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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 pursuit of the American dream—to add years of graduate school education on top of their bachelor's degree. As a result, a huge proportion of American youth are no longer stopping school and beginning stable careers at age 18 but are extending their formal schooling well into their twenties. And those who are aiming to join America's professional and knowledge classes—those who most powerfully shape our culture and society—are continuing in graduate and professional school programs often up until their thirties.

A second and related social change crucial to the rise of emerging adulthood is the delay of marriage by American youth over the last decades. Between 1950 and 2000, the median age of first marriage for women rose from 20 to 25 years old. For men during that same time the median age rose from 22 to 27 years old. The sharpest increase for both took place after 1970. Half a century ago, many young people were anxious to get out of high school, marry, settle down, have children, and start a long-term career. But many youth today, especially but not exclusively men, face almost a decade between high school graduation and marriage to spend exploring life's many options in unprecedented freedom.

A third major social transformation contributing to the rise of emerging adulthood as a distinct life phase concerns changes in the American and global economy that undermine stable, lifelong careers and replace them instead with careers of lower security, more frequent job changes, and an ongoing need for new training and education. Most young people today know they need to approach their careers with a variety of skills, maximal flexibility, and readiness to re-tool as needed. That itself pushes youth toward extended schooling, delay of marriage, and, arguably, a general psychological orientation of maximizing options and postponing commitments. Far from being happy to graduate from high school and take the factory job their father or uncle arranged for them (which probably doesn't exist in any case), many youth today spend five to ten years experimenting with different job and career options before finally deciding on a long-term career direction.

Finally, and in part as a response to all of the above, parents of today's youth, aware of the resources often required to succeed, seem increasingly willing to extend financial and other support to their children, well into their twenties and even into their early thirties. According to best estimates, offered in Chapter 12 of On the Frontier of Adulthood, American parents spend on their children an average of $38,340 per child in total material assistance (cash, housing, educational expenses, food, etc.) over the 17-year period between ages 18 and 34. These resources help to subsidize the freedom that emerging adults enjoy to take a good, long time before settling down into full adulthood, as culturally defined by the end of schooling, financial independence, and new family formation.

These four social transformations together have helped dramatically to alter the experience of American life between the ages of 18 and 30. Studies agree that the transition to adulthood today is more complex, disjointed, and confusing than it was in past decades. The steps through and to schooling, first real job, marriage, and parenthood are simply less well organized and coherent today than they were in generations past. At the same time, these years are marked by an historically unparalleled freedom to roam, experiment, learn (or not), move on, and try again.

What has emerged from this new situation has been variously labeled "extended adolescence," "youthhood," "adultolescence," "young adulthood," the "twenty-somethings," and "emerging adulthood." I find persuasive Jeffrey Arnett's argument that, of all of these labels, "emerging adulthood" is the most appropriate—because rather than viewing these years as simply the last hurrah of adolescence or an early stage of real adulthood, it recognizes the unique characteristics of this phase of life. These, according to Arnett in Emerging Adulthood, mark this stage as one of intense (1) identity exploration, (2) instability, (3) focus on self, (4) feeling in limbo, in transition, in-between, and (5) sense of possibilities, opportunities, and unparalleled hope. These, of course, are also often accompanied by big doses of transience, confusion, anxiety, self-obsession, melodrama, conflict, and disappointment. Many popular television shows of the last two decades—Beverly Hills 90210, Dawson's Creek, Seinfeld, and Friends, for example—have taken as their point of departure the character and challenges of this new, in-between stage of life. I think it all signifies something big and serious.

Note that some of the statistics about emerging adulthood today are not historically unique. For example, young Americans in the 19th and very early 20th century, when society was more rural and agricultural, also married later in life than they did in the 1950s. Nevertheless, changes in the larger culture and social order in late 20th-century America make the experience of emerging adulthood today very different from the young adulthood of a century ago.

What then are some of the specific issues that this new life phase might raise for church and culture? First, we might consider the content and texture of the religious faith of emerging adults. Having grown up in whatever religious traditions, congregations, and families of faith they have, and having participated in whatever youth groups and Sunday School and catechism classes they have, what then becomes of the religious faith of youth ages 18 to 30? At a recent University of Southern California conference organized by scholars Don Miller and James Heft, in which I participated and which served as the basis of the edited volume Passing on the Faith, discussed below, the central image animating discussion was of young adulthood as a mysterious "black hole" in the life of the American church. Quite a dramatic idea. Does research bear it out? Two authors in the other books noted here address this question in some depth. Their answers, while not definitive, will not be particularly reassuring for Christian churches, educators, and parents.

Jeffrey Arnett explored the religious beliefs and practices of the more than one hundred emerging adults he interviewed in various locations around the country. Here is what he concluded:

The most interesting and surprising feature of emerging adults' religious beliefs is how little relationship there is between the religious training they received throughout childhood and the religious beliefs they hold at the time they reach emerging adulthood … .  In statistical analyses [of interview subjects' answers], there was no relationship between exposure to religious training in childhood and any aspect of their religious beliefs as emerging adults … . This is a different pattern than is found in adolescence [which reflects greater continuity] … . Evidently something changes between adolescence and emerging adulthood that dissolves the link between the religious beliefs of parents and the beliefs of their children.

Although the transmission of religious faith is not a central concern of Arnett's, he still finds this observation startling. He writes, "How could it be that childhood religious training makes no difference in the kinds of religious beliefs and practices people have by the time they reach emerging adulthood? It doesn't seem to make sense … . It all comes to naught in emerging adulthood? Yet that seems to be the truth of it, surprising as that may be." Need I say that these findings raise serious questions? To be sure, Arnett is not working with nationally representative data, and so his findings must be viewed with some skepticism. Even so, the very possibility should make Christians sit up and notice.

In his chapter in On the Frontier of Adulthood, National Opinion Research Centers survey researcher Tom Smith analyzes religious differences across age cohorts and across time. He finds that young adults today attend church less, pray less, are less likely to believe the Bible is the word of God, less likely to be Protestant, more likely to identify as non-religious, and have less confidence in organized religion than older adults. At the same time, they are more likely than older adults to believe in life after death.

Young adults are also, for the record, more likely to have grown up in a broken home, less likely to believe human nature is good, more likely to be distrustful of other people and of social institutions generally, less likely to read the newspaper, more likely to expect a world war, much more likely to have viewed a pornographic movie, and much more liberal about sex, divorce, and other social issues than are older adults. Some of this has also changed across young adult cohorts over time. For instance, compared to emerging adults of the same ages in 1973 and 1985, emerging adults more recently are more likely to identify as non-religious and are less likely to be Protestant, attend church, pray, and believe the Bible is God's word. Today's emerging adults compared to those of previous decades are also more distrustful of other people, less likely to vote and read the newspaper, less likely to watch a lot of television, more likely to be in favor of making divorce harder, less in favor of legalizing marijuana, less in favor of teenagers having sex, more in favor of making pornography illegal to all, more likely to expect a world war, and more likely to answer "Don't Know" to survey questions. The picture is obviously complex. Emerging adults will take time and effort to understand well.

A matter related to religious and other beliefs worth pondering concerns emerging adults' social attachments to churches. We have long known that, for a variety of reasons, religious participation for many young people declines significantly when they leave home. Going away to college seems especially likely to kill regular church attendance for most. Historically, marriage and parenthood have then marked the return for many to church and more active faith. Regardless of what one thinks of these facts per se, the following general observation holds. When the space between high school graduation and full adulthood was fairly short, as it was 50 years ago, the length of time spent out of church tended to be rather short. But with the rise of emerging adulthood in recent decades, churches are now looking at 15-year or even 20-year absences by youth from churches between their leaving as teenagers and returning with toddlers—if indeed they ever return.

And these are crucial years in the formation of personal identity, behavioral patterns, and social relationships. Returning to church as full-fledged young adults with children in tow—yet having spent a decade or two forming their assumptions, priorities, and perspectives largely outside of church—they may very well bring to the churches of their choice motives, beliefs, and orientations difficult to make work from the perspective of faithful, orthodox Christianity. The phrase "consumer-oriented" comes to mind. The burden then placed on the tasks of serious Christian formation, education, and discipleship can be weighty. One has to wonder whether such church returnees may not be shaping the church more than the church shapes them.

Key dimensions in all of this are sex, cohabitation, and marriage. According to research findings, the majority of emerging adults consider serial monogamy, if not outright promiscuity, entirely normal. Cohabitation as a way to try to experiment with (allegedly) marriage-like relationships is far from uncommon among emerging adults. For many, marriage itself is seen as a distant event, to be postponed until all degrees are earned, identity and career issues are settled, and the biological clock starts clanging or one's girlfriend will not wait any longer and gives the ultimatum. With the average age of the onset of puberty dropping significantly over the 20th century, youth now traverse many years of life as sexually capable and interested persons, and emerging adulthood only extends that time. The Pill has also obviously been a significant factor in this developing situation. The minority of emerging adults who may believe in sexual chastity before marriage and want to resist the lure of sexual adventuring—"active abstainers," as the literature calls them—face a very difficult peer culture in which to live. Some emerging adults avoid church precisely because of the tensions all this raises. Some do attend church, including evangelical churches, but keep their sexual behaviors compartmentalized as their own private business. In any case, it seems clear that the church will not be able to respond faithfully and effectively to emerging adulthood and emerging adults if it does not seriously grapple with these questions of sex, cohabitation, and approach to marriage.

And that raises yet another related issue: attitudes among Christians about financial independence and marriage. Historically orthodox Christian relational and sexual morality might, in response to the current situation, recommend many to consider marrying earlier rather than postponing marriage until their late twenties. The Mormons, for their part, strongly advocate early marriage for young believers for this very reason, and seemingly successfully so. However, given the larger social structural and economic factors giving rise to emerging adulthood in the first place, successfully marrying earlier may require increased social and even financial support from parents (teenage marriage is the best recipe for divorce, but marriage in the 20s itself is not). Yet it appears that Christian parents no less than non-Christian parents hold the view—whether biblical or theologically necessary or not—that marriage and financial independence necessarily go together, that one who is not financially self-sufficient simply should not get married. Add to that the widespread high expectations about the minimally acceptable standard of living thought to be deserved by even brand new families—houses, cars, stereos, vacations, and so on—and Christian young people today have little to encourage and support marriage earlier rather than later.

Might the time have come for Christian parents to consider extending material support to their children as young couples in their early years of marriage—especially when it comes to costs of higher education? That would be counter-cultural, but so what? It would help to affirm marriage as a good to embrace instead of an obligation to postpone. It might encourage strong, healthy Christian marriages from a young age. Parents are already significantly supporting their emerging adult children, to the tune of $38,340, on average, apparently. Does it make sense to create a disincentive for marriage by cutting off such transitional support, especially on education, just because a couple wants to get married? Perhaps the idea of continuing financial support for married children is crazy. But it cannot hurt at least to critically reconsider some of our taken-for-granted cultural assumptions about maturity, independence, and money that may cause real problems for emerging adults living in new circumstances.

In any case, when it comes to new family formation, at least, it is not entirely clear how much emerging adulthood today provides helpful preparation for real adulthood and how much it is mere rationalization for self-indulgence and, at its worst, sheer narcissism. It is hard to argue that serial monogamy and "hooking up" are good preparations for marriage. Social science research also shows clearly that, for a variety of reasons, those who cohabit before marriage are more, not less, likely to subsequently divorce than those who do not cohabit. The argument for cohabiting as a helpful stage in the move toward marriage holds little water. More broadly, a good argument can be made that true, authentic selves are made more than found. It is arguably as much or more by making and keeping promises than by dabbling and deferring that we come to know who we as persons really are and are called to become. Emerging adult culture today thus seems to assume more than a little that deserves some hard criticism.

 One important emphasis in the recent literature on emerging adulthood related to material resources—addressed explicitly by On Your Own Without a Net and by many chapters in the other books addressed here—is the importance of social class in conditioning the emerging adult experience. Financial and social resources turn out to make a huge difference in emerging adults' ability to navigate these years. Potential outcomes, ranging from total failure to tremendous success, as measured in a variety of ways, are highly varied. Setbacks, roadblocks, poor decisions, and bad fortune can turn emerging adults' paths in very bad directions. Having money and social capital often helps emerging adults to stop, readjust, and change course in a better direction. But some simply do not have the financial and social resources on which to draw. So as their adulthood emerges, they live on the edge, just a few bad breaks or poor decisions away from serious life problems and a compromised future. Young people particularly at risk are those who spent their teenage years in various social service programs and systems—foster care, special education, juvenile justice systems, and so on—who, upon turning 18, are then left to figure out the rest of their lives on their own. In this way, many of today's institutional and social systems operate as if we still have the economy and society of 1950. As a result, many emerging adults have difficulty navigating this disconnect.

Jean Twenge's Generation Me helps us along in that regard. The story of her book, which among those discussed here is the most pitched for a popular audience, is ironic. Young adult Americans are free, confident, tolerant, open-minded, and self-asserting—but they are also cynical, depressed, lonely, and anxious. How did they get into such a state? According to Twenge, multiple mainstream institutions in our culture have taught them their entire lives "to put their own needs first and to focus on feeling good about themselves," encouraging them to believe that they can be whatever they want to be, that self-esteem is everything, conformity to rules is ridiculous, easy sexual fulfillment is waiting to be had, and life is all about consumption and gratification. These messages come, says Twenge, not only from mass-consumer advertising but from the best-intentioned school success programs. Having actually believed such confident messages, young adults then find it hard to cope when real life often turns out differently. Stagnant careers, failed romances, personal insecurities, financial difficulties, and other disappointments and problems often lead to sarcasm, depression, apprehension, loneliness, and self-defeating gambits to force life to turn out the way it was promised to have worked (e.g., quick "rebound" romances, spending sprees, ill-considered job changes). Twenge suggests that we as a culture stop promising so much, "ditch the self-esteem movement," and develop more realistic educational programs that teach empathetic connection with others and real-life accomplishments. If she is correct, we will in the end turn out happier young people.

James Heft's edited volume, Passing on the Faith, will be particularly helpful for those of us who are trying to think through the meaning of emerging adulthood for communities of faith. In addition to the kind of social science analyses found in the four other books discussed here, Passing on the Faith offers exploratory case studies of specific Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities that are attempting to work well with emerging adults. The book also provides plenty of broad reflection on and interpretations of the larger cultural situation that emerging adulthood presents for religious traditions and congregations. This is not a how-to book. It offers few definite conclusions or specific recommendations. But it is a good start on the kind of big picture assessments of emerging adulthood and faith that the church needs to be undertaking.

Stepping back for a final view, then, how might we summarize the general situation? For most American youth, there extends between high school graduation day and the eventual settling down with spouse, career, kids, and house a very long stretch of time in which to have to figure out life. For many, it is marked by immense autonomy, freedom of choice, lack of obligations, and focus on the self. It is also normally marked by high instability, experimentation, and uncertainty. For many, emotions run high and low, as hopes and exhilaration recurrently run up against confusion and frustration. It is not clear how much emerging adults rely in this life stage on the religious faith and beliefs with which they were raised. In any case, this socially structured and culturally defined phase of life seems itself to foster an intense concern with what is new, different, exciting, alternative, possible, and hopeful. Commitments that would curtail the exploration of options are often avoided. Ties to the social institutions of civil society, including church, are often weak.

How does or should American Christianity speak to emerging adults as people and emerging adulthood as a cultural fact? How can the church faithfully speak the gospel to 18- to 30-year-olds? The answer is surely not for the church to fall all over itself to quickly reconstruct its message and practices to somehow become more "relevant" to emerging adults. But oblivious disregard for emerging adulthood and the larger meanings and challenges it raises for church and culture surely won't do either. For starters, American Christians—parents, pastors, seminary professors, counselors, educators, and more—can simply become better informed about the emerging adulthood phenomenon. Most people probably have at least a vague sense that something has changed on the road to full adulthood. But more clearly grasping the social forces generating emerging adulthood, its typical characteristics and concerns, and their implications for a faithful church will require sustained effort. Recently published good scholarship, in particular the books discussed here, provides a very helpful start in that direction. Having engaged and digested their findings, we will be better positioned to carry on the important discussions that emerging adulthood should provoke.

Finally, in considering the challenge of emerging adulthood, another approach that will not do is to project sole blame onto emerging adults themselves or "the culture" as some amorphous Other. If anything, the challenge of emerging adulthood raises hard questions about the extent to which American Christians have bought into the values and commitments of the larger world. How different, really, are American Christians when it comes to assumptions and practices around personal autonomy, money, lifestyle consumerism, self-gratification, and relational commitments? I am not suggesting there are clear and easy answers here. But it is worth remembering that a church that is not much different from the larger culture is going to have little distinctive or helpful to offer that culture when it comes to issues such as those posed by emerging adulthood. By grappling with emerging adulthood, then, we face the opportunity not so much for criticizing and lamenting others as for some good, hard, self-critical reflection and discussion.

Christian Smith is William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame, where he is Principle Investigator of the National Study of Youth and Religion. Smith is author, with Melinda Lundquist Denton, of Soul Searching: the Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford Univ. Press).

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