Ages 18 to 26: new view in policy and research

Photo: Yound adults in classroom

Young adults ages 18-26 should be viewed as a separate subpopulation in policy and research; ©Andrey Popov/

Young adults ages 18-26 should be viewed as a separate subpopulation in policy and research, because they are in a critical period of development when successes or failures could strongly affect the trajectories of their lives, says a new report from the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council.

The committee that wrote the report found that young adults' brains and behaviors continue maturing into their 20s, and they face greater challenges achieving independence than their predecessors did, have lengthened pathways into adulthood, and are surprisingly unhealthy. The report calls for an improved understanding and response to the circumstances and needs of today's young adults.

"Early childhood is widely viewed as a critical window of development, and young adulthood should also be seen in the same light," said committee chair Richard J. Bonnie, Harrison Foundation Professor of Medicine and Law and director of the Institute of Law, Psychiatry, and Public Policy at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "Adolescents do not suddenly stop developing when they turn 18; their brains are still maturing. Also, during this critical period, young adults face great challenges that provide less latitude for failure. Essentially, young adults who are not keeping up will have a harder time catching up."

Biologically and psychologically, young adulthood is a period of maturation and change. Compared with older adults, young adults have adolescent tendencies, including preferring short-term rewards and responding to peer approval. Compared with adolescents, however, young adults take longer to consider difficult problems before deciding on a course of action and have better-developed impulse control.

In addition, many of today's young adults confront challenges in making a successful transition to adult roles. Economic and social forces - including the restructuring of the economy, widening inequality, the increasing diversity of the population, and advances in technologies - have altered the landscape of risk and opportunity.

Furthermore, inequality can be magnified during young adulthood. Marginalized young adults, such as those aging out of foster care or born to low-income immigrants, are much less likely to transition successfully to adulthood. Earnings gap between those with a bachelor's degree and those with only a high school diploma have roughly doubled since 1980.

The transition into adulthood is also a critical period in health, and the dominant pattern among young adults is declining health, the committee found. As adolescents age into their early and mid-20s, they are less likely to eat breakfast, exercise, and get regular physical and dental checkups, and more likely to eat fast food, contract sexually transmitted diseases, smoke cigarettes, use marijuana and other drugs, and binge drink. The current generation of young adults is at the forefront of the obesity epidemic and more vulnerable to obesity-related health consequences in later years. Rapid technological changes, economic challenges, and a prolonged transition to adulthood appear to be contributing to the health problems of young adults by increasing their stress and sedentary habits. Mental health among young adults also is cause for concern, the committee said.

Providing more educational, economic, social, and health supports needed by all young adults - especially those who are at risk of experiencing the greatest struggles - could promote equal opportunities, reduce disparities, and enable them to embrace adult roles as healthy workers, parents, and citizens, the committee said. Focusing on the health and well-being of the current cohort of young adults is especially important because of the rapidly increasing ratio of individuals in the population ages 65 and older to the working-age population.

The committee called for the public and private sectors to improve policies and programs that address the needs of young adults. It recommended raising completion rates for those in high school and postsecondary institutions, and ensuring that the skills and credentials attained are ones the labor market rewards. To accomplish these goals, better integration is needed among secondary and higher education with workforce agencies.; Source: National Academy of Sciences