A rite of passage, in its most basic definition, is the process of an individual leaving one group or status to enter another. It’s a social process of change, typically involving the individual’s social status in their communities, and is given definition by its context. Common examples include marriage, in which two individuals pass from being socially separated to joined together; academic graduation or commencement, in which an individual is praised with social recognition for their scholarly accomplishments and given a new title; as well as religious coming-of-age ceremonies such as a Jewish bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah, in which a boy or girl is deemed old enough and ready to practice worship.


Rites of passage can be broken down into three phases: separation, transition, and incorporation.


As with the case of graduation, coming-of-age ceremonies, and in some cases weddings, rites of passage are commonly used to mark the transition to adulthood. If “adult” is the end state of incorporation and “child” is the preliminary, the in-between state is one of change and can be described as the adolescent, or “emerging adult.”


Different from young adulthood, adolescence is a “period of acquisition.” The emerging adult is going through changes, gaining new knowledge to build on and contest prior knowledge, developing skills to apply and test that new knowledge, as well as exploring their individual relationship to their community through those skills and knowledge.


When is the threshold crossed, from adolescent to adult? In a study conducted in 1994 by anthropologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, US college students from ages 18-23 were given a checklist polling their conceptions of necessities for adulthood and asking them to self-assess where they fall.


Criteria widely agreed as necessary for adulthood included deciding on beliefs and values independently of parent or other influences, accepting responsibility for the consequences of your own actions, and avoiding petty crimes or behavioral accountability. Criteria that didn’t indicate adulthood, as agreed by the majority in the study, included marriage, finishing education, having a child, emotional independence from parents, as well as home ownership.


Those criteria decided as non-essential for adulthood are also the criteria that can be more easily defined. The black-and-white contrast of having a child or not, being married or not, owning a home or not, finishing academic schooling or not. It was the more vague transitions, as Arnett labeled the “cognitive transitions,” that were agreed upon as valid criteria. Behavioral accountability, for the emerging adult, is a very gray area that when self-evaluated is decided by the individual’s subjective morality. What determines a petty crime? More so for the individual, what determines a crime? “Deciding on beliefs and values independently of parent or other influences” is a matter of reconciliation, putting those absolute truths that were taught in childhood to the test against one’s now-acquired skills and knowledge. To see value in doctrine given by parents and elders, now with a critical eye, or to depart from those values and form a new set. Deciding such things is subjective to an individual’s circumstances.


Arnett saw the rejecting of role transitions, such as marriage, completing education, and parenthood, as a result of changes in social structures throughout the 20th century. He indicated the rise of enrollment in college education in the US from 8% of young people in 1920 to over 50% in 1980 as evidence that education was extending its duration, overreaching the incorporation threshold of adulthood. Students place value in lifelong learning, understanding that educational opportunities exist past individual thresholds such as the completion of one degree. That increase of enrollment in postsecondary education continued past Arnett’s study to a peak in 2010. It did, however, begin to decrease between 2010 and 2017. Similarly, Arnett noted an increase in median age of marriage in the US that has continued since; 25.9 for men and 23.6 for women in 1991 to 29.8 for men and 27.8 for women in 2018. Along with the rising age of parenthood, many emerging adults and young adults are deciding to not have children. The criteria, as decided by past cultural values, have changed.


Arnett concluded that college students were uncertain of their status as adults. Determining past criteria as invalid, students were left in an ambiguous state. Or rather, statelessness. In the 21st century, the liminal period of the emerging adult doesn’t have the clear exit thresholds which anthropologists throughout the 20th century had studied and identified.