Young and Emerging Adults
The term “young adult” can refer to anyone in their teens or early 20s. Generally, a young adult is someone in the years following adolescence, though different definitions of this age classification exist and vary in scope. Two common age ranges considered to define “young adulthood” are 18 to 22 and 18 to 25 years old. “Emerging adulthood” is another general term for the period of life between the ages of 18 and 29 and is usually defined by certain transitional events, like leaving home, finishing education, and finding employment. Referring to people by their age group or generation (people in their 20s, Generation Z, etc.) is one way to be more specific when discussing or referring to young and emerging adults. Because there are many terms for age and life stage, terminology is a matter of individual preference and should be treated as such.
The United States is home to over 30 million young and emerging adults. Americans entering adulthood are doing so under unique circumstances: during a period marked by a global pandemic, political polarization and unrest, economic instability and increasing economic inequality, low social mobility, and increasing costs of living and education. Navigating these challenges while also making important life decisions, becoming financially independent, and developing a personal identity places physical, mental, and emotional stress on young people.
Despite the common belief that people in this life stage are at their healthiest, young and emerging adults experience a variety of unique physical, mental, and behavioral health challenges. Compared to other age groups, young adults are the most likely to die or be injured from motor vehicle accidents, homicides, mental health problems, sexually transmitted infections, and substance abuse. Young adulthood is also a period of psychological vulnerability. The onset of many psychological conditions, like schizophrenia, mood disorders, and substance use disorders, often occurs during young adulthood. Behavioral health is an especially salient topic when discussing young and emerging adults. Young adulthood is the life stage where many risky behaviors emerge and/or peak. As adolescents age into their 20s, they are more likely to smoke, binge drink, use drugs, and engage in unsafe sexual behaviors. Young adults also have lower rates of healthcare utilization compared to other age groups. The lack of utilization of and access to mental healthcare among young and emerging adults is particularly troublesome—75% of young adults experiencing symptoms of a mental disorder do not receive treatment or support services, and the portion of young adults that do receive care are more likely to drop out of or discontinue treatment than older adults and adolescents.
Some health and well-being indicators have been improving among young adults, despite these challenges; recent reviews have shown decreased rates of suicide, gonorrhea, and cigarette use, but not all young people have reaped the benefits. Systemic racism, discrimination, and prejudice puts young people of color at particular risk for poor health outcomes. Experiencing bias and discriminatory behavior has been linked to worse educational and employment outcomes, poor physical and psychological health, and undue amounts of stress. For example, young Black and Hispanic/Latinx people are overrepresented among those who drop out of high school, an event which is strongly associated with poor future outcomes, like joblessness and chronic disease. Differential treatment of young people of color in school, particularly in disciplinary practices, is also associated with poor outcomes later in life. Almost 50% of Black males have been arrested once by age 23. Additionally, young and emerging adults that are economically poor, disabled, LGBTQ+, and/or of color experience compounding marginalizations and are overall more likely to struggle to thrive.
Achieving health equity and justice for young and emerging adults requires continued dedication to their well-being. It is important to remember that many of the negative health outcomes that young and emerging adults face are preventable. Special attention should be paid to marginalized groups, especially young adults of color, in order to improve their access to opportunities, care, and health equity. Institutionalizing and operationalizing equity and justice throughout education, employment, government, and health care systems/programs for young adults will require organizations, allies, and systems to deeply center and follow the leadership of people with lived experience. Community-led processes, self-representation, and centering the perspectives and voices of young and emerging adults are a few effective tactics communities can leverage to advance equity and well-being.