Truth be told, my position in life is somewhat confusing. While I’m no longer a teenager, at 21 I can’t say I feel all that adult-like. I’ve finished one degree, but I’m not ready to commit to any one career. I recently moved into my first apartment, though I have no idea where I’ll be living 10, five or even two years from now. According to developmental psychologists, these are all indicators that I am in my emerging adulthood.
But what exactly is “emerging adulthood”? It’s the period of life between adolescence and full-fledged adulthood, between the late teens and late 20s, where people explore their options before committing seriously to a career, home, or family. And according to experts, it’s happening later and later. Dr. Jeff Arnett of Clark University, who coined the term “emerging adulthood” in 2000, points to the fact that North Americans are delaying adopting a permanent residence until reaching their 30s.
The reasons are complex and diverse, Arnett says: they include a shift in the economy that necessitates more education, a rising marriage age and, more nebulously, an increased sense of personal freedom over the past several decades. All this makes conventional adulthood “a less attractive destination,” he says. (I’ll say.) And then there’s the job market, which makes the decision to move out even more complicated.
This doesn’t mean that today’s young adults aren’t feeling the itch for independence, however. Some friends of mine who remained at home after college say they “would’ve preferred to have gone elsewhere,” and cite being “treated like a child” by parents as both a positive reason why they stayed at home and a negative — why they didn’t want to be there. Fortunately, my parents conveyed confidence in my ability to live on my own. In moving out, I benefitted greatly from knowing my parents had my back, should I need financial or emotional support.
For foster-care children, the lack of a parental support system presents a huge issue. Professor Varda Mann-Feder knows this problem intimately, after having spent decades working with foster children as they transition into adulthood. But there may be good news for emerging adults in foster care: a new study headed by Mann-Feder and her colleagues at Concordia University shows that peer support systems could be even more important than parental support in facilitating the transition to independent living.
While parents played an important role in how confidently participants experienced the transition — particularly based on parents’ willingness to provide a financial safety net — Mann-Feder found that Millennials “much preferred to turn to their friends for help if they needed it,” and “benefit greatly from watching their peers who have already moved out.” Conversely, young adults who opted to stay in their childhood home pointed to friends who were doing the same. Because they tend to model their peers, “when, how and where a young person moves is to a large degree determined by what their friends are doing,” says Mann-Feder.
This finding on peer support shows promise for youth in foster care. While a lack of parental support puts foster youth at a disadvantage, peer supports could help offset it. Mann-Feder notes that most interventions “are always concerned about how peers influence each other negatively, but I think we could really provide much more support for youth aging out of care if we began to cultivate peer networks while they are in the system.”
Here’s how the study was conducted:
Thirty university students aged 21 to 26, who attended a large commuter school in a Canadian city, were interviewed individually. Sixteen had already left home to live on their own, while 14 lived with their families but anticipated leaving home.
Interview questions were designed to elicit narratives on the following topics: descriptions of the transition to living on one’s own, perceptions of readiness, identification of the resources required for a successful transition, and turning points experienced, or anticipated, in the transition to independent living.
In general, participants described leaving home as a leap rather than a well-planned exit. Mann-Feder emphasizes that “moving out is not an event, but a process. It can begin months or years before the actual move.” The building motivation is “a growing wish for privacy and autonomy.”
The instability that moving out creates is a part of the developmental transition that is emerging adulthood. “Young people who leave home for the first time do experience it as a crisis, although they are excited to leave,” says Mann-Feder. “They are overwhelmed at first by the many responsibilities involved in taking care of themselves and running a household.”
To this I can agree. After three months of apartment-living, I’m still learning proper cleaning habits and efficient grocery-shopping skills. (And in all honesty, it was a relief to read accounts of other people struggling with the same challenges.) To echo the findings of the study, my friends have helped immensely in this respect; I know I’m not alone when my friends offer to go grocery shopping with me, or when my roommates and I work out chore schedules together.
For those of us lucky enough to have parental support systems in place, Mann-Feder emphasizes that it’s still “very important as a parent to express confidence in your child’s ability to make it on their own. Sometimes as parents we are so worried about what can go wrong that we do not emphasize enough that we have faith in our children.”
In my own personal experience, knowing my parents trust me to make decisions independently has been a huge burden off my shoulders, allowing me to focus on creating a life for myself. But I wouldn’t have been able to make the leap and commit to moving out if it weren’t for my friends. Seeing my friends move into new apartments and start their lives after college compelled me to seek my own apartment, and living with friends has helped me pick up the skills I need to get by on my own, as well as giving me a huge amount of emotional support.
So for youth coming out of foster care, perhaps the most important takeaway from this study is that they need not be alone in the process. And for developmental researchers, it is that peer influence need not always be cast in a negative light. For us ordinary Millennials attempting the move away from home, this is just a scientific confirmation of what we know to be true: sometimes all we need to get through shifting tides are a few good friends.