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Analyzing emerging adults

By Claire Carlson '12
September 20, 2011

Photo by Thomas Dunning '15

In the United States, feeling the pressure to be involved in a slew of activities both social and career-enhancing is a quintessential part of emerging adulthood — the phase of life that typically includes individuals aged 18-24.

"Our society has an entire system set up to help you make yourself presentable as well as find yourself," says Andi Gomoll '13. The pressure that system places on emerging adults, she says, creates a mentality of "I need to figure out who I am and I need it to look good."

Oles are prime targets for the stress that arises from these perceived expectations, and this applicability to herself and her peers is part of what motivated Gomoll to pursue a Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) project with Professor of History Jim Farrell this summer. The topic also fit nicely with the major that Gomoll created under the advisement of Farrell. Her Center for Integrative Studies major is titled Growing up in America: A Study of American Identities, and combines education, anthropology, psychology, and American studies.

Gomoll began her summer research project by reading as much background literature as she could about emerging adulthood. After gathering research on this stage of life, she branched into the relationship between emerging adulthood and different concepts like electronics, politics, and environmentalism.

In all of her reading, there was little mention of civic responsibility or community, and emerging adulthood was generally portrayed as a very individualistic life stage. Thinking about herself and her peers, she felt as if this age demographic was being underestimated.

"I think that we really do want to be civically and politically engaged, but we have so many other expectations placed on us that we can't meet any of these goals," says Gomoll.

Competing expectations
With so many goals, it is difficult to measure or achieve any of them at a quality level, especially if they are competing or contradictory. For instance, it is seen as favorable to find a spouse, but also important to focus on an academic career. An emerging adult also ought to be involved in a vast array of activities, but also build and maintain social capital and connections. Not surprisingly, the tension from being pulled in so many directions can cause emerging adults to become less interested in pursuing any direction at all.

"The final result of our research was really to expose many more pieces of the already complex puzzle of emerging adulthood," says Gomoll. "After reviewing a ton of literature, [Farrell] and I started to think about how our generation might change disengagement into action if society's expectations were adjusted."

This fall Gomoll will continue looking into similar issues as part of an independent study with Farrell. Part of her work will be conducting and analyzing a survey about emerging adulthood that she developed this summer. In October Gomoll and Farrell will present their summer's work at a conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Gomoll hopes that dialogue with individuals from other fields about this stage of life could lead to ideas on how to maximize its potential without pulling the emerging adults in too many directions.

"This definitely was a personal journey as well as a collaborative experience," says Gomoll. "It helped me learn a lot about myself from an anthropological perspective."

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or vanderve@stolaf.edu.