Emerging adulthood is now viewed by many as a distinct stage of life in America, one that covers the period between high school and “real” adulthood. And according to Christian Smith, Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, it’s a stage of life that is powerfully shaping the way people in their 20s view the world, how they understand the church, and how they approach their own formation.
At a faculty workshop at Wheaton College earlier this semester, Smith gave a fascinating summary of recent research on emerging adulthood and its significance for understanding and ministering to young adults today. Here are some of the highlights. (Keep in mind that these are all sweeping generalizations. Smith was quite clear that none of this will apply across the board to any particular young adult or even to distinct sub-groups of young adults. But these are pretty clear characteristics of the life stage as a whole.)
What Is an Emerging Adult?
We have a hard time defining “real” adulthood in America. There’s no specific age at which one becomes a real adult, and we don’t even have definitive markers or celebrations that identify when someone finally qualifies. If you ask around, though, most people identify adulthood with some combination of the following:
- You are married or very serious with someone.
- You are probably moving toward starting a family.
- You have a place that is your own.
- You have a job/career that is not just trying a “stepping stone” to something else.
Real adulthood, then, is defined largely in terms of “settling down” – in your relationships, your home, and your job. (By the way, this is partly why we have a hard time seeing single people as real adults.) “Emerging” adulthood, then, is the period of life between high school (viewed as the end of childhood/adolescence) and settling down as an adult. Indeed, Smith suggests that the best way to summarize emerging adulthood is “postponing settling down.”
And although some people talk about young adulthood as just an “extended adolescence,” this is a mistake. Emerging adulthood is not just an extension of adolescence, as though we can take all the characteristics of the adolescent life and simply project them onto people through their 20s. Instead, emerging adulthood is best viewed as a distinct life stage with its own set of characteristics (though, of course, some of those will overlap with the characteristics of other life stages).
Where Did Emerging Adulthood Come From?
The idea that the 20s constitute a distinct stage of life is a relatively recent development. So Smith focused about half his presentation on explaining the factors that contributed to this shift.
- Economic Changes: To some extent, emerging adulthood is a natural development if living in a post-industrial society that emphasizes the importance of mobility and flexibility. Young adults no longer expect to get a job right out of high school and stick with one job and one set of skills all the way to retirement. Instead, the job market calls for constant training and re-training, something that is particularly important in the early part of your career (i.e. your 20s). Although this largely has to do with the workplace, it has implications for how emerging adults view life in general. The mentality becomes “Don’t get locked in, don’t fall behind, don’t get outdated, don’t get too sunk into anything, always be ready to change, always be ready to move, always be ready to upgrade.” In other words, don’t settle down.
- Educational Changes: The rise of higher education and particularly the growth in graduate-level education also creates a kind of “deferral” of real adulthood since it’s about preparing for what lies ahead and is inherently un-settled. With young adults spending more and more time working through their college years, they necessarily take longer to reach the settled state of adulthood.
- Familial Changes: Smith touched on two things here. First, as is well known, young adults are waiting longer to get married and have children. And the growth of readily available contraceptives helps separate sex from becoming a parent, enabling young adults to pursue sexuality while still deferring the “adult” issues surrounding an actual family. And second, recognizing the difficulties of transitioning successfully from high school to full adulthood, parents are increasingly willing to provide material support to their emerging adult children, essentially subsidizing a lifestyle of not settling down.
- Philosophical Changes: Emerging adults are quite familiar with rather bastardized forms of postmodernism, focusing primarily on the idea that knowledge claims are all about power, that we need to be suspicious/skeptical of almost anyone who claims to know the “truth,” and that we should therefore maintain some level of uncertainty about everything. The means that for emerging adults not “settling down” relates to beliefs and truth commitments every bit as much as jobs and families.
6 Characteristics of Emerging Adults
In this part of the presentation, Smith focused on describing some general characteristics of emerging adults today. I won’t try to capture everything that Smith said here, but these are the ones that most caught my attention.
1. What happens in my 20s stays there.
Emerging adults tend to view this time of deferred adulthood as a distinct period of life that can be simply set aside when real adulthood arrives. You simply shut the door on your 20s and become a different person in your 30s. There is very little sense of continuity and “long term self-formation.”
2. I’m really optimistic, but only about me.
The feeling of being in limbo and transition also contributes to a sense of great freedom and opportunity. The 20s are an exciting time because nothing is set in stone. So emerging adults have great optimism about their own lives. In odd juxtaposition to that is the fact that they also have a cynical and disempowered view about the world around them. But they’re pretty sure that they will be okay. (Of course, their unsettled state also produces a lot of narcissism, anxiety, and depression. But they’re still pretty sure they’ll be okay.)
3. I should have fun and prepare for success.
Emerging adulthood comes with two primary goals: have fun and “build future material success.” In other words, even though you’re not supposed to settle down into a particular job, you are supposed to make the right kinds of moves so that when you finally do settle down, you’ll have a successful career. But don’t get too absorbed by all that, because you’re also supposed to have a great time while you’re doing this and enjoy the freedom of the unsettled state.
Here Smith made the interesting observation on the significance of social class. Some emerging adults have this one handed to them. They can do pretty much whatever they want, and they’ll still have fun and be prepared for future success. Others have to work really hard to achieve the same result. And for many, this is such a challenge that a single mistake renders this virtually impossible. But the key is that the idea of spending your 20s having fun and preparing for a successful future is a value shared across all social classes.
4. I shouldn’t have strong beliefs, not yet anyway.
This is the stage of life when you’re not supposed to get locked in. And for many young adults, there’s almost something morally wrong with a young person who is too serious and committed. You’re supposed to explore and open. As Smith explained, to many young adults someone who is 18 or 23 trying to figure the “big questions” of life has “the epistemic status to them of a 14-year-old trying to think about whether they should by life insurance.” It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it, this just isn’t the time. They’ll do that when they’re older.
5. Religion is about helping me be a good person.
Smith has written extensively on Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as the default religion of most young people in America today. So I won’t rehearse that here. But the general idea is that religion is about making nice people. As Smith said, the standard seems to be: “Just don’t be an a-hole. If you’re above that bar, you’re all right.”
And he emphasized as well that most emerging adults have a pretty positive view of religion. They think that pastors are generally nice people and religion is probably a good thing for society. When it’s taken too far and people get overcommitted tot heir faith, it leads to conflict and violence. But that is religion gone wrong. When religion stays focused on making nice people, it’s a good thing. But it also means that they think religion is primary for children and families. So they expect that they’ll probably get around to doing religion again when they’re older, but it’s something they’re too concerned with now.
6. I can’t know anything for sure, but science can.
Emerging adults are quite postmodern about knowledge claims, unless those claims come from a scientist. Science is epistemically privileged and they’re quite comfortable with the idea that science knows the “truth” and has the “facts,” while all other truth claims are personal and relative.
As a good sociologist, Smith said very little about the “so what” of all this. He wasn’t trying to lead us to any grand conclusions about how we should respond to all of this as Christians. He simply wanted us to understand that this is what people in their 20s look like today (in broad strokes) and to point out that this will necessarily affect what it looks like to minister to emerging adults today. What we do with all of this is up to us.