Let’s step back for a moment from our discussion of millennial identity to talk about identity development in general. Personal Identity is the concept of self or the way you see yourself. This might include moral, political, and religious beliefs, association with a particular ethnic, racial, or gender group, or other aspects of life that you think are important to who you are as an individual. There are many theories on the particulars of human identity development, but they tend to agree on the following points:
- Identity is shaped by a combination of internal and external factors. Societal expectations and norms play a large part in formation of identity.
- Identity development is important because it allows a person to “individuate” (stand out as individuals) and develop a sense of self-worth and importance.
- Identity gives a person a sense of belonging within communities of people with similar identities.
- Personal identity tends to strengthen and become fixed as people get older, although life events can cause a shift in identity at any age.
- Identity formation happens in a series of developmental stages. These “psychosocial stages” were first laid out by Erik Erikson in the mid-Twentieth Century. Informed by subsequent psychologists, the stages look something like this: Infancy (0-12 months); Early Childhood (1-3 years); Preschool (4-5 years); School Age (5-12 years); Adolescence (13-19 years); Early Adulthood (20-39 years)
Notice the wide range of ages traditionally included in the “Early Adulthood” category. Everyone knows that there is a huge difference between a 20 year-old and a 35 year-old, but for a long time they were lumped into the same developmental category associated with stability, “settling down”, and intimacy. Psychologists didn’t give much credence to young adulthood as a unique stage of life before the early 2000s. Previously, it was assumed that identity development, as well as cognitive development, were mostly established by late adolescence.
Then came Dr. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a developmental psychologist who interviewed 300 young adults (ages 18-29) over the span of five years. One thing he discovered from his persistent questioning– most young adults were still trying to figure out who they were and what they wanted from life. In other words, they were still working to form their identities. Young adults were no longer stable, or “settling down” as Erik Erikson’s model predicted of previous generations. Arnett thought he had discovered a new stage of identity development, specific to more recent generations, that he named “emerging adulthood”. According to him, emerging adulthood, ages 18-30, is a time of:
- Identity exploration
- Instability, living highly unstable/transient lives
- Feeling “in-between”, not quite a child but not yet an independent and con dent adult
- Experiencing a range of possibilities while remaining optimistic about the future
To put that more concretely, young adults today are still figuring themselves out. They are less likely to commit to long-term relationships, choosing instead to focus on our their development first. Young adults move a lot, from apartment to apartment, town to town, as they finish college and take their first jobs in the professional world. It is exciting but disorienting, and leads to some insecurity.
Today’s young adults still feel very attached to their parents. Many don’t pay all their own bills, and if they can go home for Sunday dinner, they will. These days, moms tend to helicopter over their children’s lives, and dads remain over-protective long into young adulthood. The lack of reciprocal relationships can cause friction between modern day young adults and their parents. But, deep down, millennials are optimistic that someday they will be successful adults who are not dependent on their parents. But how?
The whole idea behind Erikson’s psychosocial stages is to learn how to move through these stages to develop a sense of unique identity and to ultimately function in a healthier way.