When you see the term “young adult,” do you wonder whether or not you fit within that definition? If asked what age range is considered “young adult,” would you know the answer?
Whether or not you’re a young adult might depend on who you ask. For example, medicine and psychology have a different definition of “young adult” than the government. And that makes it even more complicated to figure out what, exactly, a young adult really is.
If you’re unsure of the definition of “young adult” and how it might apply to you, consider the information included here.
Young Adult Age Ranges
Depending on who you ask, “young adult” could refer to people aged 12 to 18, or it could refer to those aged 18 to 30. In general, young adults are people between the ages of 12 and 30. For a more specific number, however, it all comes down to context.
According to medicine and psychology
The fields of medicine and psychology have their own unique views of what it means to be a young adult.
- Psychology. One of the most influential psychologists on the topic of life stages, Erik Erikson, defined young adulthood as a crucial stage that happens after adolescence. It’s the point in life when a person emphasizes “identity formation.”
- Based on Erikson’s research, most people reach this stage between the ages of 19 and 39. But because individuals reach this point at different ages, due to a number of factors, there’s no absolute timeline for young adulthood, according to Erikson.
- Medicine. In the field of health, medicine, and human development, young adulthood is the time when a person is traditionally the most healthy. It’s the stage between adolescence and adulthood, which roughly falls between the ages of 15 and 29.
According to the government
There’s a more concrete way of determining what “young adult” really means: asking the government. The government has to define “young adult” or “early adulthood” for statistical record-keeping, as well as for law enforcement.
Children face lesser charges for crimes than adults, and the “young adult” age range falls somewhere in between. Therefore, it’s important that law enforcement understands what to do with people in that range.
But different states, counties, and countries define young adulthood differently. Additionally, young adults are defined differently by various sectors in the U.S. government.
The Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics describes young adults as individuals aged 18-24.
The United Nations, however, defines “youth” as persons aged 15 to 24.
According to popular culture
In popular culture and in casual use, “young adult” is often a euphemism for a teenager or adolescent.
The euphemistic use of the term “young adult” first appeared in the 20th century. There was a growing reluctance, during this time, to refer to adolescents as children, or even as teenagers.
Instead, it was often preferable to emphasize an adolescent’s developing sense of adulthood and responsibility. You could do so by using terms like “young man,” young woman” or “young lady,” and “young adult.”
In this euphemistic sense, the phrase “young adult” in popular culture typically refers to people in their teens: aged 13 to 20.
According to libraries
Another common usage of the term “young adult” is in the library category known as “young adult literature.” In fact, this is where many people first stumble upon the term “young adult” in the first place.
Young adult literature targets readers aged 12 to 18 and includes books like Harry Potter, The Fault in Our Stars, and The Giver. If you’ve ever visited a library, you’ll know that the Young Adult Literature section is one of the most popular. But the category known as “young adult literature” is relatively new.
The term “young adult” in reference to literature first appeared in 1957 when the American Library Association formed its own Young Adult Services Division. The new division focused on serving a newly-targeted population of “teenagers” (a term that first appeared in the 1930s) and “young adults.”
According to research and science
So what does science have to say about young adulthood? With so many potential age ranges floating around, it seems like scientific study should be able to narrow down when, exactly, young adulthood actually occurs. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), young adulthood is generally defined as 18 to 22 or 18 to 25.
Researchers have nailed down young adulthood as a biologically essential time period. When teenagers enter young adulthood, some major changes take place.
They develop greater thinking capacities, emotional regulation capabilities, and relationship skills. In fact, the growth that takes place in young adulthood is now thought to parallel that which takes place in childhood and adolescence.
Young Adults in Modern Culture
Our world is forever changing and evolving, and so is our definition of “young adult.” What it means to become an adult varies depending on regional culture and law. Even within families, children might reach adulthood at different speeds.
Ultimately, your definition of a young adult depends on the context you’re in, and what you find most true about your own coming-of-age experience.
- Erikson, Erik H. “Childhood and Society.” Penguin. 1975. ISBN 978-0-14-020754-5.
- “Young adult (psychology).” Psychology Wiki. psychology.wikia.org/wiki/Young_adult_(psychology)
- Cart, Michael. “How ‘young adult’ fiction blossomed with teenage culture in America.” Smithsonian Magazine. 7 May 2018. www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/how-young-adult-fiction-blossomed-with-teenage-culture-in-america-180968967/
- “American’s young adults.” ChildStats.gov. www.childstats.gov/pdf/ac2014/YA_14.pdf
- “Youth.” United Nations.www.un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/youth-0/index.html
- “Changes in young adulthood.” Young Adult Learning Project (MIT). hr.mit.edu/static/worklife/youngadult/changes.html#young