Musings from an Employed “Emerging Adult”

There used to be 4 life stages. Now there are 6… at least according to New York Times columnist, David Brooks. In 2007, during my junior year of college, the article, The Odyssey Years, came out.

The article’s theory on life stages struck me as interesting at the time, but now, five years later, it is starting to fully make sense; I’m now immersed in the workforce and have spent a few years navigating post-college life and watching my peers do the same.

In the article, Brooks asserts that where the human life span used to be comprised of four segments: childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age, the average Western human now goes through 6 stages of life: childhood adolescence, odyssey, adulthood, late adulthood, and old age. The third life stage he mentions, Odyssey, is gradually becoming more widely recognized as a standard rite of passage. Also dubbed, “Emerging Adulthood,”, it generally begins with entrance to college (or the age 18) and ends in the early to mid-thirties.

From what I’ve read, and personally observed as a 26-year-old passing through Odyssey, there seems to be 4 major things that define this life stage:

-Delayed marriage and child bearing


-Financial Instability

-Deferred commitment to a career or organization

While the effects this new phenomenon is having on society have been acutely observed by many social commentators, what has not be so thoroughly explored are the effects this life stage is having and will have on organizations. One obvious implication is that people my age entering the workforce generally have no intention of committing more than several years to their first post college employers.

And, who can blame them?

Most of my peers can’t conceive of committing to a partner or city residence any time soon, so how could they possibly dig their feet in and limit themselves to climb only one organizational ladder?

So, the challenge then falls to top executives and business owners as to how to view these post-adolescent, pre-adult 20-somethings drifting through their organizations.How do organizations capitalize on young professionals today so that they glean the most value from emerging adults while not ending up behind from lost time and money in the ever revolving door of young people looking for a different adventure or opportunity? And, how do they plan for what their organizations will look like in 10-15 years when their aren’t 30- 40 year old employees with 5 plus years of in house experience under their belt to step into middle management positions?

Despite these obstacles, in some ways, Emerging Adulthood might be happening at a most optimal time, as it is evolving in tandem with a crippled economy full of businesses that cannot offer lucrative salaries and job security. Perhaps, there is a clever way for both parties to get what they want without either having to sacrifice what they are not poised to offer.

The following are some insights into the psyche of Emerging Adults and ideas for how to view and leverage this population.

1. Tap Emerging Adults for contributions that will last beyond their shelf life at your company. Allow young professionals to openly participate in brainstorming sessions and encourage them to share ideas they may have for the company. You won’t lose anything and you may walk away with some viable suggestions. Plus, Millennials, who currently make up the Odyssey population, LOVE feeling like they are being valued for their intellectual capital.

2. Use the Odyssey population at your workplace to share their social media knowledge and skills up the organization. Higher level employees may have missed on boarding with this trend, but most of your 20-something employees will be fluent on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc., and will be able to inform others and suggest how it could be used to benefit your company.

3. View your entry level employees as future good will ambassadors and network connections for your company. Often, Emerging Adults feel bad leaving a company that has invested time and money into them. So if they have had a good experience, they will talk highly of your company and be happy to connect you to one or several of the other organizations they will likely cycle through in the future.

In short, the best way to manage this new kind of employee is to value what they know; it’s likely different than what their bosses know and could pay off in many ways down the line. Invest your care and concern in them while they’re with you because likely, they’ll go on to do bigger and bigger things,so  pay if forward!

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6 Responses to Musings from an Employed “Emerging Adult”

  1. Fran Johnston says:

    I like your thinking, Lindsey! I went on an Odyssey when I was in my mid to late ’20s, using graduate school as the cover. As a business owner, I feel inspired to take up your challenge about how to respectfully imagine job situations that feel mutually beneficial no matter the length of the relationship. I know you live these values in your work with us, and that attitude makes a difference as much as the great “value” you add with your labor. Thanks for speaking up. Fran

  2. Jamie Van Buskirk says:

    My large federal government agency has recruiting challenges and I have supervision challenges for the very reasons you pointed out. I find our organization interesting because the children and even grandchilren of employees and retirees choose to work here. Does the family connection to a large government organization mean they value loyalty and service or are they just looking for safe work? Having recently read Steve Jobs biography I’d look towards technology in education for my thrills at work. Thanks for the information I’ll be giving my emerging adults some challenging assignments and more resources so they can build their own network and not depend on me and my network.

  3. Emily says:

    This is invaluable insight for someone like me (a recruiter for a Fortune 200 company). We hire anyone from interns to executives and you provide some great ideas on how to keep this group involved!

  4. Stephanie says:

    This was a really great article. As another “Emerging Adult” I’ve thought a lot about how to balance my investment in an organization while still looking at other options. I think it’s important for companies to invest in their employees, and it’s difficult when you don’t know how long they’ll be there. I think the author makes a great point that it’s crucial for employers to get as much out of these Millennials while they are with the company to compensate for the fact that they might be training them to work elsewhere. If nothing else, young people usually bring a sense of enthusiasm, and employers are usually able to get a lot out of them because of this.

  5. Chris says:

    The concept of emerging adulthood is real. From my experience the last thing on the mind of these Millennials is some type of long term committment. While circumstances like marriage or the economy can change the focus, as a business owner, I have had to shift my thinking about what committment means to this group to help manage my expectations. And I will never give up casting a vision that just might catch enthuse them to re-enlist.

  6. Kristin von Donop says:

    I appreciate your suggestions about how to engage people beyond the standard “time in role” progression that was common when I joined the workforce after undergrad. Your blog is also a welcome re-frame for the way the Odyssey generation is viewed in popular culture. Well done!

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