The psychological legacy of high-school cliques

But after high school, whether or not kids are defined by the labels that branded them very much depends on how rigidly that kid adheres to the same systems of structure and hierarchy found in high school. “If you go from a totally stratified high school to a very stratified college where the Greek system is very, very strong and you are aligned with your fraternity or sorority … If you go from that to that to your country club, when exactly are you adult, and when are you making decisions about what you want and what does it feel like to be outside of the group?” asks Wiseman.

One important change for this generation is that kids are taking longer to grow up and establish themselves in society as adults. And, while this extended adolescence has been lamented as “failure to launch,” some experts say this long period of “emerging adulthood,” which can last into the late 20s, could make high-school labels less potent. “The kind of exploration and identity-defining that used to really predominate in adolescence and in the high-school years has largely kind of shifted up the spectrum now into this emerging adulthood,” says Rich Clydesdale, a professor of sociology at the College of New Jersey. “Emerging adulthood,” then, gives kids a larger window to figure out who they are and how they define themselves, making the high-school labels just the first step in a longer process of self-discovery.