The 8/22/10 New York Times Magazine section devoted a feature story to "20 somethings" who, in many cases, are meandering through their 20s searching for meaning, purpose, identity and ultimately a livelihood. Dr. Jeffrey Arnett (1) has advocated naming the period between the age of 18 and the late 20's, a bona fide developmental stage called emerging adulthood. He relays the fact that the "post adolescent, pre-adult, not quite decided" life stage needs to be reckoned with in our families, workplaces, communities and society as a whole.
Debate will ensue on whether this stage actually "counts" as a developmental stage. As the social scientists explore, we are faced with an unprecedented uptick of young people who are "meandering" looking for mastery of this time of life. They are trying to move beyond what has been coined "connected autonomy", namely, a state of emerging independence with a healthy dose of dependence on parents and others for advice, and support, both financial and practical.
Meandering can however lead somewhere. As Jennifer Lynn Tanner of Rutgers University points out, emerging adults can use this time of exploration to ultimately find the best fit in partner, job and place to live.
How then will the meandering of emerging adults be leveraged to springboard them to their place of purpose and meaning? Skilling up will give a leg up for success.
Beyond traditional schooling, which emerging adults have often moved on from, what skills will most place the emerging adult on their fruitful pathway? If prospective emerging adults are interpersonally effective and operationally excellent no matter where their path of exploration leads them, they are more likely to find best fit careers and jobs, and companies will more likely benefit by their discretionary effort.
Some reports indicate that employees bring less than 50% of their discretionary effort to the job, in part due to distraction, misfit in position, being treated poorly or some other aspect of disengagement. What is abidingly true is that employees can come prepared to deliver their best (as we hope our meandering Gen Y's do land in such a place), however the workplace too needs to be prepared to evoke their best. The leaders in the target workplaces also need interpersonal and operational excellence. Now we have the building blocks of great personal and company results!
Sound like a leap? Getting a leg up for emerging adults can be jump started in simple yet powerful ways. They can meander (code for explore) more purposefully, making the targets of their pursuits more likely to lead to positive personal and professional results. The Network on Transitions to Adulthood Transition (2) believes success will be more profound for emerging adults if resources are available to them. However, waiting for significant societal programming misses the concept that simple educational interventions are available right now to the open, willing Gen-Y'er, or emerging adult, who can swap lattes for mini education. (3)
Mini-education for Gen Y's needs to be linked to some outcome ie, it will prepare them for a job they want. It must be experiential ie, not a series of rote lectures in which they are talked at. It must be in small bites, in language that inspires and in real life applications that make sense. While specific to Gen Y's learning style, this prescription for education content is a positive one for all ages!
In conclusion, "20 somethings" are exploring, and exploration is positive, if it leads to a life of purpose. Making exploration work in the emerging adults' favor will have long lasting impact, not only for themselves, but also for their families who want them to launch effectively and land well, workplaces that welcome them as productive contributors and society who needs them to lead for the next generation.
Resources for emerging adults:
(1) Jeffrey Arnett (jeffreyarnett.com)
(2) The Network on Transitions to Adulthood (macfound.org), (transad.pop.upenn.edu)
Google Scholar- Stand on the Shoulders of Giants