The Tension of Emerging into Adulthood

Students face pressure to determine what they should do at the expense of exploring who they are.

Brynne Schroeder, PhD
May 9 · 8 min read
Image by geralt on Pixaby

The other night, I was reminiscing about college with my husband when he recalled (in much kinder words) my utter cluelessness about what to do after graduation. I had passions, a whole lot of them, but I had a limited sense of what I wanted towith them. Someone recommended that I apply for a graduate program in clinical psychology. I had no idea whether I wanted to be a therapist, but I was accepted to the program and had no other plan, so I went.

The uncertainty and frustration I felt are far from unique. In my case, things have worked out well. After a few years, I learned that being a therapist was not my calling but I’ll never regret the education and experience I got in the mental health field. I’m incredibly happy in my current role and have a deeper sense of what I want out of my career.

I’m tempted to reassure students: Things will work out. You don’t need to have your entire life planned at 22. It’s not all-or-nothing; you can know some of what you want without having every detail mapped out. While I do reassure them, I also urge myself not to forget what it feels like to be a young adult under tremendous pressure to have everything “figured out.”

Pressure From all Directions

Many high school and college students have internalized rigid and linear expectations for how their professional journeys should unfold.

High schoolers are frequently asked questions like “what will you major in?” and “what do you want to do after college?” long before they’ve started their first college class. Once they’ve transitioned to higher education, students are typically expected to declare majors and have a decent sense of their career trajectories by Sophomore or Junior year. These kinds of expectations do not align with what we know about emerging adults and their identity development.

Research on emerging adulthood tells us that most people in their teens and early 20s are undergoing monumental personal and relational changes. They are examining worldviews handed down to them by their caregivers, and deciding on their own beliefs. They are discovering what groups they want to be part of and who they want to spend their time with. They are wondering what their futures will be like, considering different possibilities, and determining what kind of lives they want to lead.

Not to mention, they’re doing this while managing homework, family obligations, and often jobs as well. The tasks of young adulthood require a great deal of introspection, social experience, and exploration. They require trial and error. They require time and flexibility.

For some students, the typical college timeline works out great: they have done enough exploring to know what field they want to go into. They feel comfortable with the direction they’re heading in and have sufficient freedom to explore their social development. For others though, the expected timeline can be restrictive and demoralizing.

We are subjected to many of the same pressures and expectations as our students. It’s important that we ask ourselves honestly: do we give our students enough room for exploration? Do we encourage and validate their curiosities? Do we show them that forward movement does not always have to be linear? Many talented advisors, career counselors, and instructors do. I’ve seen the positive difference it makes for students who cross their paths.

Still, societal and structural pressures can be difficult to navigate. Of course, none of us can take those pressures away. We can only do our best to help students navigate them, and create spaces for self-reflection.

Some of the many sources of pressure include:

  • Familial, cultural, or societal expectations.
  • Necessity of paying off student loans and making sufficient earnings to manage other financial responsibilities
  • Comparison: many young people compare themselves to peers and public figures. The trajectories of others may be seen as the standard by which one should perform.
  • Fear of falling behind: Steps of the career journey are often depicted as linear milestones. Deviation is characterized as a step backward. Naturally, many young adults fear having to “start over” when they are older if they make an “incorrect” step.

These pressures can restrict the time and open-mindedness required to make informed decisions. Most respected theories of career development emphasize the complexity of these decision-making processes.

It’s Personal

Author’s image from “Life Rainbow” activity completed in class

Donald Super’s developmental self-concept theory is one of several I’ve discussed with students. It acknowledges vocational development as the process of The image to to the left illustrates Super’s career rainbow: a tool that helps people evaluate aspects of their self-concept which may influence their career choices.

When I discuss the career rainbow with undergraduates, they manage to come up with dozens more categories and sub-categories for the “roles” section of the career rainbow. Some of these students have a clear sense of what career they want to pursue, some have a general sense, and others are still in the initial parts of exploration. Regardless, they recognize that their priorities may change in both predictable and unpredictable ways at various points of their personal “rainbows.”

While flexibility and room for exploration are built into Super’s theory and many others, that doesn’t always come through in the expectations high schoolers and college students are faced with. Many young people receive conflicting messages:

Explore different options (as long as you don’t take too long and fall behind). Follow your passions (as long as they’ll make you enough money to pay off your debt and support a family). Make sure you have work-life balance (as long as you still work enough to get promoted and earn more money).

Conflicting messages make it easy for any career assessment, or a simple conversation about careers, to discourage exploration and curiosity. Often, career discussions are viewed as a way to get things “all figured out” in a hurry. Exploration is seen as a first step to the career process, which should be wrapped up within a specific window so that decision-making can be accomplished on schedule.

In reality, the importance of exploration fluctuates at various parts of a person’s vocational journey. And some students need more time for exploration than others.

The Paradox of Planning for Chaos

Photo from the Careers- In Theory blog, University of London

Frameworks like the Systems Theory and the Chaos Theory of careers are personal favorites of mine. In contrast to some of the messages students receive, these frameworks offer non-linear depictions of career development (see image to the left).

These theories incorporate a variety of personal, social, institutional, and societal factors that influence career trajectories.

Research demonstrates that Generation Z individuals place a high priority on both intrinsic and extrinsic factors when considering their career paths. Surveys about their priorities indicate that they value opportunities for promotion and job stability. Also among their highest priorities are opportunities to make a difference and feel valued in the workplace.

The Chaos and Systems theories illustrate a need for balance between personal preferences and pragmatic considerations. Individuals are not forced to focus disproportionately on specific variables at the expense of others. Experimentation and change are recognized as part of the process. Rather than imposing rigid timelines, these frameworks focus on the nuanced processes of an individual’s career journey.

The structure and priorities of these frameworks can help us re-evaluate our own objectives:

We haven’t automatically succeeded if we send high schoolers off to prestigious colleges, or college students off to their first full-time jobs. Achieving a healthy balance that leads to workplace satisfaction is not a one-time event, and there is no standardized template for an ideal workplace.

In my eyes, we’ve succeeded if we have given these students sufficient opportunity for exploration, honored their unique priorities, and helped them experience meaningful self-reflection that leads to confident career decisions, rather than decisions fueled by pressure or fear.

During class discussions about career development, I encourage students to reflect on the role of exploration at all points of a career journey, not just the beginning. Using the Chaos theory’s principles, we differentiate between influences we can control and those that occur due to chance.

Young adults thrive in these kinds of open discussions: discussions that aren’t framed around getting everything “all figured out.” Discussions where the only objectives are curiosity and self-reflection.

I’m reminded of a quote that has stuck with me since the earlier part of my own career journey in mental health:

When the pressure to advance to a “next step” is eased, young adults are free to explore and make decisions in ways that are appropriate for the present. The insights they gather from this reflection ultimately promote forward movement and help young adults make decisions they might have been unprepared to make otherwise.

Unwilling to Settle

Many of today’s young adults don’t view their careers as simply a way to pay the bills. They have high expectations for the quality of their lives and relationships; both personally and professionally. As Jeffrey Jensen Arnett puts is in his book :

Young adults are sometimes told they’re naïve; that they need to be realistic. Arnett emphasizes that their optimism is not merely a sign of ignorance and inexperience. Rather, it is a tremendous source of resiliency that may help emerging adults achieve their dreams despite significant challenges in the “real world.” Most students I’ve encountered in this age group do not see the world through rose-colored glasses. On the contrary, they are exceptionally realistic:

Realistic enough to know that rigid timelines don’t always fit the complexity of human experience. Realistic enough to see that a meaningful life requires more than making X number of dollars. Realistic enough to recognize, and work to change, inequities which make opportunities disproportionately available to some over others. Realistic enough to know that they shouldn’t accept “that’s just the way it is” as a justification for the sacrifice of work-life balance. Realistic enough to know their power to change our societal expectations of work for the better.

I respect their determination to treat work as part of a greater whole: part of the meaningful lives they hope to create. I hope that educators and employers will support them in doing this by prioritizing space for exploration. This serves the interest of workplaces and society as well. After all, it’s a valuable asset to have such determined people working in roles where they are motivated, qualified, and applying the best of their personal skills.


Research-driven ideas and insights from authentic voices in education.

Brynne Schroeder, PhD

Written by

Community engagement specialist. Proud Webster University faculty member. Human Development researcher. Lover of sci-fi, soccer, and doughnuts.



Educate magnifies the voices of changemakers in education. We empower educators to share their stories, ideas, insights, and inspiration. Educate is dedicated to the fusion of research + education policy and practice.

Brynne Schroeder, PhD

Written by

Community engagement specialist. Proud Webster University faculty member. Human Development researcher. Lover of sci-fi, soccer, and doughnuts.



Educate magnifies the voices of changemakers in education. We empower educators to share their stories, ideas, insights, and inspiration. Educate is dedicated to the fusion of research + education policy and practice.

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