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Young Adulthood Development Project

by A. Rae Simpson

The years from 18 to 25 are a time of stunning accomplishments and chilling risks, as a roller coaster of internal and external changes, including brain changes, propels young adults from adolescence toward full maturity. Yet we are only beginning to understand how and why this all happens—and sometimes doesn’t.

The MIT Young Adult Development Project was created to capture the powerful new research findings that are emerging about young adulthood and to make these insights more accessible to those who need them, including colleges and universities, employers, parents, human service providers, and young adults themselves.

A large and relatively new body of research is revealing that young adulthood is a time of dramatic change in basic thinking structures, as well as in the brain. Consensus is emerging that an 18-year-old is not the same person she or he will be at 25, just as an 11-year-old is not the same as he or she will be at 18. They don’t look the same, feel the same, think the same, or act the same.

Across theories and research frameworks, a sequence of developmental shifts emerges, which can be organized into three overall categories:

  • Adolescents (generally defined as puberty through age 18)
  • Young adulthood (generally defined as 18 to 22 or 18 to 25)
  • Later Adulthood (generally defined as mid-20s and older)

Many researchers and theorists divide these three broad areas into several smaller shifts, depending on the aspect of development they are measuring, such as reflective judgment, moral development, or cognitive structural development. There remains much division within and between disciplines, but, at the broader level, they share significant common ground.

Fundamentally, what changes in these developmental shifts is not just what people think, but also what they think about. Everyone, including young adults, has a kind of mental “visor” that screens out some kinds of phenomena while letting in others for consideration. As development unfolds, one can “see” and think about more and more complex phenomena such as abstractions, relationships, and moral problems, offering more and more powerful thinking tools.

Why does development happen? Most researchers see a role both for nature and nurture. In healthy people, some changes evolve on a biological timetable, as long as the environment is “good enough,” and some changes are prompted by demands in the environment, as long as the biological underpinnings are “good enough.”

Acknowledging these findings, researchers have begun to define young adulthood as its own developmental period, referring to it as “emerging adulthood,” “the frontier of adulthood,” or, earlier, “the novice phase.” Here at the start of the 21st century, researchers are creating a new field around young adulthood, just as, at the turn of the 20th century, researchers defined a new field around adolescence.

Much of the impetus and focus for the research has come from the lengthening period in the U.S. between the onset of puberty and the fulfilling of cultural expectations around adult roles like financial independence and family formation. Significant differences can be expected across culture and circumstance.

Learn more about the MIT Young Adult Development Project and how you can participate in the study.

Rae Simpson, Ph.D., is Program Director for Parenting Education and Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she co-directs MIT’s Center for Work, Family & Personal Life. A specialist in communication of research knowledge to the public, Rae recently created the MIT Young Adult Development Project, which gathers and disseminates recent findings on young adult development, including brain development, highlighting the unique needs and characteristics of this age group and exploring implications for universities, parents, policymakers, human service providers, employers, and others. 

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