An emerging portrait of emerging adults in the news, part 3

In recent weeks, a number of studies have been reported on that discuss the beliefs and behaviors of the younger generation, those who are now between high school and age 30 (an age group that could also be labeled “emerging adults”). In a three-part series, I want to highlight three of these studies because they not only suggest what this group is doing but also hints at the consequences. A study in part one showed that there is an association between hyper-texting and hyper social networking use and risky behavior. A study in part two showed that teens and college students today are more tolerant than previous generations but less empathetic.

Another interesting aspect of the lives of emerging adults is living alone. While this is common among the middle-aged, the proportion of emerging adults living alone is growing:

The stats are arresting. In this country, approximately 31 million people live alone, and one-person households make up 28 percent of the total, tying with childless couples as the most common residential type — “more common,’’ Klinenberg pointed out, “than the nuclear family, the multigenerational family, and the roommate or group home.’’

Those who live alone are mostly middle-age, with young adults the fastest-growing segment, and there are more women than men. No longer a transitional stage, living alone is one of the most stable household arrangements. And while one-person households were once scattered in low-density rural settings, they’re now concentrated in cities. “In Manhattan,’’ he said, “more than half of all residences are one-person dwellings.’’

I’ve seen a number of commentators attempt explanations for this: this is part of becoming an adult today, television shows like Friends or How I Met Your Mother glamorized the social life in the city (though these shows tend to show roommates living together), outrageous housing costs push younger people into odd living arrangements.

But couldn’t this trend toward living alone be linked to the two prior studies we looked at? If a lot of social life occurs through texting or through social networking sites and emerging adults are more tolerant but less empathetic, then living alone makes some sense. Emerging adults still have a social life – but this social life may look quite different as friends are found and communicated with through technology or social outings rather than through closer ties (such as living together).

And what if living alone or being alone more is the outcome for younger generations? How might this impact society? Such arrangements may be good for self-actualization (or not) but there will be consequences. What will “community” look like in several decades? If these three studies were all the evidence we had, we might conclude that emerging adults like to be social but also like to keep people at an arm’s length.

It is hard to draw conclusions from three studies that are reported in the news – but here is the emerging portrait: social interaction is changing. It may be easy to dismiss this new interaction as bad or wrong but we need more information and research on this particular topic. We need more measurement of depth or quality of relationships. Out of these three studies, we have two measures of interaction quality: the prevalence of risky behaviors (though this is only an association or correlation) and levels of empathy. We could be asking other questions like how many students in college today make arrangements for single rooms in dorms or would prefer to live in single rooms? How many students who study abroad actually are able to fully understand and appreciate a new culture versus just being able to see the differences two cultures?

All of this will be interesting to watch in the coming years as emerging adults  obtain the power to shape society’s values regarding interaction and community.

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