They may be old enough to vote and get the nominees’ name tattooed across their foreheads, but in the eyes of a psychologist, 18-year-olds are still several years away from total adulthood. A new report argues it’s for this reason young adults deserve special distinction for research and policy decisions.

For most of the 20th century, turning 18 was a momentous occasion. Maybe it was when you got your first car or had your first sip of beer with a cool uncle. Today, the story is very different, as researchers are finding the experience of being a young adult is fraught with massive debt, low-paying entry-level jobs, poor physical health, and psychological burden.

“During this critical period, young adults face great challenges that provide less latitude for failure,” said Richard J. Bonnie, law and psychiatry professor at the University of Virginia. Bonnie also serves as committee chair at the National Academy of Sciences, and he co-authored the new report. “Essentially, young adults who are not keeping up will have a harder time catching up.”

All Risk, All Reward

He and his colleagues at the National Academies wanted to formalize this “keeping up” process, by outlining the specific challenges unique to people who are just entering college and those who are a few years past it. It’s not just the case, they found, that young adults face big choices — 18-year-olds have pretty much always had to decide where to attend school and find work. The real argument is that those choices are fundamentally harder today, and few people who are in positions to help are actually giving it.

For one, young adults still have some growing up to do. Not yet operating with a fully developed brain, adolescent behavior is defined by its impulsiveness, its tendencies to take risks, and its desire for peer approval. Young adults generally prefer to spend money instead of save it, reflecting their disinterest in delaying gratification. They also experiment with drugs, alcohol, and sex, and may use one or a mix of the three to deal with negative emotions.

Combined, these factors give the young adult crowd an identity all its own. No other age group gets tasked with navigating social, financial, and psychological waters all at once, the researchers contend. “Early childhood is widely viewed as a critical window of development,” Bonnie said, “and young adulthood should also be seen in the same light.”

Unfortunately, right as people in the early 20s should be beginning to schedule doctor visits on their own, hit their peak for physical fitness, and start setting a working budget, many responsibilities fall by the wayside. Instead, they skip appointments and rely on the convenience of fast food, either because they aren’t up to cooking their own meals or because they simply can’t find the time.

It’s no wonder mental health suffers, too. Since the beginning of the 20th century, teen depression has risen five-fold. The explanation is straightforward: There are more things to be depressed about, and young adults’ departure from intrinsic goals like community and affiliation, moving toward extrinsic things like smartphones and money, has made people less equipped to deal with what’s bothering them.

Getting Help

Under their own weight, young adults may have trouble. Which is why Bonnie and his colleagues think some strategy is in order. For example, they call for both the public and private sectors to develop ways of bridging the gap between college life and the working world. It would be an effort to infuse more value into a college experience that is becoming far less optional for outgoing high school seniors who are looking to make a living wage.

Ultimately, some of the burden rests with the young adults themselves. Personal health is just that — personal. But that responsibility ends when people can’t help themselves even if they want to. That’s where tailor-made legislation and scientific research comes in: to help a struggling population deal with the challenges it would otherwise face alone.

“It is often said that young people are the future, but the rapidly changing world has made it harder for those young people to transition to adulthood,” said Victor Dzau, president of the Institute of Medicine. “This report can help policymakers, employers, and other community leaders develop and enhance policies and programs that improve the lives of young adults.”

Source: Bonnie R, Stroud C, Breiner H. Investing in the Health and Well-Being of Young Adults. The National Academies Press. 2014.