Emerging Adulthood: Navigating The Expectations And Realities Of Post-College Life

By: Sarah Laico


“You need to get over this fear of being an adult,” I remember my mom reproaching me during my senior year of high school. “It’s not that I’m afraid of being an adult. It’s just that … being an adult kind of … sucks. And I don’t want to do it.”  

 Now in my final semester of college, my defensive reply rings even truer. When we’re children, it seems like all we want to do is grow up—to drive ourselves around, buy whatever we want, and eat cookies for breakfast (because we can). And sure, the ability to do those things is pretty liberating. However, lately, I wish I could return to the days when I lacked this freedom—the days of others taking care of me, the days of no responsibility.

 Still, at age 22, I have to admit that I don’t have that much responsibility. So long as I’m still in college, I’m living the cushy life, which not all students can say. I can pat myself on the back as much as I want for taking out the trash, paying the internet bill, and getting my flu shot, but I’m still living without financial worries. I am privileged enough to have my parents’ support for rent and food, and the little income I make I can put toward gas and frivolities. I am, as my mom and therapist tell me, “in transition” to becoming an “adult,” about to enter a new and distinct stage of my life. Most of my classmates also recognize that they, too, are in transition.

 Unpleasant emotions typically emerge when someone asks me that classic cocktail party inquiry, “So, what are you doing after graduation?” Despite the casual way it’s presented, this question often fills seniors with nausea, dread, and self-doubt. You mean I have to have everything figured out, beyond just taking out the trash, paying the internet bill, and getting my flu shot? I have to foster a career, one that offers me benefits? Not only is, “So, what are you doing after graduation?” a paralyzing, terrifying question, but it’s also a profoundly existential one. It gives college students pause as to what they’ve been doing for the past four years and whether it was all worth it. I feel particularly haunted by this question and the implications of my future decisions.

 I fluctuate between feeling completely secure in the job search process and feeling helpless and directionless. It lies in the beliefs held by society at large about where we’re “supposed to be” and what we’re “supposed to do”—all insinuated by that cocktail party question. Luckily, the expectations that previous generations have laid out for us are shifting, and what we’re “supposed to be” and “supposed to do” are far murkier than they once were.

 I learned in my adolescent psychology course that these shifts have to do with a new view of the human lifespan. Previously, developmental psychologists supported a more straightforward progression of life stages: infancy, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. However, in recent years, they have discovered that my age group; namely, those 18 to 25, are different because modern society finds us in the most diverse of circumstances.

 In my liberal arts bubble, I often think that all 18 to 22-year-olds are in college, but the reality is, at age 18, many aren't even at school. Some contemporaries might be married, have children even; while many take gap years; work or travel. Those who do go to college might do any number of things after graduation: attend graduate school, move back home, explore the world, begin their career, or just flat-out flounder. It’s no wonder that I feel overwhelmed by embarking out in the real world; our paths as graduates are practically limitless.

 The ambiguity associated with “emerging adulthood” comes with many negative stereotypes about our age group. However, Clark University professor of psychology Jeffrey Arnett demonstrates how many of these myths are misguided. For starters, people imagine the college-age group as suffering from enormous stress, experiencing a “quarter-life crisis.” Sure, our anxiety manifests itself through memes and the frequent alcoholic beverage, but in reality, we’re all just trying to make sense of our experiences and ourselves. Arnett notes that we’re simply in an age of “identity confusion,” a term coined by developmental psychologist Erik Erikson to describe the process of exploring different selves to ultimately arrive at that self which will help us flourish in true adulthood. He counters social psychologist Jean Twenge, who points to the increase in major depression over the 20th century as evidence of our duress (even though this rise in depression is evident across all age groups). In other words, everyone is stressed out by the world right now. Thus, we seniors should all take a deep breath, acknowledge that we’re in the same boat as everyone else, and not blow our position out of proportion (I would do well to take this advice).

 Thankfully, this should not be too difficult—as most of our age group is pretty optimistic, despite this era of investigations on Russia, fake news, and polarizing tweets. Arnett points to studies by Hornblower (1997) and Schulenberg and Zarrett (2006) that demonstrate that the overwhelming majority of 18 to 29-year-olds believe that they’ll get to the place they wish to be in life and that overall well-being increases from age 18 to 26. I’m honestly unsurprised; I find myself and my peers often saying, even in times of duress, “It’ll all work out.”

 Another negative stereotype about emerging adults is our selfishness. We appear self-indulgent because we spend more time and money on ourselves than on others. This rings true as I can name many Colorado College alums that decided to camp around the West rock climbing or explore South America after graduation.  Many students, at least at CC, have the financial means to indulge in a “gap year.” That said, our generation is the most likely to engage in volunteer work, and Arnett argues that “selfishness” is a misinterpretation; in this time of our life, we are not necessarily obligated to work, marry, or have kids, and can foster our own self-development. So we travel, experience new places and jobs, or engage in further study, not because we’re selfish, but because we’re trying to be our best selves. Especially after a school as rigorous as CC, taking time to recharge and reassess only seems healthy.

 The final negative stereotype about emerging adults is the notion that we refuse to grow up. This one hits close to home, as our “refusal to grow up” may not be a refusal, but a necessity. Arnett comments that economic constraints nowadays have made it much harder for our generation than previous ones to settle down with a job, partner, and kids by age 25. Many careers require more than an undergraduate degree—that’s a given now. But also, many emerging adults see the same bummers about adulthood as I do: though independence is sweet, paying bills, going to work, and caring for all your personal needs is an obligation. Moreover, on the personal side, I feel as though adulthood means sacrificing bits of my childlike identity—wearing a turtle backpack skiing, making pancakes for dinner, and embarking on harebrained schemes on late summer nights.

 Still, Arnett says that by age 30, most of us settle down, whether it is through a job or a relationship or both. We land on our feet, much the same way that practically all of us end up at the right college. We experience some stress, we self-develop, and ultimately, we accept adulthood, for all its perks and trails. And I think that all of us, as confused as we may feel, recognize this as our future.

 Though I still feel frustrated and dip in and out of optimism, I have come to accept that all of the existential thoughts I’ve been having are not particular to me. My peers are all struggling with the same challenges as I am: getting responses from potential employers, questioning whether they’re making the right decisions, and feeling shameful if they’re pursuing aspirations that others don’t find meaningful. Even those who do have an answer to “So, what are you looking to do after graduation?” may feel a pit in the bottom of their stomach, unsure if this first step in their career path is going to take them places or fulfill them adequately emotionally and mentally.

 The bottom line: None of us know how to transition into real adulthood, and there isn’t a prescribed way to do so, but we can remain optimistic, foster personal growth, and embrace the transition. I still don’t know what “adulthood” means for me. Maybe it’s job stability; perhaps it's buying my own house or finding a significant other. For now, I can learn and define what this next chapter means. To me, it’s first sticking to my values: being a loyal friend, practicing self-care, and continuing working on my writing and communication skills. And most of all, acknowledging that adulthood is not a walk in the park, and one must learn to deal with the harder aspects of it such as taxes and health insurance with aplomb. It means focusing on the positives. It means embracing my free time and using it to explore this next chapter of my life, to cultivate the best Sarah Laico I can be. And sometimes, it means eating cookies for breakfast.


Bio: Sarah Laico is a senior Psychology major with music and Spanish minors at Colorado College. In addition to journalism and blogging, she enjoys running, rock climbing, reading, working on puzzles, and watching The Great British Baking Show. Her superpower is the ability to eat endless cereal without ever feeling full, often while pondering deep, existential questions.