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/n young adulthood, as in every life stage, development does not necessarily proceed uniformly. Although there is lack of consensus, based on observable regularities, most researchers say the chronological age range for young adulthood begins at approximately 18-20 and continues until 40. Because the potential for self-esteem issues occurs in the progression from adolescence to adulthood, this section deals primarily with the earlier part of this range. The 20-30 transition from adolescence to young adulthood involves biological, physical, cognitive, and social changes that affect psychological changes (Levinson, 1978, 1996).
Primary aging—the inevitable, normal aging process—differs from secondary aging—the variations in aging resulting from the environment that include social class, health habits, and possible diseases (Bee & Boyd, 2003). In general, adults are at their peak throughout young adulthood, physically and mentally. Athletic skill that depends on speed, strength, or gross motor coordination increases early in the decade and then declines. Athletic skill that depends on endurance increases throughout the decade and then begins to decline. Gradual weight gain begins and continues through middle age (Berk, 2006). Losses begin to occur in this period. The rate of decline across the adult life span varies substantially through a combination of primary and secondary aging factors. Differences include health habits, genetics, social support including intimate relationships, sense of control, and acute and chronic stressors.
Cognitive development increases into early adulthood. The brain has reached a stable size by age 21, although a brain spurt may occur in the mid to late 20s (Bee 6c Boyd, 2003). Some scholars propose that Piaget’s theory falls short, that a post- formal operational stage exists in adulthood. This dialectical thought (Basseches, 1984) is characterized by relativistic thinking, the ability to tolerate contradictory evidence and ambiguity, and subjective, contextual reasoning. Although not all adults reach this stage, those that do recognize that truth depends upon circumstances and varies by situation, multiple explanations are possible depending upon point of view, problems do not have single solutions, and no one explanation is necessarily accurate.
Early young adults enter Eriksons (1959/1980) intimacy versus isolation stage and must successfully resolve the ability to form and sustain deeply personal relationships by the time they reach 30-40 years of age. Although intimacy is not the same as sexuality, sexual activity usually increases during the 20-30 year stage, and sexually transmitted diseases are more prevalent than at any other life stage. Intimate partner abuse and sexual violence is significant; alcohol and drug abuse is typically a contributing factor. Most individuals gain the ability to seek a satisfying, sexually intimate relationship that ends in the commitment for marriage or cohabitation and ultimately parenthood. Successful resolution of this stage results in the capacity for devotion and fidelity. If they have not previously resolved the identity stage in adolescence, individuals are not likely to develop mature relationships and may retreat into isolation. For women, however, the self is not separated from the interactions with others (Jordan, Kaplan, Miller, Stiver, & Surrey, 1991; Miller, 1986). Relatedness rather than autonomy is a
key component of identity, and identity is resolved through connection to others. Throughout adulthood, mutual empathy is the hallmark of maturity and impacts growth through connections with others.
People in early young adulthood pursue decisions about education, work, and relationships. Although those in the earliest part of young adulthood are relatively independent from social roles and expectations, they begin to construct a "dream” image of who they will be in the adult world and go about bringing the dream to fruition throughout young adulthood (Levinson, 1978) through the processes of acquisition and consolidation.
As adolescents leave secondary school they make choices about future training and work. They either begin work in the private sector or in the military, or seek higher education opportunities, often delaying significant relationships. Only about one-third of young adults attend college full time directly after secondary school graduation, and many drop out later, usually temporarily. The college experience varies greatly, with nontraditional students more common than traditional ones. Females have a higher graduation rate than males. Underrepresented in higher education institutions, African American students drop out at higher rates than Whites, Asian Americans. Latino Americans, or Native Americans (National Center for Educational Statistics, 1997, as cited in Bee & Boyd, 2003). African American students who do complete college have a strong sense of racial identity and persistence.
Most young adults enter into a phase of stability and do not experience dramatic turmoil in their self-concepts as they progress into the later phase of this stage (Donnellan, Trzesniewski. Conger, 6c Conger, 2007), although processes differ for men and women. Individuals pursue and establish occupational role identity whether or not they seek higher education, vocational, or on-the-job training. Men. even today, tend to have a more stable career development trajectory, whereas womens career development is more likely to accommodate home and childcare responsibilities, thus extending their career development trajectory into middle age. Women who choose home and family over career may delay occupational aspirations and behaviors until later young adulthood or middle age.
Early young adults enter Eriksons (1959/1980) intimacy versus isolation stage and must successfully resolve the ability to form and sustain deeply personal relationships by the time they reach 30-40 years of age. Although intimacy is not the same as sexuality, sexual activity usually increases during the 20-30 year stage, and sexually transmitted diseases are more prevalent than at any other life stage. Intimate partner abuse and sexual violence is significant; alcohol and drug abuse is typically a contributing factor. Most individuals gain the ability to seek a satisfying, sexually intimate relationship that ends in the commitment for marriage or cohabitation and ultimately parenthood. Successful resolution of this stage results in the capacity for devotion and fidelity. If they have not previously resolved the identity stage in adolescence, individuals are not likely to develop mature relationships and may retreat into isolation. For women, however, the self is not separated from the interactions with others (Jordan, Kaplan, Miller, Stiver, 6c Surrey, 1991; Miller, 1986). Relatedness rather than autonomy is a key component of identity, and identity is resolved through connection to
others. Throughout adulthood, mutual empathy is the hallmark of maturity and impacts growth through connections with others.
Career and work continue to he a major focus throughout the entire young adulthood stage. Additional roles in social and community activities occupy some people as well. For those who are parents, family roles are of primary importance. People develop the capacity and skill to manage multiple responsibilities but also experience greater levels of stress. The social clock—the internalized sense that major life milestones must be reached in a specific, prescribed time period—plays a significant part in shaping adulthood (Neugarten, 1968). People reevaluate life roles at transition points of approximately 30 and again at approximately 40-45 and work on changing structures that never did or no longer fit them (Levinson, 1978). Overall, what began as turmoil in adolescence settles into maturity and stability by the end of young adulthood. Changes in personality “tend to reflect increasing levels of maturity and adjustment, as indicated by higher levels of conscientiousness and emotional stability" (Robins 6c Trzesniewski, 2005, p. 159).
Evidence suggests that mean levels of global self-esteem rise from adolescence to young adulthood, although individual changes in selective, domain-specific self-esteem vary (Donnellan et ah, 2007). Self-esteem increases gradually during young and middle adulthood and shows remarkable stability from earlier levels. Those whose self-esteem was high in childhood and adolescence will continue to have relatively high self- esteem in young adulthood, and the gender gap remains about the same, with males experiencing higher levels than females (Robins 6c Trzesniewski, 2005). The capacity to relate in positive ways to others increases self- esteem in women, whereas independence and lack of personal involvement and emotion indicate higher self-esteem for men at this stage of life; high- self- esteem men seem to value successful assertiveness and high-self- esteem women value helping their female friends (Harter, 1999).
Self-esteem is at once stable and changing in adulthood, depending upon differences in its conceptualization as a state or a trail phenomenon. “To characterize self-esteem as entirely trail-like may obscure the fact that changes can and do occur in response to various experiences and interventions. Similarly, to characterize self-esteem as entirely state-like obscures the degree to which self-esteem is consistent over time, linked to highly stable individual-difference constructs such as personality traits, predictive of long-term life outcomes, and moderately heritable” (Trzesniewski, Donnellan, 6c Robins, 2003, p. 217). Certainly, selective, even global, self-esteem can decrease if the dream image created in late adolescence and early adulthood is not established. This discrepancy between the ideal and real self, as in earlier stages, can negatively impact feelings of worth and competence when accomplishments do not match goals. If the magnitude of the discrepancy is great, maladjustments can result, although they may also serve as adaptive motivators (Harter, 1999). For those in whom self-esteem is unstable and vulnerable at earlier life stages, problems in early adulthood can exacerbate already existing mental health issues. New problems can arise as people progress through the young adult years when multiple life roles and stressors overwhelm overburdened lives. For those who have been socialized to believe that they must pursue
perceived success in all areas equally, or for those for whom the American ideal of success has been out of reach because of marginalization, low self- esteem can impact on emotional wellbeing and happiness. This section discusses only a few circumstances in which self-esteem can be a significant factor during the first part of early adulthood: the special issues of young women, sexuality, and with alcohol and other drug (AOD) use. We again find conflicting and puzzling results in AOD and its association with self-esteem.