Entering Adulthood, But Feeling Behind

By Lauren Abrams, Contributing Writer

It’s grad season! For a time of immense excitement, it can also be one of great stress and anxiety. In the last years of any degree program, the dreaded question begins to pop up: “So, what are you going to do now?” 

The phase from ages 18–28 is called “emerging adulthood.” This means growth, maturity, and a slew of exciting new challenges that prepare us for independence and self-sufficiency. But, the flip side of the coin can look like feelings of instability and scary uncertainty. 

There’s a history behind the development of this dynamic period between ages 18 and 28. In many ways, it’s a cultural phenomenon specific to American society–it’s not a universal experience. So, the types of pressure and expectations we feel during this time are specific to our social culture, generational circumstances, and the expectations that informed our parents’ experiences (“Emerging Adulthood”). 

What remains consistent cross-culturally, is the concept of adolescence ending at the age that someone enters into marriage or a long-term committed relationship, or either some sort of major social status marker (“Emerging Adulthood”). 

This culturally determined precedent can be what makes us feel as though our next steps are inadequate if it doesn’t involve a significant other or an impressive career which has become the expectation in modern times.  With a pandemic that has deeply affected the job market as well as our ability to network and socialize, we might feel even more behind than graduates in a normal year. 

Without grades, easily accessible personal relationships, and clubs as markers of our interests and validation for our identities, it can feel like the ground is falling out from underneath us. Thus, we latch onto other status and identity markers: career-related things like promotions or income, marriage, traveling, etc. (Baker). 

The sudden lack of access to a predetermined structure can be jarring. In a generation that heavily relies on social media, this can exacerbate feelings of depression, isolation, and anxiety. Being able to see our friends via social media might help remind us that we have social ties. But, the lack of physical presence is also a reminder of things that are happening in our absence. It’s both a way to stay connected, yet it can also emphasize the feeling of loss (Primack). 

A friend who graduated with the class of 2020 said to me, “It’s all about balancing what you have. There are things you have to love to stay sane: you can love the location you move to, you can love the people you live around, or you can love your job. In a perfect world, you’d have all three, but you need at least one or two to stay sane.” In terms of making sense of post-graduate chaos and the pressure to have it all figured out, we can narrow the possibilities down to finding one or two of these important things. 

Works Cited 

Baker Brianna A. Baker Ph.D. Student in Counseling Psychology | Science Storyteller | Digital Content Creator| Ment, Brianna A. “Post-Graduation Depression and Anxiety : You’re Not Alone.” LinkedIn, 23 Apr. 2021, www.linkedin.com/pulse/post-graduation-depression-anxiety-youre-alone-brianna-baker/. 

Primack, Brian et al. “Social Media Use and Perceived Social Isolation Among Young Adults in the U.S.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine, vol. 53, no. 1, 6 Mar. 2017, pp. 1–8. ScienceDirect, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0749379717300168. 

“Emerging Adulthood as a Critical Stage in the Life Course.” Handbook of Life Course Health Development, by Christopher B. Forrest et al., Springer, 2017.

Published by Counseling With Leslie

Leslie Stevens, M.Ed., LCMHC is a North Carolina and Virginia board-certified licensed professional counselor. She co-owns a successful practice in Carrboro, North Carolina. Leslie specializes in helping adults navigate stress, depression, anxiety, and perfectionism. Additionally, she is a life strategist, spiritual coach, and writer.

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