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Christian Smith


Getting a Life

The challenge of emerging adulthood.

There is a new and important stage in life in American culture, and it is not entirely clear that the Christian church understands or particularly knows what to do with it. I am talking about what scholars call "emerging adulthood." This is the time of life between ages 18 and 30, roughly, a phase which in recent decades has morphed into quite a new experience for many. Researchers in sociology, psychology, and human development have been investigating the contours of this new life stage and have recently published some fascinating books on the subject, whose findings are well worth pondering for their implications for church and culture.

To grasp the significance of emerging adulthood, it is necessary first to realize that life stages are not naturally given as immutable phases of existence. Rather, they are cultural constructions that interact with biology and material production, and are profoundly shaped by the social and institutional conditions that generate and sustain them. So, "teenager" and "adolescence" as representing a distinct stage of life were very much 20th-century inventions, brought into being by changes in mass education, child labor laws, urbanization and suburbanization, mass consumerism, and the media. Similarly, a new, distinct, and important stage in life, situated between the teenage years and full-fledged adulthood, has emerged in our culture in recent decades—reshaping the meaning of self, youth, relationships, and life commitments as well as a variety of behaviors and dispositions among the young.

What are the social forces that have given rise to this emerging adulthood? Four are particularly important. First is the growth of higher education. The GI Bill, changes in the American economy, and government subsidizing of community colleges and state universities led in the second half of the last century to a dramatic rise in the number of high school graduates going on to college and university. More recently, many feel pressured—in ...

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