Wednesday, February 25, 2009

arnett: emerging adulthood

I did preach today, and it seemed to go well. I subjected them to about 30 seconds of silence, which was kind of a fun experiment! I didn't get a whole lot of feedback, besides that my professor was on a kick about really wanting us to make our structure show. He said that to everyone but one person (who literally said, "First...second...third"). We were supposed to preach a three-point sermon, but I think enough of us have heard enough boring three-point sermons that we don't want to make it really obvious that we're preaching one!

For another class I'm taking, Theological Foundations for Youth Ministry, I'm reading a book this week called Emerging Adulthood by Jeffrey Jensen Arentt. It's an excellent book, and I think his research and conclusions go a long way in explaining this confusing (and confused) generation of 18-20-somethings or more. I have to turn in a reflection paper on the book and how it influences my thinking about youth ministry, so I figured I'd share that with you all.

Arnett's work in this book is tremendous. He gives a candid but compassionate reading of “emerging adults” in the new millennium. I appreciate the title he uses for this age group, because “emerging adults” cannot be viewed as adolescents, but they also are not exactly adults by their own (or most other people's) definition. They have qualities of adulthood, but tend to avoid full adulthood like the plague.

I personally fit well within his categories. I'm in my late twenties, so at this point I feel more adult than “emerging” adult, although I still have some of the characteristics of the emerging adult stage. I'm still in school, therefore not totally financially, geographically or vocationally stable. But I'm married with a kid, so I definitely have a different outlook on life than an adolescent, or even than most young emerging adults. I feel like I'm just on the cusp of “young adulthood,” especially if I decide to be done with school after I finish my MDiv in May! I find that for myself, there is that mental checklist of what I need to accomplish before I can really call myself a full “adult.” Although marriage and having a child were major milestones, I still don't feel like a “real” adult because I've never held a “real” job or lived in one house for more than a year or two since leaving for college 11 years ago. In some ways it still sounds nice to have the freedom of choosing where to go and what to do next, of having plenty of options. But it's also beginning to sound nice to just pick someplace and stay there for the long-haul, to build relationships and community, to find consistency and a sense of belonging and place. So I think, at least in my own experience, Arnett describes this stage very well.

I appreciate that Arnett gives this stage a compassionate reading, although I might be a little more critical of “emerging adults” in the general population. Although for me, emerging adulthood has meant moving around a lot, financial instability as I pursue a master's degree, and an interest in experiencing new things, I don't think this stage has to be one of irresponsibility. I wonder if giving young adults a “moratorium on responsibilities” is a good idea.

It seems to me that the rise of the stages of adolescence and emerging adulthood have occurred in the last century or two because of a lack of purpose given by society for those in their teens and twenties. In agrarian and even early industrial societies, young people were necessary components of their communities, helping with farm work, doing industrial jobs, helping run a household and care for children, and so forth. These young people didn't necessarily have a long life expectancy and probably had little free time, but at least they had a place in society and a purpose. They had a clear path to what they would do when they “grew up.” Although this isn't totally positive, it did have the positive aspects of stability, purpose, community, and participation in meeting the needs of others. I think teenagers and young adults flounder around in our society, looking for something that “fits,” and acting out negatively or irresponsibly in the meantime, because they have no purpose. No one needs them. No one expects much from them. Yes, they get to enjoy a time of “freedom” in which they can work to meet all their own needs without much thought for others, but most teens and emerging adults want others to journey with, on whom to be mutually dependent (even if this shows itself in less-than-positive ways like gang affiliation).

As the church, I think we should expect more from teens and twenty-somethings. We should provide places in our communities where youth and emerging adults can use their gifts to do things that wouldn't be possible without them. We should expect them to be responsible and help them live up to that expectation. We should help them see something to live for. This “something” shouldn't just be a nice community to be a part of, but participation in something that is so real and so true, so life-shaking, that one cannot help but be involved and give one's life to pursuit of God through love of others. Of course, in order for this to happen, the “adults” in the congregation have to have this kind of passion as well. Or perhaps the adults need to listen to this passion in their young people and encourage and fan it, rather than turning young people away by dismissing their ideas and energy.

Most reform movements in the history of the church (including Quakerism!) began with people between the ages of 15-30, I believe. Many of these caused church splits because the adults who were more “settled in their ways” could not see the God-given passion of their young people to truly live the call of Christ. Perhaps the church is turning young people away, disillusioning them, at an early age, so that they become cynical, irresponsible and sensationalist. What would happen if churches focused on hearing the prophetic call of Christ through their young people? Maybe this age range would continue to be part of the community, rather than leaving in exasperation, and returning only when all hope of making a difference in the world has faded with discouraging years.

So there is my little rant for the week. Hopefully this is sufficient for a reflection paper!


Swallowtail said...

I tend to see young adults as the ones who will be leaving the older folk behind if they don't change their ways. The younger generation may be cynical, but I think it is more likely that their cynicism will lead to "real" change rather than to disillusionment. Especially with our new President in office, young folks are not waiting around for the older folks to do the right thing.


cherice said...


Thanks for your comment. That is actually what I was trying to say, so sorry it didn't come through clearly. Basically I'm saying that it is usually young adults who want to work on stuff that leads to "real" change, and once they come back to the church they've often given up on doing anything that actually means anything, and decided that the best option is just to be part of a nice community.

There are definitely people who are older than young adults who still have this idealism and sense of purpose, of course!

But it seems like as a whole, spiritual communities tend to not really see their young people's ideas as feasible--they are too impractical, too idealistic. We don't necessarily need to wait around for everyone to get on board with what it is we feel called to, I was just saying that if older people want younger people to stick around their congregations, they would do well to welcome their prophetic voice.

Swallowtail said...

I don't think you were TOO unclear. But I often need to condense a long piece into something very simple and concise to draw the essence out of it... that's how my mind works. My wife, a writer, is much more verbose than me.

And I agree with you. We have the same problem here at Albany Friends Meeting... there are some older folks who are open to new ideas, but overall the Meeting could be more welcoming to youthful idealism and sense of purpose.


Swallowtail said...

This TED talk is related and is an interesting 20 minutes if you have time: