What’s the matter with today’s emerging adults?
Youth hold up a mirror to society; in it, we see ourselves. What is the moral condition of our young adults, and what does that tell us about contemporary culture?
Disturbing answers to those questions are offered by a 2011 book that merits the attention of anyone concerned about the state of our civilization: Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (Oxford University Press) by University of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and his research team.
Smith acknowledges at the outset that there’s both good news and bad news about American young people today. On the positive side, teen pregnancies and abortions have declined in recent decades, the percentage of youth starting and finishing college has increased, and youth as a whole are less prejudiced against people of other races and ethnicities than earlier generations.
Smith says he and his colleagues have deliberately chosen to focus on the part of the story they believe hasn’t yet been adequately told: the darker side of emerging adulthood.
His research team gathered data documenting the dark side of young adult character in summer of 2008 (just before the economic crash), when they fanned out across the United States to conduct “in-depth interviews” with 230 18-23-year-old emerging adults “representing every region, social class, race, ethnicity, religion, educational situation, and family background in the country.”
The passage to adulthood: more dangerous than ever
Lost in Transition sets the stage by identifying six “macrosocial changes,” building over the past several decades, that Smith and colleagues believe have combined to dramatically alter the experience of life between 18 and 30.
The big six changes, in Lost in Transition’s view, are: (1) the extension of formal schooling into the 20s and the consequent postponement of entry into careers; (2) the delay of marriage; (3) a changing national and global economy that has replaced the prospect of stable careers with frequent job changes, a need for ongoing training, and a heightened sense of insecurity, all contributing to a general disposition in young adults to maximize options and postpone commitments; (4) the willingness and ability of many parents to support their children well into their 20s and even 30s, thus enabling them to take a long time to settle down into full adulthood; (5) readily available birth-control technologies that have severed the link between sex and procreation and fostered uncommitted sexual relationships; and (6) postmodernism, a philosophy that has promoted subjectivism (there is no objective truth) and moral relativism (what’s moral depends on your point of view), both of which now thoroughly permeate the educational ethos, mass media, and youth and adult culture.
As a result of these six converging cultural changes, Smith says, the transition to adulthood today is significantly more protracted, complex, self-absorbed, anxiety-burdened, and dangerous.
The dark side of young adult character
What is the dark side of youth character that emerges from this transformed cultural landscape?
- 60% of the 230 young adults interviewed are “moral individualists” who believe that every individual must be free to act on his or her personal values (“I’m not going to tell other people not to cheat,” one person said, “even though it’s something I wouldn’t do”). The emphasis here is on not judging others, being tolerant, not imposing one’s own values.
- Half of these moral individualists, or about a third of the total sample of 230, also subscribe to what Smith calls “strong moral relativism.” This is the belief that “morality is whatever people think it is” and that “there are no definite rights and wrongs for everybody.” (“Terrorists are doing what they think is the ultimate good,” said one interviewee.)
- Underlying both non-judgmental individualism and moral relativism is the inability of most subjects in Smith’s sample to “distinguish between objectively real moral truths [e.g., “slavery is a moral evil’] and people’s human perceptions or understandings of those moral truths.” Most emerging adults, Smith says, “think that people’s believing something to be morally true is what makes it morally true” and that “if some cultures believe different things about morality, then there is not a moral truth.” (In fairness to young adults, it’s worth noting that the idea that morality is merely a cultural construct and therefore not objectively true is exactly what post-modernism has promulgated.)
- A positive note: Nearly three-quarters of Smith’s sample say they themselves, as individuals, intuitively and automatically know what is right and wrong in any given situation, and they normally try to follow their conscience. They typically explain their “instinctive knowledge” of what’s right with reasoning that sounds like the traditional natural law notion that there is a moral sense embedded in our human nature. Said one subject, “I think everybody has a sense of right and wrong unless you are clinically insane or chemically imbalanced. It’s just kind of innate. There’s a lot of gray in between, but on the far end of each spectrum you know what’s absolutely wrong and right.”
- When asked, “Can you tell me about a specific situation you’ve been in recently where you’ve been unsure of what was right and wrong?”, only a third could do so.
About this last finding, Smith comments: “Only a minority of emerging adults can, in a context of a three-hour interview including a long section discussing morality, speak meaningfully about any struggles, conflicts or dilemmas they have faced in their moral experiences and decision making.” For about two-thirds of the 18-23-year-olds in Smith’s sample, extreme moral violations such as rape and murder are clearly wrong, but beyond that, “many of the truly moral features of life experiences are invisible.” One interviewee said, “I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often.”