Define: Adult

Applying technically to anybody past the age of consent in the eyes of the law, but more practically in our context referring to someone who has completed their initial compulsory primary, secondary and tertiary level schooling. Herein we have a difference as some people don’t continue on to tertiary level and therefore may find themselves in the ‘big wide world’ at the age of even 16, some at 18 and thereafter at any age, depending upon how long they spend in tertiary level. The word ‘schooling’ here is used to avoid confusion with the other word ‘education’ I am attempting to define.

Adults are therefore categorised both by life-stage as well as age, although anybody above the ages of 15, 18 or 21, depending upon the country they live in, could be classed as adult. In the context of this research into older adults, we are relieved of the pressure of defining the exact age of entry into adulthood, as the subjects we are dealing with are well past that stage, whichever it might be.

Adulthood, once attained, is sub-divisible into several recognisable stages culturally and physically. There is some correlation between the two, although no definite rules that must be followed, as everybody is different and experiences life in a different way. However, it is useful to lay out some of the major possible sub-divisions, as some of these will have a bearing on our research area.

*I realise certain things do not always apply to everyone’s life path (for instance, some people do not find intimate relationships or become parents), but as the cultural norm, they are indicative and typical in the main of the potentiality of the life stage.
Cultural Sub-divisions

  • Young Adulthood – generally experimental and hedonistic in nature, freedom from heavy responsibility and long-term relationships, first employment*
  • Adulthood – long-term relationships* possibly established, employment* continuing, enduring social activities
  • Parenthood* – long-term relationships*, dependent offspring, employment*, social responsibilities, on-going activities, time permitting
  • Mature Parenthood* – long-term relationships*, semi-dependent offspring, employment*, social responsibilities, on-going activities, time permitting
  • Older Adulthood – empty nest, employment*, relative financial comfort, responsibilities to older relatives
  • Retirement – fixed income, time to do things, on-going activities

Physical Sub-divisions

  • Pre-relationship* – energetic, risk-taking, ambitious, predatory
  • Relationship* – inwardly focussed, protective, communal, insular
  • Maturity – liberated, selective, experienced
  • Seniority– limited, slower, increasingly isolated, vulnerable

Each of these sub-divisions is applied to any number of policies and strategies present in society, making the use of the general term ‘adult’ rather pointless, in the same way that ‘child’ could apply to a two year old and a fifteen year old. There is no happy medium either, as each sub-division brings with it its own criteria.

Defining the term ‘Older adult’ is therefore far more than simply looking for a threshold based upon age or even appearance, but it does rely somewhat on circumstances for the individual. Someone involved deeply with being a parent is less likely to be able to give the time to Lifelong Learning, even if they wish to, although, in moderation, many things are possible. Similarly, someone in a fixed relationship might see advantage in developing their own interests outside of it. The ages of these people could literally be anything crossing several decades, so other criteria to define older adults must come into play.

Perhaps adults are self-defining, as they will feel ready for a mature outlook on life and therefore wish to engage in mature activities. This is a little (pre)judgmental. However, if we consider social outlets, many of which are based upon relationships built upon things people have in common, a common activity, children at the same school, work colleagues, it becomes apparent that, once these natural outlets subside, there can be a void to fill, because people are no longer in a situation of shared commonality. This, perhaps, is where we need to look for the context of the Older adult’.