Two views on whether 30 is the new 21

Today on the Brian Lehrer Show developmental psychologist Jeffrey Arnett stopped by to talk about the phenomenon of emerging adulthood. Arnett is the real deal: His research has fueled the study of emerging adulthood and he also tirelessly advocates for a sympathetic regard for millennials and for the expansion of institutional resources to support them during their transition to full adulthood.

His interview with guest host Mike Pesca brings up a lot of good points about the particularities of this life stage, including how we cannot hang every aspect of emerging adulthood on brain development, but must also consider life circumstances of young adults today. The spot also shines a light on the particular experiences of twenty-somethings from poor or immigrant families, where young adult children often shoulder more responsibilities than their peers.

[audio ]

Compare that to the TED talk given by clinical psychologist Meg Jay, who argues that 30 is not the new 20. While Arnett seeks to understand the motivation and reasons behind a phenomenon he believes is unfairly billed as an “extended adolescence,” Jay’s objective is to get her twenty-something clients on a positive path by urging them to follow four pieces of advice that she hopes will ameliorate her clients’ experience of quarter-life crisis.

  1. Build up your identity capital.
  2. Use your twenties for serious career exploration.
  3. Use those weak ties to make new connections.
  4. Pick your partners and family intentionally.

I actually think that the two views are not diametrically opposed. Both Arnett and Jay recognize that emerging adults need special support and guidance on their way toward committed adult lives and identities.


Letting youth lead the way in youth development

In my work I try to integrate the principles of positive youth development, beginning with the assumption that every young person has a unique set of strengths and positive qualities that can be cultivated to his benefit and that of society. For a project with New Yorkers for Children‘s Youth Advisory Board, I’ve started looking into models and methods of youth-led community organizing, which extends the logic of positive youth development thusly: If we truly view our youth not as victims to be saved, problems to be solved, or vessels to be filled with our wisdom, then why not let them lead the way in youth development and youth advocacy? Continue reading

Framing questions

The two questions that run through all the units in the Transitions to Adulthood program are:

  1. What is an adult?
  2. How (and when) do you become an adult?

I like to put those questions early on to the group as a way of placing on the table early on many of the major points that will surface over the course of the program. In addition to these two questions, I also asked the group where they got their ideas about adulthood, since for some reason they were reluctant to mention it during the ice breaker/word association exercise.

Continue reading

Transitions to Adulthood: 2-day program for Youth Communication

I’m excited to share with you the overview of the program I’m running for Youth Communication. I’ve put together a workbook for the participants, with activity sheets and space for notes and freewriting.




This sequence of discussions is designed for a group of young people (ages 15 to 20) attending Youth Communication’s 2012 Summer Writing Workshop. In line with this year’s theme of identity, this two-day program gives participants a rich and structured context in which to explore their own passages to adulthood.

The underlying premise is that becoming an adult is not something that happens overnight (on your 18th or 21st birthday), but rather something that takes place gradually and not without some amount of heartache and hardship.

Together we will discuss the concept of adulthood, beginning first with major institutional definitions coming from the legal and scientific fields, and moving through developmental psychology toward cultural definitions in the realms of sociology and anthropology.

The goal is for participants to use this knowledge as a framework for formulating personal definitions of adulthood that resonate in their own lives, and also for generating stories for YCTeen or Represent.

Syllabus Continue reading

Teenagers: the good, the bad, and the ugly

After reworking my original teen brain workshop for one of my Youth Communication workshops on identity, I realized that it might make sense to link the two versions together as a look at the downsides and upsides of the teenage years. A really good example of the two sides of adolescence is how teenagers can be especially tight-lipped with their parents, but can spend hours shooting the breeze or sharing their deepest secrets with friends. Both these actions fall squarely within two “tasks of adolescence”: separating oneself from one’s family or origin and establishing peer relationships.

On the one hand, adolescence is a challenging and tumultuous period for even the most well-adjusted individuals, but if one takes the “tasks of adolescence” to heart, it can also be an exciting period of self-discovery/self-invention (depending on your view of identity), where young people gain increasing independence while at the same time forming new relationships with friends, family, and potential partners. This approach to adolescence is in line with my effort to sell young people on the idea that the transition to adulthood can be both empowering and rewarding if one doesn’t fall into the trap of viewing adulthood merely as all-work and/or all-play.

Grappling with identity

This year’s theme for Youth Communication’s Summer Writing Workshop is identity, so I’ve been working on tailoring my workshop material around that topic. In discussing adolescence, for example, I won’t be focusing on the teen brain. Instead, I want to emphasize what child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Ruth Talbot has called the “tasks of adolescents,” which are namely to:

•cope with physical changes
•establish a gender identity and sexual orientation
•establish an identity
•establish autonomy
•prepare to live independently
•separate and develop new relationships with family of origin
•develop moral code
•establish peer relationships
•establish intimate relationships


I’m especially interested in the teenage exploration of identity and desire for independence. As in my workshop on the teenage brain, I’ll still bring in some comic strips from Zits, such as this one [click here], where Jeremy tries on different identities before a mirror. There are also a lot of great strips on Jeremy exploring the limits and reaches of his independence and the ambivalence both he and his parents feel about it [see here, here, and here].

I want YCTeen and Represent writers to reflect on how they, as teenagers, try on different kinds of identities, and to talk about what exactly is involved in that process. When you experiment with new identities, do you tend to follow what your friends do, or do you find yourself having to change your social circle to better fit a new identity? What are the external markers of those identities? Is it in the clothes you wear, the music you listen to, or the issues you care about? I’m also interested in the kinds of identities that young people have a tough time shedding (e.g., the nerdy kid who wants to be cool, or the troublemaker who wishes to be taken seriously by teachers).

I’d be interested to hear any anecdotes out there about how you (or a teenager you know) has grappled with different identities.

Zits and the Teenage Brain

I’ve been trying to develop a workshop on the teen brain for quite some time now, but I had some trouble finding an engaging way of presenting all the research I’d collected on adolescent brain growth and its effects on teen behavior and learning. Mind you, I wasn’t seeking to present that much information in so much detail. I simply want participants to be aware that beginning in adolescence, and continuing into their early twenties, their brains undergo a second growth spurt (comparable in significance to brain development in the first two years of life), which will affect their mood, behavior, and ability to learn. This period of growth is accompanied by pruning and myelination (for greater processing speed and efficiency), and all this happens largely in a back-to-front fashion, meaning that the prefrontal cortex, or the rational, executive center of the brain, is the last to mature. This leaves young people more reliant on the amygdala, or the emotional and reactive center of the brain. Because the brain operates as a “use it or lose it” system, where the skills that are most used are strongly reinforced, this period of brain development is a great opportunity to learn new things and focus on what is most important. (Are your eyes glazed over yet?)

I’d considered showing some clips of a documentary that included both scientific views and more personal perspectives from teenagers, parents, and teachers, followed by some sort of role play where participants could offer solutions to some of the problems posed in the program (lack of sleep, moodiness, etc.), but I just didn’t feel like I could make the session dynamic enough. It was only recently that I finally figured out a “hook” engaging enough for teenagers: Zits comics. Continue reading