Equally troubling, in Smith’s view, is that most emerging adults lack the necessary moral reasoning capacity to function effectively as thinking citizens. Because they regard morality as just a matter of personal opinion, they are ill-equipped to engage in thoughtful reflection and intelligent discourse about the important moral issues of our day—issues that demand our attention in a world that, as Smith points out, has become “much more complicated, pluralistic, and morally challenging.”
The chapter “Captive to Consumerism” reports what interviewees said when asked, “What would living the good life look like to you?” Only one-quarter spoke of wanting to help others or being a positive influence in others’ lives. Smith summarizes: “We expected at least some of them to speak critically about the emptiness or dangers of all-out materialism, but we heard almost none of that.” He comments:
The chapter “Intoxication’s Fake Feeling of Happiness” concludes sadly that getting drunk “is a central part of emerging adult culture.”
“The Shadow Side of Sexual Liberation,” a particularly poignant chapter, shines a light on a dimension of youth experience that secular social science tends to neglect or deny. The authors write: “All is not well among the emerging adults who inherited the sexual revolution launched by their parents and grandparents in the 60s and 70s. A lot, though not all, of emerging adults today are confused, hurting, and sometimes ashamed because of their sexual experiences played out in a culture that told them simply to go for it and feel good.” One young woman describes the prevailing sexual culture in this way:
I think obviously sex is no longer sacred, and people are just giving it away . . . Men get what they want with women, which generally speaking is physical fulfillment, and women think they’re gonna get what they want , which is commitment. And people just go from one person to the next.
Finally, the chapter on “Civic and Political Disengagement” concludes that “almost all emerging adults today are either apathetic, uninformed, distrustful, disempowered, or, at most, only marginally interested when it comes to politics and public life.” Those interviewed, in the authors’ view, were characterized by “nearly total submersion of self into private networks of technologically managed intimates and associates.” Some even sent text messages between interview questions.
Individualistic in their moral reasoning, focused on material comfort, frequent abusers of alcohol and drugs, disposed to temporary sexual relationships, and civically disengaged—that, without the nuances, is the picture of most (not all) emerging American adults that Smith gives us. (And remember, he’s focusing on just the dark side.) Is he right? How can we know? We’ll look at those questions next.
Who is to blame for the moral ignorance of young adults, and what is to be done?
In the book’s final chapter, Smith sums up his case that youth problems are, to a great extent, rooted in the social institutions that form our young:
Poor moral reasoning comes significantly from poor teaching of thinking skills in schools, families, religious communities, sports teams, and other youth-socializing settings. Damaging sexual experiences have connections to things like the way colleges and universities are run and the lifestyle scripts disseminated by advertizing and the mass media. Mass consumer materialism is deeply rooted in the structure of the American capitalist economy and the advertising industry. Intoxicating habits have much to do with the financial motives of the alcohol industry. And disconnection from civic, communal, and political life has something to do with the many real dysfunctions of American politics and the lure of private, mass consumerist, media-stimulated lifestyles.
“As a society,” Smith concludes, “we are failing our youth in crucial ways.”
How to Fix a Broken Culture?
What’s to be done? Smith doesn’t think anyone has much capacity to intentionally change anytime soon the macro-social institutions and forces—including consumer capitalism, the globalized economy, and liberal individualism—that he believes have profoundly influenced today’s emerging adults.