Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood
Oxford University Press, 2011
296 pp., $27.95
The Kids Aren't All Right
The sequel to youthful rebellion against one's elders is often a quieter rite of passage that comes later, when you start shaking your head about "kids these days." Perhaps a measure of this is rooted in fear that future caretakers may not treat our elderly selves according to the same values we hold. But other times you wonder, Are they doing OK? Have they known true joy?
For the past decade, sociologist Christian Smith has been seeking answers to questions like that in a combination of national surveys and in-depth interviews called the National Study of Youth and Religion. While the project isn't quite a U.S. version of Britain's "Up" series, Smith and his fellow researchers have endeavored to interview the same group over time, following their development from adolescence to adulthood. They have chronicled this research in 2005's Soul Searching (Smith with Melinda Denton) and 2009's Souls in Transition (Smith with Patricia Snell).
But for the latest book in the series, 2011's Lost in Transition, Smith et al. examine what they call the "dark side" of emerging adulthood. In chapters focused on morality, consumerism, alcohol and drug use, sex, and civic and political participation, the authors argue that their study of 18- to 23-year-olds reveals a generation that lacks moral reasoning skills, highly values consumption of material goods, frequently abuses alcohol and other substances, has found much pain in sexual "freedom," and is largely apathetic about social engagement beyond immediate relationships.
The book combines reportage and assessment, and the authors make no apology for it. They do, however, explain their somewhat unusual approach by arguing that even seemingly objective research "depends not on 'value neutrality' but on its opposite, on value commitments to truth, scientific integrity, accountability, and so on" (their emphases). In both the acknowledgement of researchers' viewpoints and the defense of truth's possibility, theirs is a refreshing and admirable ...