Christian Smith, professor of sociology at Notre Dame, wrote in the most recent Books and Culture a review of six books that deal with the new phenomenon of “adultolescence”—that is, the postponement of adulthood into the thirties. I want to relate this phenomenon to the church. But first here is a summary from Smith’s article of what it is and how it came about.
What Is Adultolescence?
“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 has emerged from this new situation has been variously labeled “extended adolescence,” “youthhood,” “adultolescence,” “young adulthood,” the “twenty-somethings,” and “emerging adulthood.”
One way of describing this group is to highlight the tendency to delay adulthood or stay in the youth mindset longer than we used to. Smith suggests the following causes for this delay in arriving at mature, responsible adulthood.
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.
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.
The characteristics of the 18-30 year-olds that these four factors produce include:
(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.
How Should the Church Respond?
How might the church respond to this phenomenon in our culture? Here are my suggestions.
1. The church will encourage maturity, not the opposite. “Do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Corinthians 14:20).
2. The church will press the fact that maturity is not a function of being out of school but is possible to develop while in school.
3. While celebrating the call to life long singleness, the church will not encourage those who don’t have the call to wait till late in their twenties or thirties to marry, even if it means marrying while in school.
4. The church will foster flexibility in life through living by faith and resist the notion that learning to be professionally flexible must happen through a decade of experimentation.
5. The church will help parents prepare their youth for independent financial living by age 22 or sooner, where disabilities do not prevent.
6. The church will provide a stability and steadiness in life for young adults who find a significant identity there.
7. The church will provide inspiring, worldview-forming teaching week in and week out that will deepen the mature mind.
8. The church will provide a web of serious, maturing relationships.
9. The church will be a corporate communion of believers with God in his word and his ordinances that provide a regular experience of universal significance.
10. The church will be a beacon of truth that helps young adults keep their bearings in the uncertainties of cultural fog and riptides.
11. The church will regularly sound the trumpet for young adults that Christ is Lord of their lives and that they are not dependent on mom and dad for ultimate guidance.
12. The church will provide leadership and service roles that call for the responsibility of maturity in the young adults who fill them.
13. The church will continually clarify and encourage a God-centered perspective on college and grad school and career development.
14. The church will lift up the incentives and values of chaste and holy singleness, as well as faithful and holy marriage.
15. The church will relentlessly extol the maturing and strengthening effects of the only infallible life charter for young adults, the Bible.
In these ways, I pray that the Lord Jesus, through his church, will nurture a provocative and compelling cultural alternative among our “emerging adults.” This counter-cultural band will have more stability, clearer identity, deeper wisdom, Christ-dependent flexibility, an orientation on the good of others not just themselves, a readiness to bear responsibility and not just demand rights, an expectation that they will suffer without returning evil for evil, an awareness that life is short and after that comes judgment, and a bent to defer gratification till heaven if necessary so as to do maximum good and not forfeit final joy in God.
Seeking to serve the next generation,