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The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood

Earlier this month in “A Teachable Moment,” we referenced “Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood,” a new book that examines the “chaotic terrain” traveled by young people during their school and early career years.

We decided to take a closer look the book and found a blunt, bleak assessment of the difficulties faced by adult children. Christian Smith, a University of Notre Dame sociologist, enumerates five major problems: confused moral reasoning, routine intoxication, materialistic life goals, regrettable sexual experiences, and disengagement from civic and political life.

The book devotes a chapter to each of these problems; the most troubling is “Morality Adrift.” Many of the young people interviewed seem to have no moral compass for making decisions. About 60 percent of the interviewees said that, “Moral rights and wrongs are essentially matters of individual opinion.” These young adults will not pass judgment either on other people’s moral decisions as “They are entitled to their own personal opinions.”

Other chapters were succinctly summarized by a review in The Economist:

And so to consumerism. Shopping is personally fulfilling; buying things supports the economy (true enough); if you can afford it, you deserve it. Might it be just a tiny bit gross to own ten cars while others in your city are working double shifts to buy shoes for their children? Apparently not. The good life consists of having a decent job, a decent standard of living and a nice family, not of fighting for justice or saving whales.

As for the prevalence of drink and sex, peer pressure, advertising and the media play their part, but so too does sheer boredom. Many of the young women, in particular, look back with some regret on very early sexual experiences, and on later ones with virtual strangers. And as for politics, what emerges is a strong feeling of disempowerment and distrust. Relatively few young people think they know or can do much about what is going on, and most of those who do follow current events and vote seem to take things no further.

Smith’s conclusions are based on a 10-year-long study that surveyed a broad national cross-section of 3,000 teens, followed by 230 in-depth interviews. Starting in 2002, Smith, assisted by graduate students, interviewed teens, aged 13 to 17, for a first book, “Souls in Transition.” The findings in this new book are based on follow-up interviews with the same group, now aged 18 to 23.

The problems detailed, Smith says, are not of the young adults’ own making. Rather they reflect the American culture they grew up in, shaped by consumerism, educational failures, hyper-individualism, moral relativism, and drug and alcohol abuse. A common misconception, especially by aging parents, Smith writes, is that their children are enjoying “the best years of their lives.” He writes:

“The actual reality for many, however, is instead one of personal struggle, confusion, anxiety, hurt, frustration and grief. Some emerging adults sail through these years unscathed. But many suffer wounds in body and soul, in their relationships, and in their chances for leading good lives.”

Young adults have many challenges ahead of them that require informed, morally-based decisions. Yet they live in a world digitally connected 24/7 to other emerging adults, a situation Smith likens to “putting a bunch of novice tennis players together on the court and expecting them to emerge later with advanced skills and experience.”

To help them along their path, emerging adults need “older and wiser” role models such as relatives, neighbors, family friends, mentors at work and school. Parents, too, need to be aware of the ongoing roles they play in their adult children’s lives. Smith writes:

“Individual families and parents can make a huge difference in intentionally choosing to live certain ways, teaching their children that there isn’t a quick and easy fix…One thing we’ve learned from our study is that parents are a hugely important factor. So there’s a real opportunity for parents and families to engage these issues, to think about them seriously and to be intentional about how they want to live them rather than just going along with the larger flow.”

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