Whether known as the Peter Pan syndrome, a perpetual pursuit of passion, or being 25 years old and living in your parent’s basement, the journey and life of an emerging adult is no longer a novelty, an aberration, or a generational crisis.
Emerging adulthood is an accepted, if not celebrated, part of our culture. Recall the popular television show Friends and its group of attractive twentysomethings frolicking in a modern-day fountain of youth, as its theme song set up the emerging adult’s dilemma: “It’s like you’re always stuck in second gear/ When it hasn’t been your day, your week, your month/ Or even your year.”
The fact that emerging adulthood can span more than a year, and in some cases a decade or more, is one of the many challenges this cohort group has presented to The American College of Trust and Estate Counsel (ACTEC) Fellows and other estate planning professionals.
What does emerging adulthood, once the exclusive purview of the offspring of the very rich, look like today? It is the phenomenon of 18- to 30-year-olds in a type of extended adolescence in which they explore love, work, travel, and other interests while gradually moving toward enduring commitments and life choices. These young people consider marriage, home, and children not as achievements to be pursued currently but as perils to be avoided for a time. They want them, but not now.
Initially identified as the “Postponed Generation,” this class of “nearly grownups” was introduced by this author almost 30 years ago in this magazine. The article, Estate Planning for the Postponed Generation, Prob. & Prop. (Sept./Oct. 1989), co-authored with the late Jon Gallo, a nationally recognized trust and estate lawyer, addressed issues that these young people began presenting in the estate planning process.
Although the concept of emerging adulthood has become commonplace 30 years later, it remains a challenging period for all parties involved—parents, their young adults, and legal counsel. The good news is that estate planning lessons involving these maturing individuals have come of age.
Drawing upon decades of neuroscience research and a generation’s worth of firsthand experience, this update to the 1989 article provides a current snapshot of emerging adulthood. Estate planning counsel will also learn new ways to understand and work with this distinct clientele and help motivate its constituents on the path to emotional, social, and financial maturity.
When 26 Became the New 18
The Postponed Generation, as coined by Susan Littwin in her book The Postponed Generation: Why American Youth Are Growing Up Later, was a relatively new phenomenon in 1989, and the research supporting it was nascent. Yet, despite the many unknowns, the “failure to launch” faction was easy to recognize.
Familiar manifestations included various stints at universities, constant jumping from one job, activity, or pursuit to another, and indecisiveness so pervasive that it simply prevented these young lives from advancing. At times, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and addiction would enter the equation.
The Sixties’ youth movement was one of several contributory factors fueling a new generation of twentysomethings exploring, learning, and seeking their way to maturity 10 years later than their parents did. The trend continued through the 1980s and 1990s and even spread beyond high-net worth families to include middle and working-class “adultescents.”
Then vs. Now
Against this backdrop, estate planners were faced with clients increasingly frustrated by children whom they feared were upending not only well-planned trusts but their futures as well.
To help address the challenges, a new lexicon evolved. The term “The Postponed Child” was introduced as a category for estate planners to assign their clients’ children, adding a fourth option to the previously used labels: The Mature Child, The Immature Child, and The Dysfunctional Child.
The Postponed Child, a concept drawn from Littwin’s sociological analysis, is similar to an Immature Child, but with a difference. A Postponed Child is seen as “off track” and in need of assistance, and possibly protection, to avoid being permanently derailed. Littwin highlighted the era-defining, coming-of-age movie The Graduate and Dustin Hoffman’s title character, Benjamin Braddock, drifting aimlessly on a raft in his parents’ pool as the embodiment of this Postponed Generation. Images like those reflected the predominately negative view of the Postponed Generation. Called self-indulgent, narcissistic, lazy, and entitled by many, the young people provoked the frustrations and judgments of parents and social commentators who impatiently waited for this new generation to get its act together.
Science Steps In
A shift in perspective and attitudes began in the 2000s, fueled by advances in neurological studies of the brain. Leading the way was Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a professor and researcher who interviewed hundreds of young people ranging in age from 19 to 29. It is noteworthy that Arnett focused on the first-person accounts of these young people and not on input from their parents, teachers, or professors.
In his interviews, Arnett asked his subjects to identify the hallmarks of becoming an adult, which were distilled to:
- Taking Responsibility for Oneself.
- Making Independent Decisions.
- Becoming Financially Independent.
In addition to creating clear markers for achieving adulthood, Arnett presented a body of evidence indicating that the end of adolescence, typically reached around the age of 18, did not mark the end of brain development.
Neuroscientific research countered the prevailing belief that the brain was fully formed or hardened by 18 and pointed to evidence of continued brain plasticity throughout an individual’s twenties. These ongoing brain dynamics, in turn, created a unique moment in time well suited, neurologically speaking, for exploration, curiosity, and more.
This finding of continued brain growth in young adults had major implications for our understanding of The Postponed Child, as Arnett detailed in his groundbreaking book, Emerging Adulthood. Arnett concluded that emerging adulthood, as he renamed it, is a distinct stage of psychological development and ongoing growth.
The most distinctive feature of emerging adulthood is identity exploration, explained Arnett. The predominance of identity as an issue for emerging adults echoes the developmental stages laid out by 1950s pioneering psychologist Erik Erikson, in which he saw identity formation as the central crisis in adolescence.
But by the early 2000s, Erikson’s timeline to maturity needed updating. As Arnett noted, “identity achievement has rarely been reached by the end of high school and evidently development continues through the late teens and the twenties.”
How has our understanding of emerging adulthood and its psychological markers evolved since first meeting Littwin’s Postponed Child 30 years ago? This side-by-side comparison highlights key developments.
Categorizing emerging adulthood as neither dysfunctional nor problematic, Arnett recommended acknowledging it as a recognized stage of development—a necessary period of discovery that was not inherently negative.
Additional neuroscientists went even further in shifting the negative perception of emerging adults. Temple University Professor Laurence Steinberg, an authority on the adolescent brain, focused on the positive in his 2014 New York Times opinion piece, “The Case for Delayed Adulthood.” Steinberg argued that emerging adults are at a stimulating “age of opportunity” and their paths of self-discovery are advantageous, if not downright desirable, and better seen as a personal investment in long-term stability and happiness.
The push to destigmatize and develop acceptance of emerging adulthood has benefited all parties involved—the young adult, their parents, and the estate planners serving them.
Scientific, technological, and cultural advancements have helped us move the discussion forward from a frustrating, and even at times frightening, battle for control fought by parents, children, and trust counsel dependent on conventional legal techniques to achieve their clients’ goals.
Onward: Planning for an Emerging Adult
Along with the 30-year shift in our perception of emerging adults, there are breakthroughs on how to manage the all-too-common protracted conflicts and roadblocks that estate planning professionals encounter when working with families with young adults.
One valuable source rests in the stories of these 18- to 30-year-olds, as illustrated in the “Emerging Adulthood” video, which is hosted on the Gallo Consulting website and the ACTEC website. Their journeys of self-discovery come in all stripes, sizes, and struggles.
Heartbreaking tales of addiction, suicide, and despair are interspersed with uplifting revelations of “a-ha” moments, newly discovered confidence, and triumph. What also becomes evident is the prevailing optimism surrounding emerging adults, an attribute identified by Professor Steinberg. A new kind of positivity is generated by their willingness to keep trying and even risk failure, which builds resiliency and the strength to persevere in the face of disappointment.
Given the current state of emerging adulthood, what actions and practices can estate planning professionals consider when working with these clients? A few practical suggestions include:
Put Patience in the Plan
Predicting when an individual will reach maturity is nearly impossible. What it means to be an adult is highly subjective and variable. As one emerging adult said, “I thought when I had my own Costco card I would be an adult, and then I got one and I still did not feel like an adult.”
This overriding instability and uncertainty, which can feel a bit like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall, asks parents to dig deep into their reservoir of patience, despite already feeling tapped out after weathering the teenage years. And the plea for patience is not just directed at parents.
“Lawyers are not trained to be patient,” explains ACTEC Fellow Don Kozusko, of Kozusko Harris Duncan.
Kozusko recalls one particularly vexing situation in which a client’s emerging adult grandchild exasperated the efforts of a series of trustees to keep her on track. Eventually, no one was willing to serve as trustee, so Kozusko took on the role himself. Over the next few years, he struggled repeatedly against the feeling he was failing the young lady. But he held steady, until one day, he realized he had not failed but rather was “able to slow her down, which proved beneficial in the end, and patience ruled the day.”
While a lawyer’s inclination leans toward a quick-fix solution, working with an emerging adult demands an adjustment of timelines. In some situations, pumping the brakes to slow down undesirable activity can be more effective than attempting an immediate and complete course reversal.
Remember this is a journey, not a sprint, as Arnett wrote: “Young people reach adulthood not because of a single event, but as a consequence of the gradual process of becoming self-sufficient and learning to stand alone.”
Planning and flexibility can feel diametrically opposed at times, but a rethinking of traditional estate planning approaches can help close the gap.
Look at which areas of the estate plan might benefit from greater flexibility and options when working with an emerging adult. Questions of when a trust should be terminated, who should serve as trustee, and the need for additional fiduciaries or a protector are all ripe for rethinking and frequent revaluation.
The need for flexibility extends beyond protecting just the young adult. Estate counsel often feel at risk in the traditional conflicts that can arise among parents, the “noncompliant” young adult, and an estate plan. Beneficiaries invoking no-contest clauses and other threats to the fiduciaries who are making necessary decisions heighten the tension. To help defuse it, estate planners can introduce necessary protections and limits for themselves into trust and estate plans involving emerging adults.
Expand Useful Resources
An array of resources, often used in tandem, are available to help mitigate some of the associated risks and anxiety and can be productive in supporting a young person’s achievement of adulthood.
Psychologists, especially those focused on young adults and their parents, have made great inroads, and they are increasingly being brought in to work with individuals and families. The self-focus of emerging adults has made them particularly receptive to the therapeutic process.
Vocational testing and counseling, along with life and career coaches, now come in all varieties and degrees of individualization and are effective resources for young adults seeking their own right track.
To further achieve success, emerging adults might need to gain fiscal literacy and a deeper understanding and connection to their financial legacies. Look to accounting professionals skilled at communicating meaningful information in a way that a 19-year-old can comprehend as another arrow in the quiver of professional resources that can be explicitly included in modern documentation.
Persevere with a Positive Perspective
At times, the urge to fix a problem can overwhelm. Problems invoke vulnerability, and when the problem involves parents and children, the sense of exposure becomes exponentially magnified.
Acknowledging this vulnerability is a meaningful first-step when working with emerging adults. In the 30 years since this author introduced the challenges presented by the Postponed Generation, trial and error approaches have continually shown the beneficial impact and importance of ongoing parental love and support, perseverance, and a shift in perspective.
The emerging adult is not the only one on a journey. Parents find themselves on a parallel path, often pockmarked by anxiety, admonitions, and second-guessing, as they attempt to land at acceptance of the situation and maintain or restore family equilibrium.
The road to acceptance is rarely easy or comfortable. But it can be worthwhile. For example, the physician father of one twentysomething, featured in the “Emerging Adulthood” video, shared his slow but steady determination to come to grips with his son’s decision to jettison a degree in astrophysics and become a jazz musician. The caring father eventually identified and worked on his own issues, which allowed him to shift from seeing his son’s choices as anathema to acceptance.
As his acceptance of his son grows, the father is learning to support his son’s path to independence. He has begun to appreciate his son’s creative expression and has been mindful to decrease the amount of criticism he levels and increase the time he spends listening, one of several ways he is keeping the lines of communication open with his son.
There are other hopeful signs. The resiliency that Steinberg observed in emerging adults can serve them well in the long term and should be recognized and parlayed into a successful planning process.
By offering a flexible combination of patience, perseverance, ongoing support, and resources to build resiliency, trust and estate professionals tasked with upholding their clients’ wishes can play a beneficial and valuable part in helping emerging adults shift out of second gear toward a happy and productive adulthood.