or looked down upon simply due to the times they grew up in. The war youth of 1914 is often referred to as the “lost generation.” Robert Wohl studied that generation to reconcile the term “lost” and explain why it is a misnomer. “How many of us could even identify with any degree of certainty the so-called ‘men of 1914?’ Indeed, one would be tempted to argue that if the war generation is ‘lost,’ it is lost because it has no history; lost because its history is overlaid with myth” (2).

Generations are important to the study of the sociology of young adulthood, regardless of which perspective of the term is taken. Generations form when people of the same age group share similar strong experiences. Examining a group of people through the lens of their common experience allows a richer understanding, in part because it conveys the sentiment anchored in a specific era.



The current generation suffers from similar feelings of being “lost” as did the Generation of 1914. “Generation X” was the name given to a group of people that are seen by the rest of society as having no direction, no common cause. The term began as a result of Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. It originally signified people who were “‘underemployed, overeducated, intensely private and unpredictable’” (Nicholson, 5). “Generation X” caught on, and people ignorantly began to use it to signify a group of “young adults too lazy or apathetic to go out and get a ‘real job’ and a ‘real life’” (6). This generation is another one that will go down in history as highly misunderstood. News about what the current generation is “really” like is sensationalized by the media. People come to believe, for example, that all generation Xers have body piercings, get tattoos, ride skateboards and watch MTV. This is not the case.

Generation X is known for its skepticism. It is not persuaded as easily by advertising as the previous generation once was. It is also the first generation to be raised in the era of technology (Nicholson, 1997). Generation Xers grew up watching television more than any other generation. The Saturday morning cartoons of their youth were full of advertisements. J. Giles of Newsweek magazine explains the skepticism of the current generation toward advertising: “the first time you realize that the super toy you wanted is really only four inches tall you learn a hard lesson. We created a whole generation that believes advertising is lies and hype” (Giles, 1994. qtd. in Nicholson, 1997). The media, now more than ever, is a tie that holds the generation together in theory, if not in reality. “Their [young adults’] common experience may forge a distinctive identity as a generation, using the media to create their own subcultural meanings” (Barnhurst, 15).

Young adults are striving daily to formulate their identity. This is not always a conscious effort that society influences. Young adults, perhaps more impressionable than they would like to admit, use the media as a major source of identity formation. The media also represent a common ground that young people share. From the media they acquire a set of guidelines to follow, both moral and stylistic.


Youth culture and Deviancy

Of course, society does not come with a rule book. Ideas about how to dress, act and perform correctly are arbitrary and develop through social interaction. Young adults who stray from these rules are sometimes seen as deviant or as members of a subculture. “Youth, its cultures and subcultures, have always been seen as a social problem in the minds of general public and policy makers” (Brake, 167). Youth cultures began to take public attention in the 1960s, “in American society, the vision and analysis was distinctly different for middle class youth by the 1960s, from that of their parents” (Brake, 92). “The analysis favored is that of Mannheim (1952), who narrows age cohorts to generational units, that is actively involved members of an age group, who influence social change” (Brake, 93).

Juvenile delinquency may have existed for some time; but only recently, have social scientists begun to call it a severe problem. “Sex maniacs and dope addicts have been with us a long time. Maybe we were simply more skilled at diagnosing the disease labeled ‘juvenile delinquency’” (Fletcher, 16). Some may argue that young adults today have more reason to rebel. They were raised in the television age. Many come from families where both parents work, the products of the “latchkey” phenomenon, children who came home not to the arms of a mother or father, but to a remote control. “During periods of boredom, feelings of frustration lead adolescents to ‘drift’ into and out of delinquency” (Brake, 47). Young adults relate strongly to the each other and members of their cohort. “Youth culture has been used uncritically in post-war American literature, favoring a generational rather than a class membership” (Brake, 88).

Youth cultures received public attention in the United States in the 1950s, with the Beatniks, and in the 1960 s with the Hippies. With the advent of the Hippies, other cultures naturally gained force and confidence. “The Bohemian culture gained immediate expressivity” (Brake, 95). The youth cultures began to mesh together. They spread across the United States and Europe and took different forms. Youth cultures develop languages, make their ideas of the world become concrete, and adapt styles from the media, school and peers. As they begin to turn to each other for understanding, criticism and advice, society sometimes describes them as falling into a life of deviancy.



Looking at youth through the various lenses of history, sociology, politics, media, generations, and deviancy provides a substantial amount of information and understanding. However, the research is usually done by people on the outside looking in. Can a scholar really understand young adulthood, regardless of the amount of research and field work? Also, scholars are influenced by fashion. The studies of youth culture, for example, responded to a style of thinking (and to media portrayals) of the time. How can we correct the ways that the theorists and researchers are influenced by fashion and the media of their own time? These are only some of the questions remaining.

To say that the study of young adulthood is not complete is an understatement. There are comprehensive research literature dealing with children, adolescents, adults and the aged. The important period of young adulthood is often indeed missing. The research is scarce, the courses offered on college campuses are few to none. Besides the ambiguity of the topic, what other reasons may account for this gap? Young adults are as available to researchers as other groups, but few have attempted to describe them. Youth may be objects of resentment and envy for the researchers. As Fletcher suggests, “youth is fearfully and wonderfully made. (And if that sounds envious on my part, it is!)” (69). Another reason for the lack of study is that people do not always distinguish this stage of life from others. The theorists who did study young adulthood specifically were noteworthy for that fact alone. Scholarly journals also tend to have a prejudice toward studying young adults. Often, the studies are done by professors, who use their students for subjects. This makes the research easier but also makes the category of young adults seem a mere convenience.

Young adults are at the threshold of their lives. They are grappling with decisions and choices that others may not see as important. To them, life is new, and frightening. They are excited to embark on the journey but unsure at the same time. They are caught between their generational cohort and their historical connection to families who are trying to protect and comfort them. It is a symbolic time, both an end and a beginning. Further study on the subject especially by young adults themselves, would perhaps re-teach the rest of society what it is like to be living through these years. Young adults are a group that should demand more respect and should, in turn be expected to achieve and accomplish more. A comprehensive study on the subject would show the world the wealth of talents and capabilities of the youthful generation.



Sociology/ Social Psychology

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Erikson, Erik. 1965. “Youth and the Evolution of Identity.” Childhood and Society. pp. 278–374. New York: Norton.

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Youth culture/Deviancy

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Fussell, Paul. 1975. The Great War and Modern Memory. New York: Oxford University Press.

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O’Donnell, Mike. 1985. Age and Generation. London: Tavistock.

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Nicholson, Daniel R. 1997. “Advertising and Generation X: Problematics and Potentials.” Paper presented to Visual Communication Interest Group, Montreal.