The life stage called early adulthood defines individuals between the ages of 20 and 35, who are typically vibrant, active and healthy, and are focused on friendships, romance, child bearing and careers.
Yet serious conditions, such as violent events, depression and eating disorders, can negatively impact young adults.
Females reach their adult heights by age 18, and, except for some males who continue to grow in their early 20s, most have reached their adult heights by the age of 21. However, muscles continue to gain mass – especially among males, and both genders continue to add body fat. Average weight gain for both women and men is about 15 pounds.
Death rates due to disease are low in this life stage, but the rate of violence-related deaths is high. A 2005 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Violent Death Reporting System states that violent death is highest for people ages 20 to 24, and overall, men are more likely than women to die violently. Violent death includes homicide, suicide and motor-vehicle deaths. The CDC reports that of approximately 50,000 violent deaths in the United States each year, more than 56 percent of those deaths are suicide, and 30 percent are homicides.
Another area of concern for people in this age group is eating disorders, which include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder. A study by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders reported that 5 percent to 10 percent of individuals with anorexia die within 10 years after contracting the disease, and 18 percent to 20 percent die after 20 years.
Debate among developmentalists center on whether or not to assign a formal cognitive stage to early adulthood. Earlier life stages result in dramatic and critical changes, whereas in early adulthood essential brain growth already has taken place, and individuals are now applying and using their knowledge, and analytical capabilities.
However many researchers point to continued changes, such as those taking place in the frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex of the brain, which are areas where judgment, planning, speaking, and moving muscles are localized. Brain growth in this area only reaches final development in the early 20s.
Additionally, many theorists, such as Jean Piaget (1896-1980) noted a significant difference between adult and adolescent thinking. Adults have more flexibility in their thought patterns, understanding that there are multiple opinions on issues, and that there is more than one way to approach a problem.
Young adults are able to assimilate and synthesize complex and contradictory situations and arguments, and unlike adolescents, aren’t set on finding absolute truths. They are focused on developing their careers and achieving independence from their families – a crucial requirement for balanced, well functioning adults.
Theorist Erik Erikson (1902-1994) maintained that individuals develop in psychosocial stages, and that early adulthood marks the time when individuals seek to form intimate relationships. And Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) argued that a healthy adult is one who can “love and work.” Simply stated, this developmental stage is characterized by relationships and work.
Intimacy can be actualized through close friendships, romantic relationships, starting a family, or all three. Erickson argued that a firm sense of identity, gained in earlier developmental stages, was integral to entering intimate relationships, and research has supported this argument. Studies repeatedly find that those lacking a strong sense of identity have less satisfactory relationships, and they tend to be more emotionally isolated, lonely and depressed.
And depression is a major concern for individuals in their 20s to mid-thirties: most people diagnosed with major depression receive a diagnosis in this life stage. Depression is linked to violence, especially suicide, and eating disorders.
The Eating Disorder Foundation asserts that “eating disorders are not just about food and weight. They are an attempt to use food intake and weight control to manage emotional conflicts that actually have little or nothing to do with food or weight.” The Foundation reports that eating disorders affect more women than men, about 10 million U.S. women, but the rates in men are rising. Approximately 1 million U.S. men suffer from an eating disorder, a number that has doubled in the last ten years.
And episodes of mild or severe depression in earlier developmental stages should not be minimized. A 2009 article in the British Journal of Psychiatry, found a link between mild adolescent depression and depression in early and later adulthood. The article cited a study that started in 1983, and followed teenagers, identified as having mood, anxiety and eating disorders, disruptive behaviors, and substance abuse problems, into their 20s and 30s. These teens reported significant, major depression in adulthood – and they were more likely to suffer from anxiety and eating disorders as adults.
Developmental psychology professionals are often involved in designing programs that enhance social problem-solving and coping skills, and skills dealing with stressful life events. They work to develop programs designed to help adults with a host of issues, including eating disorders, depression, and other conditions that affect daily living. They also research and study intimacy issues, and develop programs that help individuals find rewarding and suitable careers.
If you are interested in helping young adults lead fulfilling personal and vocational lives, you should consider a career in the Developmental Psychology field. In most cases, a master’s degree is required, and a PhD in psychology or a related field is required for positions that involve research and teaching responsibilities.
Also, learn more about the psychology career licensing processes and what the requirements for licensure are: psychology career licensure.