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The Space Between "Teen" and "Adult".

When did you feel like an "adult"? Were you eighteen? Twenty-one? Did it come with some milestone like a graduation, relationship, or financial status? Did people treat you like an adult before or after that time? Think about your library programming--are there spaces for people who are somewhere between teen and adult?

If you are younger than twenty-five, think about the decisions you are making and the family/community that supports you. If you are past that time in your life, what resources helped you become an adult?

In libraries, there used to be three main age groups considered: children, teens, and adults (although, teens are actually a relatively new consideration). Hence, most libraries have collections and services for these three age groups. If you have ever worked in a children's department, though, you know that services are more nuanced than just the broad category of "children." Early literacy programming is especially popular as collections and programming are tailored for the development of specific age groups.

The same thing is happening in teen services. Terms like "New Adult" have been popping up in conferences, libraries, and publications like this one. Libraries are trying to maintain seamless services, so it makes sense that services should be aimed at that awkward time between "teen" and "adult."

Psychology researchers have been struggling to define that population. In 2000, researcher Jeffrey Arnett proposed that ages eighteen to twenty-five are a unique developmental period characterized by demographic instability, geographic variability, and identity exploration. "Emerging Adulthood is a time of life when many different directions remain possible, when little about the future has been decided for certain" (Arnett, 2000, p. 469). This can be seen in the context of our current job market--young people are flexible and exploratory. This time of life is used to explore career and education opportunities, new locations, relationships, and even identities. During this developmental period, peer influences are strong and risky behavior increases (Schwartz, 2016). This is reflected in binge drinking, experimentation with drugs, and risky sexual behavior.

This period of development seems to have emerged as the ages for marriage and childbirth have increased, the result of more people attending college after high school (Arnett, 2000). In fact, most of the early research on emerging adulthood was done with college students. This is likely due to traditions in the field of psychology, but also because college students are easier to find and study than those who are less centrally located (Arnett, 2008). In terms of library services, it seems shortsighted to focus specifically on this college population because, in general, emerging adults using a public library on a regular basis are unlikely to be in a four-year college. They may be struggling with their passage to adulthood in different ways.

There has been much debate about the theory of emerging adulthood because it is specific to our current culture and time period (Syed, 2015). Fifty years ago, emerging adulthood was not a useful term because young people were likely to be headed straight from high school to the workforce, the armed forces, or into marriage (Arnett, 2000). Today, there is more flexibility as people marry and start careers later in life. But, this may not be the case for everyone. Researchers have pointed out that people of low socioeconomic status may not have the luxury of delaying financial independence with college and identity exploration (Schwartz, 2016). What does emerging adulthood look like for people with fewer resources?

Currently, young people who experience poverty are also likely to be racial minorities. Obstacles like discrimination and a lack of resources can make the path to adulthood even more difficult. While college students are surrounded by communities, mentors, and resources like career services and counseling centers, their non-college peers are left to find support on their own (Schwartz, 2016). What about young people who struggle with their identities? Immigrants, LGBTQ youth, English language learners, and disabled youth are all likely to have a great deal of anxiety about their futures and about adulthood as it is defined for their community. Milestones such as college, careers, marriage, and financial independence may seem like a distant dream.

Public libraries serve everyone so public librarians do not have the luxury of understanding only one part of the population. Emerging adulthood is a very real part of life, but it's important to understand that it affects people differently depending on their background (Syed & Mitchell, 2013). The young people in your library could be struggling with many issues, such as relationships, family, career options, school, and community. The library is a place where teens can find acceptance and community that can continue as they age out of traditional teen programming.

Seamless programming is something that was discussed frequently in libraries where I worked. Adults tend to disappear after high school and return once they have had children. Why is that? The current focus on lively adult programming is fantastic. Adult coloring books, escape rooms, book clubs, art exhibits, and concerts are all wonderful additions to library programming. Emerging adults have a lot more on their minds, though, than culture and fun. At age eighteen, some people have completed high school while some have not. Some people are in college, some are not. Some people live at home, some do not, and some cannot. There are many worries about the future, being independent, and being an adult. Libraries can help fill that gap between teen and adult services.


Traditionally, marriage was a milestone of adulthood. This assumption is being challenged by many youth today, as people get married later or not at all. Here are some things to consider:

* Members of the LGBTQ community may struggle with the legal issues of marriage and family and may not know what is possible for them.

* Youth, including but not limited to LGBTQ-identified youth, may be experimenting with their sexual and gender identities. They may or may not make safe choices.

* Youth with "traditional" families may struggle with the idea of chosen family vs. family of origin. Which is more important? How do they go together?

* Youth who have strained relationships with their families of origin (foster care, abuse, death, etc.) may not yet know how to define their own family.

Here is how you can help:

* Provide resources on things like sexual health, abuse hotlines, and counseling services.

* Be sensitive to the fact that foster care services often end at age eighteen. Put together information on services for adults. Work with local agencies that provide help with housing, career assistance, and support.

* Put up signs about support groups for all kinds of people including people who are exploring nonbinary gender identities, immigrants, or adults with disabilities. Search them out if necessary.

* Call the local LGBTQ organization and ask them to provide information and/or do a program.

* Be sensitive to the fact that identities are still in flux and that's okay. Ask for preferred pronouns or names and don't make assumptions.

* Don't assume that family means anything in particular. Try to be open to non-traditional family arrangements like open relationships and cooperative households.

* Provide books and resources on topics like chosen families and acceptance.

* If your library is large enough, start a New Adult section with books specifically for these young adults or make a display with titles from both the teen and adult sections.


College is a major milestone for emerging adulthood, but this may mean different things to different people. Finding a fulfilling career is an important part of becoming an adult. Here are some things to consider:

* Traditional universities are not the only path. The library may be a sanctuary for people in two-year colleges or online programs.

* Some people have the luxury of moving back home but some do not.

* People with more resources may see college as a time to explore and find something they enjoy, while those with fewer resources may see college as a time to study something useful that will lead to a good job.

* Some emerging adults will be/are the first in their families to go to college.

* College is not always a great experience, especially if there are issues due to race, ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation, gender expression, or socioeconomic background.

* Being home on college breaks is sometimes good and sometimes not. Some college students will seek refuge in the library. Some will gather happily with high school friends.

Here is what you can do:

* Provide resources on career planning, applying to college, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and tutoring.

* Be intentional about including people of all ages for college programming.

* Start a career or volunteer fair to expose young people to mentors and career opportunities.

* Plan activities during college breaks. Low-key activities, experience sharing, or volunteer opportunities are all good ways to reconnect young people to their community.

* Include all emerging adults in your programs. Just because they are going through different experiences does not mean they shouldn't meet each other.

* Write recommendation letters for your volunteers. Be a resource.

* Remember your own privilege and be open-minded. Share your experiences, but be sensitive.

I have been thinking a lot about privilege as I mature as a researcher, and I think one of the best things we (researchers and practitioners) can do is to reflect on our experiences and on our privilege. I can't change the fact that I had many opportunities as a young person and that I was able to go to college and beyond. I can reflect on the fact that not everyone is on the same path and that those paths are valid, too. I can also reflect on the fact that my path was not always easy and I can think about the culture in which I was raised. My parents were Baby Boomers, so they had traditional views on family. Events like coming out, having children (or choosing not to), getting a job, and graduating from high school, technical school, or college all mean something different in the context of your culture and your community's expectations. Not everyone has the community support they need when they need it, and emerging adulthood is a particularly vulnerable time for a lot of people. If you are still in the throes of it, you know it's true.


Arnett, J. J. "Emerging Adulthood: A Theory of Development from the Late Teens through Twenties." American Psychologist, 55(5) (2000): 469-480.

--. "The Neglected 95%." American Psychologist, 63(7), (2008): 602-614.

Schwartz, Seth J. "Turning Point for a Turning Point: Advancing Emerging Adulthood Theory and Research." Emerging Adulthood, 4(5), (2016): 307-317.

Syed, Moin. "Emerging Adulthood: Developmental Stage, Theory, or Nonsense?" The Oxford Handbook of Emerging Adulthood. (2015): 1-28.

Syed, Moin, and L. L. Mitchell. "Race, Ethnicity, and Emerging Adulthood: Retrospect and Prospects," 1(2) (2013): 83-95.

Sharon Colvin is currently a doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Education, where she is studying libraries as informal learning spaces. She was a youth services librarian for ten years in Massachusetts and Vermont and is passionate about public libraries. She has a master's in education from Harvard University and a master's in library science from Simmons College. She currently resides in Pittsburgh with her two cats and remains addicted to YA literature.
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Title Annotation:diversity matters
Author:Colvin, Sharon
Publication:Voice of Youth Advocates
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2017
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