Tuesday, August 24, 2010

New Life Stage? We Already Know...

The New York Times Sunday magazine had a very long article about 20-somethings and the new "life stage" proposed by psychologist Jeffrey Arnett. He is calling it "emerging adulthood". Guess what ages this new stage encompasses? Yep, 18 - 24....the age group I have been preaching about for the last several years. Why have I been preaching about them? Because if we don't help these young adults who are aging out of the foster care system and/or the juvenile justice system, up to 45% of whom will be homeless within 2 years of their emancipation--not to mention the thousands of other homeless young adults who are not connected to any system--we will NEVER end homelessness. They ARE the future generations of chronically homeless adults.

Dr. Arnett posits several causes for this new life stage: the need for more education to survive in the information-based economy, fewer entry-level jobs after all that education, young people marrying later, young women waiting to have children, to name a few. The characteristics of this stage include: identity exploration, instability, self-focus, feeling in-between, and "a sense of possibility".

The characteristic we see most in the young people with which we work, of course, is instability. They lack the luxury of focusing on education, or self exploration, or possibility, as they spend all of their energy simply surviving. Like Maslow's Heirarchy of needs, until they have their basic needs met, nothing else happens.

Although Arnett's theory in one way seems to be based upon privilege (only those with sturdy support systems have the luxury of "delaying adulthood"), what I really like about it is his insistence that these young adults have very different needs than either adolescents or adults. Although they look grown, the great majority of them are not, which is now being borne out in neurological study of the brain. We now know that the brain does not fully mature until at least age 25, and many times until age 30. Consequently, although these young people are more mature than adolescents, they are NOT adults, as defined by our society.

This research gives validity to my argument that adult homeless shelters are in no way appropriate for homeless young adults ages 18 - 24. However, neither are teen shelters, which operate on rigid schedules with tight supervision and strict curfews. What is needed is a two-pronged approach: a less rigid emergency center AND longer-term transitional housing WITH critically needed support services tailored to this age group i.e., educational support, life skills, parenting skills, credit establishment, family reunification, etc.

As with most other societal ills, we are currently treating the tail and not the dog. If we intervened appropriately in the lives of homeless young adults at this critical stage of between 18 and 24 years of age, we wouldn't see them at age 40 or 45, chronically homeless, addicted, and/or mentally ill (by the way, up to 40% of chronically homeless adults were in the foster care or juvenile justice systems as teens).

And, by the way, it's MUCH cheaper to treat them at 18 than it is at 45.

Why can't we get this???

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