Responsibility Helps Young Adults Flourish, Not Flounder

Contributed By By Marianne Holman

  • 1 November 2013

Larry Nelson, a professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University, speaks during the 49th Annual Virginia F. Cutler Lecture at BYU on October 24, 2013. By taking on responsibility young adults can flourish as they transition to adulthood.  Photo by Marianne Holman, Church News staff writer

Article Highlights

  • With recent changes in societal trends, researchers are finding that the gap between adolescence and adulthood is growing wider.
  • Some young adults flourish during this transition to adulthood, but many flounder because of poor decisions.
  • One key way for young adults to flourish is to accept responsibility.

“[Emerging adults] have very different criteria for adulthood than we’ve seen in the past, and the things that they do during this time period are very different than in the past.” —Professor Larry Nelson, BYU’s School of Family Life


“Do you consider yourself an adult?”

The question was posed to audience members between the ages of 18 and 27 by Barry Nelson, professor in the School of Family Life, in an auditorium in the Spencer W. Kimball Tower on the Brigham Young University campus on October 24.

For some the answer was a clear “yes.” Others raised their hands after the “no” prompt. A confused look shot across many faces; that was a difficult question for them to answer—in some ways yes, in some ways no.

Members of his “class” for the evening represented many of the responses found in his research—that 70 percent of the young adults ages 18–27 answered that question with “in some ways yes, in some ways no.” Brother Nelson, this year’s Virginia F. Cutler lecturer, focused his presentation on “flourishing and floundering during the transition to adulthood.”

“Throughout time and many cultures, what has happened when you turn 17, 18, 19 years of age?” Brother Nelson asked. “You marry, start a trade or profession, or [enlist] in the military, and as soon as you did those things you were considered an adult. There was no ambiguity in that. Has that changed?”

For many years researchers have focused their study on children through their adolescent years and then picked up again at the time of marriage. Over the past few decades, the time lapse between the two seems to be expanding. Using the words of other researchers, Brother Nelson identified this group in between their youth and being an adult as “emerging adults.”

“Emerging adults don’t feel like adults,” Brother Nelson said. “They have very different criteria for adulthood than we’ve seen in the past, and the things that they do during this time period are very different than in the past. [This] shows it is a very unique time.”

While in the past, events in someone’s life—a job, marriage, or education, for example—would cause them to be considered an adult, research suggests these are not the definitions of “adult” to young people today.

“I refer to these as ‘paper adults,’ or young people who recognize that a piece of paper doesn’t make you an adult,” Brother Nelson said. “A paycheck, a marriage license, a birth certificate, or a college diploma—the mere act of doing this doesn’t make you an adult. Instead, they are saying that there are more internal characteristics and qualities to obtain on a very individual, internal level rather than these outward indicators.”

Research shows that emerging adults consider criteria for adulthood to include accepting responsibility for the consequences of actions, deciding on personal beliefs and values independently, financial independence from parents, and being capable of running a household. Another factor was establishing a relationship with parents as an equal adult.

During his address Professor Nelson listed four specific ways that emerging adults could avoid floundering and flourish. Photo by Marianne Holman.

Looking at trends of the past, the median age at first marriage in the U.S. for men and women has increased in the past half century. What was the norm in the 1950s—women marrying at age 20 and men at age 22—has changed to women marrying at 26 years of age and men at 28, according to a study recorded in 2010.

“What has led to this extended period of time of transition before taking on adult roles?” he asked.

A “now or never” approach to life has changed the course for many on their way to adulthood. Educational pursuits, independence, travel and adventure, social events, alcohol, tobacco and drug use, relationships including multiple sexual experiences, and a carefree lifestyle have influenced their ability to “grow up.”

For some, this transition time is a time of experimenting, oftentimes with the result of young people making poor decisions that lead to more depression, anxiety, and floundering. For others, it is a time of flourishing through learning, growth, and experience. It is individuals’ beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and relationships that indicate if they will flourish or flounder.

“We saw this need to examine young people through the lens of ‘what are the ways that they are thinking about future events,’ like marriage, impacting their current behavior, and how might their current behavior impact relationships from there.”

Researchers thought that results might be different in an LDS audience, but findings suggests that although LDS emerging adults experience these formative years in different ways—rather than living with a significant other prior to marriage, for example, they are learning to work with and live with a difficult companion on a mission—the results seem to be the same.

“The Church provides direction and stability, yet still there are many choosing to avoid responsibility,” Brother Nelson said. “We have to be concerned with floundering. It is far more common than we would like.”

Floundering might look different in the context of a young adult outside of the Church, but for an LDS emerging adult boredom, loneliness, seeking acceptance, and acting out of curiosity or a lack of good sense all contribute to their lack of developing characteristics of adulthood. Valuable lessons are learned through experiences on missions, in callings, and through accepting responsibility.

Brother Nelson shared four ways for emerging adults to avoid floundering and to flourish.

1. Play with a purpose.

He used the example of a college student taking a break from a traditional school schedule to go on a study abroad program to help in a Romanian orphanage. She did a lot of good and met her husband while there.

“Enjoy this time period, but do it with a purpose,” he said.

2. Become.

“You can choose what these years are for you,” he said. “Act, rather than be acted upon.”

3. Parents still matter.

“They care deeply about you. They may make mistakes, but most of the time they are made out of love. … Let your parents be involved.”

4. Don’t scrimp on service.

It is through looking outside themselves that individuals will find greater satisfaction in life.