In 1993, clinical psychologist Terrie Moffitt presented a developmental theory that describes two key offending trajectories, the adolescent limited and life course persistent. (1) The adolescent limited trajectory group consists of individuals who mainly engage in lower-level crimes, such as underage drinking and shoplifting, and typically desist by approximately age eighteen. In the second group are individuals in the life-course persistent trajectory, who engage in antisocial behavior earlier in their life course, participate in both lower-level and more serious crimes, such as robberies and assault, as well as the lower-level offenses typical of adolescent limited offenders. These life course persistent offenders do not desist, but instead continue their involvement in offending through adulthood.
Key to Moffitt's work is the idea of the maturity gap, defined as the delay between biological and social maturation, during which adolescents engage in offending due to the frustration experienced by being biologically, but not socially mature, and thereby unable to fully participate in adult society. (2) According to Moffitt, most young offenders are on an adolescent limited trajectory, and offend as a result of the maturity gap desisting once they reach social maturity and are able to participate in the economy. In other words, once youth reach social maturity and are able to fully participate in "adult" society they generally stop engaging in the types of delinquency common during adolescence. For example, an individual may shoplift and fence goods as a way of making money in high school, but once they graduate, they may stop engaging in that behavior since they now have a credential that allows access to higher paying jobs.
More recently, research has begun to incorporate emerging adulthood into the discourse surrounding antisocial behavior. Recent studies explore the potential for criminal onset during emerging adulthood, changes in offending behavior during emerging adulthood, the influence of turning points and social bonds on offending during emerging adulthood, as well as the influence of emerging adulthood on sexual behaviors and drug use. (3) Although these studies lay a solid foundation in the area of emerging adulthood, bringing it into the social science discourse, they have yet to fully conceptualize and theoretically link emerging adulthood into the offending literature. For example, the criminal career paradigm has been firmly linked to developmental stages in the life course. Scholars have found that offending onset, participation, frequency, and desistance are fairly well established concepts in relation to developmental life stages. (4)
However, the same cannot be said about empirical research on emerging adulthood. Studies such as the ones conducted by Christopher Salvatore, Travis Taniguchi, and Wayne Welsh provide support for the notion that emerging adulthood could be integrated into Moffitt's developmental taxonomy but stop short of integrating the ideas empirically due to a lack of longitudinal analyses. (5) Due to the need for this integration, it is necessary to place emerging adulthood within the context of the criminological literature and connect it conceptually and empirically to existing research.
The National Institute of Justice supports the importance of emerging adulthood as an area of criminological inquiry. It conducted a large-scale project that focused on adolescence and emerging adulthood. The project, a "Study Group on the Transitions from Juvenile Delinquency to Adult Crime," had the goal of reviewing research findings about offending during the transition from adolescence to adulthood, as well as exploring the policy implications for the criminal justice system. The "Study Group" utilized several developmental perspectives to review the scientific evidence focusing on offending behaviors between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine. Two key conclusions emerged from the study: there is a large gap in the research dealing with this time period and there is a need for more research exploring why some adolescents transition out of crime during emerging adulthood, whereas others continue to offend. (6)
The above studies provide a useful starting point and establish emerging adulthood as a legitimate area of criminological inquiry, as well as the continued need for integration of emerging adulthood into theoretical paradigms in criminology. The aim of this study is to provide such integration by providing a theoretical mechanism, the 'emerging adulthood gap,' which integrates emerging adulthood into the life course or developmental area of criminological theory. This paper will present the 'what' of the emerging adulthood gap by introducing the concept and integrating it into existing theoretical paradigms, the 'how' by examining how social circumstances have altered the life course leading to the evolution of emerging adulthood as a distinct stage of the life course and to the 'emerging adulthood gap,' and the 'why' of the 'emerging adulthood gap' by discussing the decreased level of informal social controls experienced by those in emerging adulthood, which may make those in this stage of the life course prone to offending, substance abuse, and risky behaviors as part of their identity exploration and the instability characteristic of emerging adulthood, thereby tying emerging adulthood into criminological theory.
Emerging Adulthood and Offending: An Overview First discussed by Jeffrey Arnett in 1994, emerging adulthood is a developmental stage that occurs between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. Emerging adulthood is often characterized by instability and as an age of exploration, during which drug, alcohol, and sexuality experimentation are common. (7) Essential is the understanding that emerging adulthood is not the adolescence or young adulthood of the past. (8) The journey from childhood to adulthood is different than it was decades ago, with the key difference being that this process lasts far longer. (9) Changes in society, including delays in marriage and parenting, the commodification of higher education, and identity exploration, all have been identified as components that have led to the evolution of emerging adulthood as a unique stage of the life course. (10) Furthermore, many in emerging adulthood experience an increase in social freedom as they are no longer subjected to the informal social controls of adolescence, such as parents and teachers. This increased level of social freedom provides opportunities for emerging adults to engage in risky and dangerous behaviors, including unsafe sex, substance use, and crime.
The convergence between emerging adulthood and antisocial behaviors is well established. Studies consistently find that dangerous and risky behaviors, such as binge drinking, smoking, unsafe driving, and unsafe sexual practices are all common in populations of emerging adults. (11) Turning more specifically to crime, Alex Piquero, Robert Brame, Paul Mazerolle, and Rudy Haapanen conducted one of the first studies to examine the influence of emerging adulthood on criminal activity, finding that arrest rates for both violent and nonviolent crimes peaked in their early twenties--i.e. during emerging adulthood. Additionally, they found that increases in social bonds, such as marriage, decreased arrests for nonviolent offenses, but did not influence arrests for violent crime. (12) In another study, Terrie Moffitt, Avshalom Caspi, Honalee Harrington, and Barry Milne used data from the Dunedin study to examine offenders in their mid-twenties, noting that many adolescent limited offenders were engaging in property crimes, substance use, and had other issues, such as financial problems. (13) Moffitt and her team note that emerging adulthood may have played a role in why those identified as adolescent limited offenders had yet to 'age out' as her original conceptualization of the Adolescent Limited
Offender in her 1993 dual taxonomy. (14) Both Piquero's and Moffitt's work provide evidence to suggest that emerging adulthood has impacted youth offending.
Subsequent studies incorporate the developmental processes indicative of emerging adulthood into explaining offending during this stage of the life course. Robert Marcus utilized data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) to examine violent offending during emerging adulthood. Consistent with Arnett's work, Marcus found sensation seeking and violent offending declined as the sample aged out of emerging adulthood, and married. (15) More recently, Salvatore and Taniguchi used Add Health data to examine the role of social bonds and turning points identified in the life course literature--including in John Laub and Robert Sampon's 2003 landmark study--as influencing desistance. The results of their study provides support for the role of social bonds and turning points such as employment, marriage, parenthood, economic stability, and property ownership as influencing desistance during emerging adulthood. (16) Sung Joon Jang and Jeremy Rhodes also utilized Add Health data to examine the effects of strain on crime and drug use during emerging adulthood. Examples of strain that could influence offending and substance use during emerging adulthood include the ending of a romantic relationship, the loss of a job, or association with anti-social peers. Jang and Rhodes found that the effects of strain on offending and substance use were exacerbated during emerging adulthood by social bonds with offending peers and low-self-control. (17) The results of the abovementioned studies support Arnett's theory, as well as suggesting that there may be a 'maturity gap' in emerging adulthood like that identified by scholars during adolescence.
The Life Course Perspective: A Theoretical Framework for the Emerging Adulthood Gap
The life course perspective is the study of individual...