Young adult (psychology)

A young adult is generally a person in the age range of 22 to 39 (or 40), although definitions and opinions, such as Erik Erikson's stages of human development, vary. The young adult stage in human development precedes middle adulthood. A person in the middle adulthood stage ages from 40 (or 41) to 64. In old age, a person is 65 years old or older.[1]

Time co-ordinates

For a variety of reasons, timeliness on young adulthood cannot be exactly defined—producing different results according to the different mix of overlapping indices (legal, maturational, occupational, sexual, emotional and the like) employed, or on whether 'a developmental perspective… [or] the socialization perspective[2] is taken. 'Sub-phases in this timetable of psychosocial growth patterns… are not rigid, and both social change and individual variations must be taken into account'[3]—not to mention regional and cultural differences. Arguably indeed, with people living longer, and also reaching puberty earlier, 'age norms for major life events have become highly elastic'[4] by the twenty-first century.

Some have suggested that, after ' Pre-adulthood… in the first 20 years or so… the second era, Early Adulthood, lasts from about age 17 to 45… the adult era of greatest energy and abundance and of greatest contradiction and stress.'[2] Within that framework, 'the Early Adult Transition (17–22) is a developmental bridge between pre-adulthood and early adulthood',[2] recognizing that 'the transition into adulthood is not a clear-cut dividing line'.[5] One might alternatively speak of 'a Provisional Adulthood (18–30)… [&] the initiation to First Adulthood'[6][7] as following that.

Despite all such fluidity, there is broad agreement that it is essentially the twenties and thirties which constitute ' Early adulthood… the basis for what Levinson calls the Dream—a vision of his [or her] goal's in life which provide motivation and enthusiasm for the future'.[8]


Young/prime adulthood can be considered the healthiest time of life[5] and young adults are generally in good health, subject neither to disease nor the problems of senescence. Strength and physical performance reach their peak from 18–35 years of age.[9][10] Flexibility may decrease with age throughout adulthood.[9][11] However, there are large individual differences and a fit 40-year-old may out-compete a sedentary 20-year-old.[12]

Women reach their peak fertility in their early 20's.[13]

In developed countries, mortality rates for the 18–40 age group are typically very low. Men are more likely to die at this age than women, particularly in the 18–25 group: reasons include car accidents and suicide. Mortality statistics among men and women level off during the late twenties and thirties, due in part to good health and less risk-taking behavior.[16]

Regarding disease, cancer is much less common in young than in older adults.[17] Exceptions are testicular cancer, cervical cancer, and Hodgkin's lymphoma.[18] In sub-Saharan Africa, HIV/AIDS has hit the early adult population particularly hard. According to a United Nations report, AIDS has significantly increased mortality of between ages 20 to 55 for African males and 20 to 45 for African females, reducing the life expectancy in South Africa by 18 years and in Botswana by 34 years.[19]

Early adulthood

According to Erikson, in the wake of the adolescent emphasis upon identity formation, 'the young adult, emerging from the search for and insistence on identity, is eager and willing to fuse their identity with that of others. He [or she] is ready for intimacy, that is, the capacity to commit… to concrete affiliations and partnerships.'[20] To do so means the ability 'to face the fear of ego loss in situations which call for self-abandon: in the solidarity of close affiliations, in orgasms and sexual unions, in close friendships and in physical combat'.[21] Avoidance of such experiences 'because of a fear of ego-loss may lead to a deep sense of isolation and consequent self-absorption'.[21]

Where isolation is avoided, the young adult may find instead that 'satisfactory sex relations… in some way take the edge off the hostilities and potential rages caused by the oppositeness of male and female, of fact and fancy, of love and hate';[22] and may grow into the ability to exchange intimacy, love and compassion.

In modern societies, young adults in their late teens and early 20's encounter a number of issues as they finish school and begin to hold full-time jobs and take on other responsibilities of adulthood; and 'the young adult is usually preoccupied with self-growth in the context of society and relationships with others.'[23] The danger is that in 'the second era, Early Adulthood… we must make crucially important choices regarding marriage, family, work, and lifestyle before we have the maturity or life experience to choose wisely.'[2]

While 'young adulthood is filled with avid quests for intimate relationships and other major commitments involving career and life goals', there is also "a parallel pursuit for the formulation of a set of moral values".[24] Erikson has argued that it is only now that what he calls the 'ideological mind' of adolescence gives way to 'that ethical sense which is the mark of the adult.'[25]

Reaching adulthood in modern society is not always a linear or clean transition. As generations continue to adapt, new markers of adulthood are created that add different social expectations of what it means to be an adult.[26]

Age 30 transition

Daniel Levinson suggested that the first phase of early adulthood comes to a close around twenty-eight to thirty, when 'at about 28 the provisional character of the twenties is ending and life is becoming more serious… the age-thirty crisis.'[2] Others have spoken of 'the Catch-30 Passage… between age 28 and 32', stressing that 'it is not uncommon, at the approach to the thirties, to tear up the life structure one put together to support the original dream of the twenties,'[27] and to start anew—'to create the basis for the next life structure.[2]

When 'the Age Thirty Transition' is a difficult one, 'in a severe crisis [s/]he experiences a threat to life itself, the danger of chaos and dissolution, the loss of hope for the future.[2]

Settling down

After the relative upheaval of the early 30's, the middle to late 30's are often characterized by settling down: 'the establishment phase', involving 'what we would call major life investments—work, family, friends, community activities, and values.'[3][28] What has been termed 'the Culminating Life Structure for Early Adulthood (33–40) is the vehicle for completing this era and realizing our youthful aspirations.'[2] People in their thirties may increase the financial and emotional investments they make in their lives, and may have been employed long enough to gain promotions and raises. They often become more focused on advancing their careers and gaining stability in their personal lives—'with marriage and child-rearing,'[3] starting a family, coming to the fore as priorities.

Gail Sheehy, however, signposts the same twenties/thirties division rather differently, arguing that nowadays 'the twenties have stretched out into a long Provisional Adulthood', and that in fact 'the transition to the Turbulent Thirties marks the initiation to First Adulthood.'[29][7]

Midlife transition

Young Adulthood then draws to its close with 'the Midlife Transition, from roughly age 40 to 45'[2]—producing 'a brand-new passage in the forties, when First Adulthood ends and Second Adulthood begins.'[30]

See also


  1. Martin Briner, Erik Erikson page, 1999, on Briner's site about learning theories, USMA Department of Mathematical Sciences, Center for Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE), United States Military Academy at West Point. Accessed 24 November 2006.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Levinson, Daniel J. (1986). "A conception of adult development". American Psychologist. 41 (1): 3–13. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.41.1.3.
  3. 1 2 3 Rapoport & Rapoport 1980, p. 46.
  4. Sheehy 1996, p. 15.
  5. 1 2 Zastrow & Kirst-Ashman 2009, p. 411.
  6. Sheehy 1996, p. 10.
  7. 1 2 Sheehy 1996, p. 59.
  8. Birch 1997, p. 220.
  9. 1 2 Tarpenning KM, Hamilton-Wessler M, Wiswell RA, Hawkins SA (2004). "Endurance training delays age of decline in leg strength and muscle morphology". Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 36 (1): 74–8. doi:10.1249/01.MSS.0000106179.73735.A6. PMID 14707771.
  10. Knechtle B, Rüst CA, Rosemann T, Lepers R (2012). "Age-related changes in 100-km ultra-marathon running performance". Age. 34 (4): 1033–45. doi:10.1007/s11357-011-9290-9. PMC 3682063Freely accessible. PMID 21796378.
  11. Emilio, Emilio J. Martínez-López; Hita-Contreras, Fidel; Jiménez-Lara, Pilar M.; Latorre-Román, Pedro; Martínez-Amat, Antonio (1 May 2014). "The Association of Flexibility, Balance, and Lumbar Strength with Balance Ability: Risk of Falls in Older Adults". J Sports Sci Med. 13 (2): 349–357. PMC 3990889Freely accessible. PMID 24790489 via PubMed Central.
  12. Shephard, Roy J. (7 March 1998). "Aging and Exercise". Encyclopedia of Sports Medicine and Science. T.D.Fahey. Retrieved 2007-06-26.
  13. MedlinePlus Encyclopedia Infertility
  14. pmhdev (25 March 2015). "Infertility: Overview" via
  15. Leridon, H. (2004). "Can assisted reproduction technology compensate for the natural decline in fertility with age? A model assessment". Human Reproduction. 19 (7): 1548–53. doi:10.1093/humrep/deh304. PMID 15205397.
  16. "Life Expectancy Profiles". BBC. 6 June 2005. Retrieved 2007-06-26.
  17. "UK cancer mortality statistics by age". Cancer Research UK. May 2007. Retrieved 2007-06-26.
  18. "Cancers at a glance". Cancer Research UK. May 2007. Retrieved 2007-06-26.
  19. Ngom, Pierre & Clark, Samuel (18 August 2003). "Adult Mortality In The Era Of HIV/AIDS: Sub-Saharan Africa" (pdf). Population Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations Secretariat. Retrieved 2007-06-26.
  20. Erikson 1975, p. 255.
  21. 1 2 Erikson 1975, p. 155.
  22. Erikson 1975, p. 257.
  23. Birch 1997, p. 227.
  24. Zastrow & Kirst-Ashman 2009, p. 298.
  25. Erikson 1975, pp. 254–6.
  26. Vandegrift, Darcie (2015). "'We don't have any limits': Russian young adult life narratives through a social generations lens". Journal of Youth Studies. 19 (2): 221–36. doi:10.1080/13676261.2015.1059930.
  27. Sheehy 1996, p. 47.
  28. Rapoport & Rapoport 1980, p. 72.
  29. Sheehy 1996, p. 55.
  30. Sheehy 1996, p. 14.


Preceded by
Stages of human development
Young Adult
Succeeded by
Middle age
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