Forever Young: Marketing to Emerging Adults (Part One)

Keep an ear to the ground, marketers: A new demographic might be, well, emerging. Last week, New York Times posted an article about a new life development stage that’s being deemed ’emerging adulthood’–the period between adolescence and adulthood. Coined by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, psychology professor at Clark University, this term applies to all those 20-somethings who’ve graduated school but may be unemployed, living at home or otherwise dependent on others for getting by–yes, especially their parents. It also describes the increasing collective of young folk who feel no pressure to cohabitate, marry or begin families anytime soon–instead prolonging the period between their childhood freedom and the markers that are typically used to define mature adulthood.

Surprisingly, the term adolescence has only been recognized as its own life stage since the beginning of last century, notes the article’s author, Robin Marantz Henig. Changing youth labor laws and public school imperatives made it necessary to reconsider and redefine the processes of maturing–and acknowledge, for the first time, the gap between childhood and adulthood. Now, due to recent changes in our society, we may be looking at a similar wedge between life stages that will refuse to be ignored: emerging adulthood.

Today’s understanding of emerging adulthood is mostly based on observed and surveyed behavioral patterns from the start of this millennium. However, the life stage is accredited to factors that go as far back as the 1920s–the women’s right to vote–through the ‘70s and the prevalence of birth control, just for example. Advances in science, technology and politics have changed the shape of today’s families; in turn, life path flexibility is encouraging individuals to take more time to figure out what they want and when they want it. When major life goals change, so do their timelines, and this means that the process of arriving at–much less defining–life’s stages must also necessarily adapt.

Arnett’s information seems to be bolstered by a National Institute of Mental Health study that began in 1991 and recently concluded, proving that humans’ brains are not fully mature until about 25 years of age—though it was previously believed that they had matured by the end of the teenage years. Until the mind has finished going through its own primary developmental cycle, perhaps individuals cannot be bothered to make major, long-term and life-altering decisions—or should not be expected to.

This means that on top of external feedback–such as society’s increasing acceptance toward 20-somethings who have not yet secured their adult role in life–these older young adults are also enabled in their delayed commitments to responsibility by internal structures at the emotional, psychological, intellectual and even philosophical level. Arnett’s research shows that today’s emerging adults are likely to be more self-centered than in previous generations, but also more optimistic about their futures and forthcoming opportunities in life–and therefore less likely to settle down before they’re absolutely ready, regardless of traditional timetables.

Next week, look for Part Two, wherein we discuss how to market to emerging adults.

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