• Date May 01, 2012
  • Author Lindsey Bingaman

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!