Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood by Christian Smith, et.al.

This book was also based on sociological surveys as were the previous two but that is where the similarities end. This survey was of emerging adults in general and not only those raised in a Christian church environment. You may recognize Christian Smith as the researcher who coined the phrase “moral therapeutic deism” to describe the predominant religion of American young people in his previous research [Soul Searching, 2006; Souls in Transition 2009]. This book contains the bigger picture of the culture and values of that same generation.

I found the language of this book refreshing after the narrow evangelical language of the previous two books. Penner even admitted in a postscript that “some of the language and wording of questions frustrated some respondents” and that “the evangelical tradition of the investigators has clearly emerged in the survey design, and in a manner we did not anticipate.” A not untypical case of evangelical myopia it seems to me. The other thing I appreciate in this book is that they state their bias as to “what constitutes the good life” right up front. The evangelical surveys seem to assume that the good life is “being a faithful Christian” which is measured by various practices like going to church, prayer, Bible reading, various non-practices such as consuming drugs and alcohol and premarital sex, and mental ascent to important doctrines such as belief in the person and work of Jesus, the existence of heaven and hell, etc.

Although the authors claim not to be alarmist, the picture painted by their survey results is stark. In the introduction they state what they believe is the good life and then respond with survey results that display emerging adults as straying from those ideals.

  1. “We think it is good for people to be able to think coherently about moral beliefs and problems and to explain why they believe whatever they do believe.” They found that emerging adults are morally individualistic and have very weak moral reasoning skills.
  2. “We think it is good for people to understand and embrace values and purposes in life that transcend the mass consumerist acquisition of material belongings.” The surveys and interviews revealed emerging adults who were completely happy with mass consumerism. They embraced the good life as “get a good job, become financially secure, have a nice family, buy what you want, enjoy a few of the finer things in life, avoid the troubles of the world, retire with ease.”
  3. “We think it is good to avoid a life of routine intoxication.” Yet, they found that 80% of emerging  adults drink and over half of these binge drink on a regular basis. Why? Personal insecurity and social conformity, but most tellingly because there is a strong social script learned from their parents and reinforced by the alcohol industry, that this is the age to “have fun and party.”
  4. “We think that sex is an immensely powerful part of human life—with immense power for benefit or destruction—and so we believe that it is good for sex to always be treated with immense respect and care of a magnitude commensurate to its power.” Emerging adults are  enjoying  sexual freedom, but when pressed they reveal that this freedom is often accompanied by pain, confusion, grief, anger, and regret.
  5. “We think it is good for people to care about the larger social, cultural, institutional, and political world around them.” Their findings showed that emerging adults were politically and civically disengaged—often apathetic, uninformed, distrustful and often felt that anything they might do would not make a difference anyway.

The authors state that they were surprised and troubled by the results. I was troubled, but not surprised by #1,3,4 but I had the impression that emerging adults were somewhat anti-consumerist, very socially concerned and aware of global events. Perhaps the students at Columbia are more counter-cultural than I had assumed, or I may fall into one of the categories of people that the authors are addressing in this book. In their conclusion they state that their motivation for the book is that people like me—a parent and professor of emerging adults—do not adequately understand emerging adults. Some think these issues are just part of being young and they will grow out of it, others are “doom and gloom” and see emerging adults as an example of the decay of society, and still others like me project my ideals and hopes onto young adults. All of these are wrong according to the authors and the book seeks to give a more realistic picture. Basically, the authors contend that it is not an emerging generational problem; it is a societal and cultural problem. Emerging adults are a mirror to help us to see what we have become. Thus, a bit of communal soul searching is in order.

For my next two blogs I will be posting two insightful quotes toward that end.