As friends were saying goodbye to their sons and daughters leaving home to attend college last fall, I made the comment, “Don’t worry. They’ll be back.” Many of us who know and love young adults can expect that at some point we will experience the phenomena of a return to the nest for some period of time. This seems to be a rather new thing and many of us are struggling to not only understand it but to live with it!
I gained some new insight last week when I attended the C3: Christ, Church, Culture Conference at St. George’s Episcopal Church. I was introduced to a new area of sociological research by Christian Smith, the 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. Smith runs the National Study of Youth and Religion, a longitudinal study funded by the Lilly Foundation designed to identify the “dispositional culture” of this age group—beliefs, values, norms, assumptions, etc.
Many in the initial study group are now in their twenties. Smith’s research provides some key insights about a cohort that is called “emerging adulthood.” Sociologists are suggesting that those in the 18-29 age group today are part of a new stage in transition to “real adulthood.” “Real adults” in this thinking are married, have children, and are employed in their first “real job.”
Emerging adults have postponed their entry into adulthood due to a number of factors. Here are some suggested by Smith:
· Expansion of higher education in the 20th century.
o More than one-half of high school graduates go to college (but only a small number actually finish).
o BA/BS graduates are encouraged to continue with education—MBA, etc.
· Delayed age of first marriage and childbirth.
· Macro-economic changes requiring flexibility and mobility.
· Substantial parental support well into their 20s.
· The pill and ready accessibility to contraceptives.
· Cultural saturation of mass-consumer entertainment.
· Influence of postmodern relativism and skepticism.
Smith helped me to see that this “emerging adult” stage is a reality, something new on the human developmental cycle. Smith suggests that members of this group are generally pessimistic about the future of society, but they have great hope for their own potential success.
The church has a tremendous challenge in learning how to minister during this time of turmoil and opportunity, especially since this significantly extends the period before cohort members “settle down” and consider bringing their children to church. Thank you, Dr. Smith, for sharing your insights.