Posted by & filed under Adult Development and Aging, Emerging Adulthood, Human Development, Stress Coping - Health, Stress: Coping Reducing, Student Success, The Self.

Description: My previous blog ( might have seemed a bit bleak in that it talked about how the largest proportion of 1st year university students (40 to 45%) utilize an Identity Processing Style called Diffused which suggests that in taking on the Big Life Task of figuring out who they are, where they are going, how they are going to get there and what they are going to stand for along the way they are in need of some additional tools, skills and personal insights. In addition, my own data, which I talked about in my last blog, indicates pretty clearly that while Diffused Identity Style using students are in need of some assistance in managing this Big Life Task, they are among the least likely to seek out that assistance even when it is available to them free and nearby (on campus). I am not alone in puzzling about what to do about this. Universities and colleges across the world are worried about student engagement or how to get students more actively engaged in their college or university (post-secondary) life experience. Most educational institutions seem to think that this can be accomplished by encouraging students to take their studies seriously, to examine their options more extensively, and to join a club or two ( My own view is that these strategies are focused on symptoms rather than on the underlying causes of student under-engagement. Over the past several years and particularly since my retirement about a year ago, I have been digging around looking for and thinking about possible ways to directly address the underlying causes of the difficulties many students (and people at all points in their adult lives) are having with their first encounter with the Big Life Task of Identity formation (or with their ongoing struggles with this important life issue).

The research literatures on identity and emerging adult development and the related literatures on college and university student development have begun to try and look at this question but have not gotten very far with it. A lot has been done looking at what correlates with Identity Style and its precursors and educational performance outcomes. Less has been done looking at how to help folks gain some conscious control over the things that make up their Identity Style and, through that, to begin to actively acquire and/or develop the life skills, life perspectives, and life strategies. What are needed are strategies that help emerging adults to positively negotiate the Big Life Task of identity formation both by setting some life goals and directions and, as well, by mastering the skills necessary to manage and continue to develop those goals and directions moving forward into adult life.

It is also worth noting, especially if the Identity Style proportions I discussed in the previous blog are in any way alarming to you, that this rate of Diffusion may be a relatively recent phenomenon (and as such, symptomatic of something larger than individuals’ efforts to psychologically sort out their worlds). Simply put, the world that emerging adults are growing into today is a more complicated world than the one in which their parents and grandparents grew up. The current generation of young adults are destined to be the first since generation since the “Boomers” who will, on average, earn less over their lives than their parents did. In addition, while my high school guidance counselors way back in the 1970’s were telling me and my peers to expect to have 3 to 10 jobs over the course of our working careers (that is one career and several jobs within it), emerging adults are being told today to anticipate having 3 to 5 careers over the course of their working lives and to have longer working lives than their parents are having. (by the way, the data on these claims is not at all clear, though “job-hopping” does seem to be the new norm according to Forbes, ). In such a work/career environment, picking a career in your teens or 20’s and expecting to succeed by sticking with it until one receives a pension is not advisable, and is, in fact, somewhat delusional as it is likely not going to be anywhere close to reality. To be fair, there IS some research out there that is starting to take seriously the question of how emerging adults (18 to 29 years old’s, Arnett, 2016), manage or can be helped, nudged, or nurtured into developing the skills and perspectives for positively negotiating this Big Life Task.

It is worth noting that the developmental “stage” of emerging adulthood is relatively new. We only began viewing adolescence as a formal developmental stage just over 100 years ago, partly due to downward shifts in the age of physical maturity along with socio-historical and related cultural shifts in our view of pathways to maturity and the more complex nature of the world young people were developing into. Emerging adulthood as a developmental life “stage” has only been under discussion in developmental psychology circles for about 18 years, since Arnett’s American Psychologist article about it in 2000 ( ). The Society for the Study of Emerging Adulthood emerged out of the Society for Research on Adolescence in 2007 and established the journal Emerging Adulthood in 2013. So, Emerging Adulthood is new. The point of recounting this recent history is simply that if, as the new area of developmental psychology called Emerging Adulthood seems to be suggesting, it takes until around 29 years of age for folks to “emerge” as adults in the current socio-historical context then making a plurality of them (40 to 45%) feel bad by pointing out that their Big Life Task Identity Style seems Diffused is at least discouraging and perhaps also nasty, unethical and unhelpful. Using a Diffused Identity Style during one’s early post-secondary developmental years may simply be symptomatic of being in the earliest portion of a developmental stage that, over the space of about a decade, will gear one up actively make one’s way in a world that is more complex, more demanding, more diverse, and basically much broader than the worlds that previous (even recently previous) generations grew up and entered into.

So, how should we currently be thinking about the Big Life Task of Identity formation and what should we be doing to optimize the transitions of high school students to post-secondary life pathways to created spaces, tools and opportunities for the early post-secondary years that do not simply get stuck on the rate of Diffusion? This will be the topic of my next blog, but it is worth saying here that some post-secondary institutions that are taking seriously the idea that Identity development is a longer-term process than just completing a 4-year degree. Some are encouraging gap-year travel or volunteer or service experiences, study abroad experiences, community engagement and volunteerism and many other activities and course experiences that provide exposure to, and emersion in, the diverse social and cultural contexts that make up the globalized, more complex world in which emerging adults (and the rest of us) are now living. In my next blog I will write a bit about some ways to think about, look at and, for emerging adults of all ages, to prepare for and navigate within this new richly complex world of both challenge and opportunity.

Source: Developmental Life Design.

Date: December 31, 2017

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To be continued in the next blog.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How do you feel about your Identity Style now?
  2. What are some of the ways in which the Big Life Task of Identity formation is different today than it was even just 30 years ago?
  3. Are there things you planned or are planning as part of your own transition to post-secondary developmental pathways that are different than what your parents did? If you are older (over 29) how are you thinking about such things as career, spirituality, relationships, and political or global issues as they relate to your Identity – to who you are and what you believe and what you stand for?

Blog Series on Developmental Life Design


References (Read Further):

Berzonsky, M. D., & Kuk, L. S. (2000). Identity status, identity processing style, and the transition to university. Journal of adolescent research, 15(1), 81-98.

Boyes, Michael, Pearson, Ilana, and Ursenbach, Jacob (manuscript) Identity Processing Style and Supportive Resource Engagement.

Arnett, J. J. (2016). College students as emerging adults: The developmental implications of the college context. Emerging Adulthood, 4(3), 219-222.