Five alarming trends of emerging adulthood

Today’s young adults are headed toward trouble, according to University of Notre Dame professor of sociology Christian Smith, the author of the new book “Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood.”

In the summer of 2008, Smith and co-authors Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson and Patricia Snell Herzog, together with a team of trained interview researchers, conducted 230 in-depth interviews with young adults between the ages of 18 and 23.

Their results are disconcerting.

“What we saw and heard in our interviews,” writes Smith, “is that many emerging adult lives are complex, fraught with difficulty and often beset with big problems, serious confusions, and misplaced values and devotions.” He points especially to their confused moral reasoning, materialistic life goals, routine intoxication, exploitation of sex and disengagement from civic and political life. They do this much more so than earlier generations.


Smith offers five factors contributing to a dark, emerging adulthood.

First, the dramatic growth of higher education. A huge proportion of college graduates today are extending their schooling well into their 20s.

Second, people are delaying marriage. Earlier generations married right out of high school, settled down and started families. Today, a typical bride walks down the aisle 10 or more years after high school graduation.

Third, job security doesn’t really exist today. We can no longer expect to work for one company for decades and then retire with a nice pension. Most people can’t even commit to a career or field of study during their adult years. A lawyer may become a journalist and a journalist a banker.

Fourth, older generations are enabling immaturity by funding their kids well past college graduation. In fact, Smith says, American parents spend on their children an average of $38,340 per child in total material assistance between the ages of 18 and 34.

Fifth, birth control technologies have cheapened the act of sex. Before the development and introduction of “the pill,” Smith explains, having sex entailed a very real risk of creating a new life. After the 1960s, when the pill and other birth-control technologies came on the market, that connection faded, and sex became a recreational activity.

Smith claims that the widespread philosophies of postmodernism – theories that promote uncertainty, ambiguity and changing identities – contributed to a culture of moral relativism.

For the most part, Smith walked away from the interviews feeling troubled, disturbed and depressed. He wrote the book to encourage parents, teachers, coaches, college administrators, pastors and anyone engaged with young people today to better understand the problems of emerging adulthood and its larger implications.

He also intends to communicate that we all have a responsibility to remedy this problem because it takes many generations to create a culture of selfishness and immaturity.

Said Smith, “One way or another, adults and the adult world are almost always complicit in the troubles, suffering and misguided living of youth, if not the direct source of them. The more adults can recognize and admit that fact, the sooner we will be able to address some of young people’s problems more constructively.”

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.