A Failure to Launch, or to Develop?

I hope this letter finds you well. Recently, I have been collaborating with a brilliant young Harvard graduate named Cole who shares my passion for better understanding emerging adulthood, or today’s generation known as “Millennials” (those born between 1982 and 2003). Together, we are working on a book that will balance academic research and anecdotal experience from my professional career working with emerging adults.

When I hear the term “failure to launch,” it doesn’t seem fair or accurate to me. Emerging adults are far more complicated than such a label makes them out to be. Most interesting to me is to consider all the external factors and influences, including drug and alcohol abuse, with the latest research on neurological development to gain a more expansive, more compassionate, and more understanding view of young adulthood.

The media has often criticized Millennials for being narcissistic, lazy, and noncommittal, claiming that their failure to meet the traditional milestones of adulthood is proof of their moral and sociocultural shortcomings. But an ever-growing body of research indicates that the period between ages 18-25 represents a distinct developmental stage, marked by dramatic change in brain structure and cognition.

The part of the brain that undergoes the most striking and prolonged changes during adolescence is the prefrontalcortex (PFC). Located directly behind the forehead, the prefrontal cortex is associated with complex cognitive tasks such as problem-solving, long-term planning, self-evaluation, behavioral inhibition, and emotional regulation. During young adulthood, the PFC begins to communicate more fully and effectively with other parts of the brain, including, most notably, the limbic system, which develops rapidly during puberty and is strongly associated with emotion and motivation, enabling emerging adults to better plan, prioritize, and weigh the consequences of their decisions. The limbic system is usually fully developed by young adulthood, but the PFC is not. This may explain why young adults sometimes make strange choices or seem so mature in certain areas while clueless in others.

These neurological developments not only improve capacities for self-regulation, goal-setting, and emotional control, but also result in significant advances in cognitive ability. Research indicates that as teens progress into emerging adulthood, they become more capable of holding, organizing, and manipulating clusters of abstract thought. They also become better able to consider varying points of view, and to incorporate social factors and practical limitations into logical thinking.

Though the reasons for these changes are not fully understood, research makes it clear that development does not end in childhood but continues throughout adolescence and well into adulthood. In light of this, “It’s a good thing that the 20s are becoming a time for self-discovery,” says neuroscientist Jay Giedd, whose research is responsible for many of these insights. “Until very recently, we had to make some pretty important life decisions about education, career paths, who to marry, and whether to go into the military at a time when parts of our brains weren’t optimal yet.” Maybe by forestalling adult obligations until their brains have reached full maturity, Millennials will make fewer mistakes and lead happier lives, and that’s something to celebrate.

This is why we place such a large premium on experiencing new things while participants are part of AIM House. Going through the emotional challenge of delayed gratification, for example, helps aid development. Exploring creative aspects of themselves and learning new vocations gives actual experience to weigh future decision making. Mindfulness exercise and therapy help make connections that we believe aid in the last phase of neurological development: To be healthy, independent adults with the opportunity to explore a variety of new experiences.