Lost in Transition




Though most of us in collegiate ministry have heard the term emerging adulthood, not everyone has considered the social cost of delaying adulthood.  In Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, Dr. Christian Smith uses sociological evidence conducted through surveys and interviews to show us the dark side.  And it is dark.  Centered around five chapters, the book provides an inside view of the attitudes, thoughts, and actions of emerging adults aged 18-23, roughly the tradition college age.

Emerging adulthood, a term coined first by psychologist Jeffery Arnett, describes a social transition which occurred after World War II.   First, due to the GI Bill and more emphasis on education, more students were able to go to college rather than go straight into a job.  Secondly, from 1950 to 2006 the median age of first marriage for women rose from 22.8 to 25.9 years.  Thirdly, due to global pressure, economic stability changed causing many young adults to not be able to enter into long-term careers right out of high school or college.   Fourthly, due to the factors listed so far, many parents made choices to continue to support their children well into their twenties and even early thirties as they attempt to have stable, adult lives.  Fifthly, the wide-spread use of birth control made it easy for young adults to have sexual relations apart from marriage and procreation.  Finally, according to Dr. Smith, during the 1980s and 1990s American collegiate culture began to promote poststructuralism and postmodernism which eventually moved into the mainstream of the culture where it morphed into individualistic subjectivism and moral relativism.

While emerging adulthood has allowed more access to education, travel, and experimentation in careers, it has also come with a price.  According to Dr. Smith there are five major problems which are taking a toll on these young adults.   The changing social conditions have led to problems that Dr. Smith documents in chapters entitled: Morally Adrift; Captive to Consumerism; Intoxication’s “Fake Feeling of Happiness”; The Shadow Side of Sexual Liberation; and Civic and Political Disengagement.

While I cannot go into detail about every chapter, I will give some highlights on the major points of each one.

Morally Adrift

  • Sixty percent of emerging adults express a highly individualistic approach to morality. For them morality is a personal choice, entirely a matter of individual decision.
  • Thirty percent expressed a belief in strong moral relativism.
  • Thirty-four percent expressed not knowing what makes something morally right or wrong.

Captive to Consumerism

  • Most emerging adults are perfectly happy with mass consumerism.
  • Those who do question the patterns of always buy more and more stuff often see it as a problem of other people.
  • Many emerging adults have come to see college as just another “product” to buy bought and consumed in order to make more money.
  • Most have embraced a notion of the “good life” in financial terms.

Intoxication’s “Fake Feeling of Happiness”

  • Of the 78 percent of EA who drink alcohol, 60 percent reported binge drinking at least once in the previous two weeks.
  • Twelve percent of EA surveyed reported smoking marijuana either once a week, a few times a week, daily, or more often.
  • There is a sharp rise in those who drink and use drugs from the 13 to 23 demographics.
  • Twenty-two percent were called “partiers” by Dr. Smith’s research group. These are EA who drink regularly, and often binge drink.
  • Four percent of those 23 or younger were already recovered addicts.

The Shadow Side of Sexual Liberation

  • The typical never-married American EA has had an average (median) of 3 sexual intercourse partners. In short, the vast majority of never-married EA ages 18-23 have been physically intimate with at least one other person.  The typical one started at age 16.  And half of the sexually initiated have had a good deal of sexual experience with more than one or two partners.
  • Smith concludes the chapter thus: “not far beneath the surface appearance of happy, liberated emerging adult sexual adventure and pleasure lies a world of hurt, insecurity, confusion, inequality, shame, and regret.

Civic and Political Disengagement

  • The largest group (27%) of EA were apathetic to politics. The genuinely political were the smallest group (4%).
  • Smith sees most of the “Obama bump” from emerging adults to have worn off. He sees no evidence that the current cohort of emerging adults (snapshot in 2011) will be more involved than Millennials or Gen X.
  • Smith attributes this lack of involvement due to several factors: mass consumerism; moral confusion and disorientation; individualistic relativism; and technological submersion in interpersonal relationships in private settings.


This book is worth a read even if it is almost seven years old now.  If you would like to know more about emerging adulthood, read my review of two other books on the topic.

For more on the topic of civic virture and its decline, read my review of Ben Sasse’s book The Vanishing American Adult.



Lost in Transition Part 2: Mass Consumerism


Having lived through yet another Black Friday (the local radio station called it the “Black Friday Holiday”), I think it is an appropriate time to move on to Chapter 2 of Christian Smith’s Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood.  Chapter 2  is, appropriately,  about mass consumerism:  it is actually entitled “Captive to Consumerism.”  Frankly, this was an issue that I was not expecting.  But after reading Dr. Smith’s chapter, it makes sense.  Dr. Smith’s team set out to find what do emerging adults (aged 18-23) think about all the seemingly endless products, services, and “stuff” that is available for purchase.  Are there any dilemmas connected with a consumerist lifestyle?  What he found is that most are either positive or neutral about mass consumerism, and few express doubts.

Perfectly Happy

According to Dr. Smith, “Contemporary emerging adults are either true believers or complacent conformists when it comes to mass consumerism.  Most like shopping and buying things.  Most enjoy consuming products and services.  It is the way of life with which they are familiar and content.”  This group is sixty-one percent of emerging adults.

Inconsequential Concerns

Thirty percent of those interviewed did express concerns, but thought they could do nothing to change the situation.  For them, “mass consumerism remains in place and their lives remain unchanged.”  In this group, the problem of mass consumerism was often thought of as “the problem of other people.”

What is the purpose of a good education?

Having explained how so many emerging adults are “bought in” to a consumerist culture, Dr. Smith then offers an aside on what is the purpose of education.  And it’s a good question.  Having just shown that most emerging adults are fine with mass consumerism, we quickly find out that for most students a college education is nothing more than a ticket to better jobs, for money, for mass consumption.

What happened to education for the life of the mind, and soul craft?  It seems to be gone.  And this is a problem.  For one thing, more and more students are going into debt on hopes of a great job after graduation, only to end up deep in debt when they leave school.  Secondly, for a democracy to flourish, it must have an educated population that values civic virtue, a common culture, and understands where the nation has come from.  When one is looking at college as mostly an investment in making money, much of these important values are lost.

What is a good life?

But Dr. Smith is not finished with asking what is the purpose of education.  He goes on to ask what is a good life?  And it is a great question to work in with this chapter.  Is this all that life is about?  Amassing goods and enjoying services?

According to Dr. Smith, “when asked about a good life broadly conceived and what they wanted to achieve in life, the ideas of material success, financial stability, not having to worry about money, being successful in work, being able to provide for the family, and having money to spend on valuable experiences were expressed again as significant themes in the majority of their answers.”  Though sixty percent did bring up having kids, relationships, and stable marriages, most of these answers were also mixed in with talk about material success.  Only nine percent mentioned God, or some value related to religion.


In finishing the chapter, Dr. Smith pushes back about anyone thinking that the “next generation” is going to be alternative thinkers who care about environmentalism or question consumption (but remember this is a snapshot from 2011).  He sees a generation that is out to make money, sees no problem in spending any way it wishes, and is not concerned about deeper questions about the purpose of education or life.


For those of us working with college students (emerging adults), I think that this chapter raises a lot of good questions to pose to students.  If the general culture or the educational institutes are not asking students to ponder the purpose of education or a good life, then it certainly is up to college ministers, lay people in the church, and pastors.  Of course, we can’t replace college teachers and the college culture, but we can help guide students to thinking beyond just getting a degree, making money, and dying with the most toys.

If you are interested in thinking about good books, the purpose of education, and what is a good life, check out my review of Senator Ben Sasse’s book The Vanishing American Adult.

Photo by Jezael Melgoza on Unsplash


Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood


Having thoroughly benefited from reading Christian Smith’s 2009 book Souls in Transition, I decided to read his 2011 book Lost in Transition:  The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood.  You can tell by the title that it has a negative undertone.  But wow, I was not expecting to come out depressed after reading it.  But I did.  Very depressed.  But I think this is a book that anyone with a teenager or young adult in the family should read.  For campus ministers, it is a must read.  It is true that much in the book will be known by those who work with emerging adults (in this book the age is limited from 18-23), but this book backs up what you know, and also shines the light on a few things you may not know.

Rather than try to review all the book in one go, I have decided to break it down chapter by chapter, adding to the blog when I can.  Here are the five chapters:  Morality Adrift, Captive to Consumerism, Intoxication’s “Fake Feeling of Happiness”, The Shadow Side of Sexual Liberation, and Civic and Political Disengagement.  Let’s start with Chapter One.

Chapter One is divided into several sub-divisions.  I will not be able to cover all of them, but will hit some of the ones that I think are most illustrative of the problems young emerging adults have in defining and explaining morality.

Moral Individualism

According to Dr. Smith and his research, six of out 10 emerging adults “expressed a highly individualistic approach to morality.”  To this 60 percent, morality is “a personal choice, entirely a matter of individual decision.”  A typical response on the survey and in individual interviews included: it’s personal, it’s up to the individual, and who am I to say.

Moral Relativism

About 3 out of 10 emerging adults interviewed professed a belief in “strong moral relativism.”

Moral Sources

Thirty-four percent of those interviewed didn’t know what makes anything morally right or wrong.  According to Dr. Smith, not only did they not know the source for morality, they could not even understand the question.

Forty percent stated that how other people “would think of them (at least partly) defining what for them would be morally right and wrong.”

Sixty percent stated that morality was based on whether anything “functionally, improved people’s situations.”

Fifty-three said that whatever “hurts someone physically, emotionally, financially, or otherwise it is wrong.”  But many also made a distinction between hurting individuals and business, with less caution about hurting what they saw as not individuals.

So, what are some of the conclusions that Dr. Smith and his team draw from their research?

First, they found that “moral individualism is widespread among emerging adults and that a sizeable minority professes to believe in moral relativism.”  They also found that “emerging adults resort to a variety of explanations about what makes anything good or bad, wrong or right—many of which reflect weak thinking and provide a fragile basis upon which to build robust moral positions of thought and living.”

Second, many emerging adults have a hard time “to distinguish between objectively real moral truths or facts and people’s human perceptions or understandings of those moral truths or facts.”  An example that Dr. Smith gives, is whether is slavery moral wrong, or is it morally wrong because we believe it to be morally wrong.  On many issues those being interviewed did not seem to understand the difference.

Third, emerging adults are bombarded by different values, morals, philosophies, lifestyles, and religions like never before, yet they have little to no training in how to evaluate what they constantly see and hear through the internet and social media.  Never before has a generation had so much information and choices to make with that information.

Finishing up this chapter I realized how much collegiate ministers or lay people working with emerging adults need to incorporated basic logic in how we explain the Gospel and its implications.  After almost two decades listening to “do whatever you want to as long as you don’t hurt someone” from educational leaders, pop stars, and other media sources, many of them no longer have the skills to really understand not only what morality is, but basic logic as well.  Your students are not getting basic thinking skills about morality from school, the culture at large, or even at many churches.  You really are the last chance for many of them.

Next time we will look at Chapter 2:  Mass Consumerism

To read my review of Souls in Transition click here

Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash

Surfing the Waves of Emerging Adulthood

wave-1628850_1280People often refer to stereo when talking about sound and music, but not so often about sight.  Stereopsis is the enhancement of sight by using two eyes.  Having two eyes allows one to have depth perception that would not be possible with just one eye.  Looking at the college years and twenties through the lens of Souls in Transition and The Defining Decade helps us see emerging adulthood much more clearly.  Though the two works focus on the same subject, they are positioned from different angles which make stereopsis possible.

Souls in Transition comes from a sociologist focusing on religion and early emerging adulthood, while The Defining Decade is from a psychologist looking at the twenties in general.  Souls in Transition is an academic work, The Defining Decade a self-help and motivational book.  But don’t be deceived, they both help us see emerging adulthood in sharper contrast.

If emerging adulthood were surfing on a bright sunny day off Oahu, then Souls in Transition would be bringing those relentless waves into focus.  Are the waves cresting?  How long is the tube?  Is the wind blowing offshore or onshore?  We just don’t see the individual surfer, but also the forces that propel that surfer.  Souls does offer some case studies that highlight individuals much as The Defining Decade does, but the real punch of Souls comes from its tables and charts.  We see the ocean.

Souls in Transition is the second in a series by Christian Smith who analyzed and interpreted the National Study of Youth and Religion which interviewed 13-17 year olds.  He released his first book, Soul Searching:  The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers in 2005.  Souls in Transition looks at third wave data he has gleaned more recently and specifically looks young adults from 18 to 23 years old, which meshes well with the traditional college demographic.   Dr. Smith wants to ask questions and these are the questions he asks:  “What do the religious and spiritual lives of American 18-23-year olds look like and why?  What are the social influences that shape people’s lives during these years? And how do people change or not change religiously and spiritually as they exit their teenage years and head into their twenties?”

Some of the answers we get are surprising:

*The religious lives of parents are one of the most powerful influences on the outcome of emerging adults.

*Teenagers are still more influenced by parents or other caring adults than peers

*There is little evidence for internal belief without external expression

*Attending college does not increase the chance of losing one’s faith

*Most emerging adults think nobody ultimately really knows what is true, right, or good

*Emerging adults as “sovereign individuals” lack conviction or direction


For all those pastors who have been saying the ultimate responsibility for a child’s religious education rests on the parents they are right.  But even if a parent cannot be there, some other adult’s involvement in the life of teenager is highly important for the religious outcome in the emerging adult years.  Teenagers and emerging adults need older adults as mentors and guides.

Perhaps some of the most perceptive writing about this observation comes in the section entitled The Cultural Triumph of Liberal Protestantism.  Here referring to the work of sociologist N. Jay Demerath, Smith relates how the decline of liberal Protestantism is actually a victory of their theology, since more and more emerging adults have no reason to care about religion.  Smith writes: “liberal Protestantism’s core values—individualism, pluralism, emancipation, tolerance, free critical inquiry, and the authority of human experience—have come to so permeate broader American culture that its own churches as organizations have difficulty surviving.”  Even though liberal Protestantism has all but imploded, it has won the theology wars by leaving a “who cares about religion” mindset with most emerging adults.

Though we have only skimmed the waves in this review, Souls is a profound book that every leader working with emerging adults should read. Its scope and magnitude go far beyond “college students” to seeing how waves are developed well out to sea.  Staff working with youth and parents would be wise to read it as well.   Coming in at over 300 pages, however, it is not the type of book most emerging adults will actually read.  What is where The Defining Decade come in.

If Souls helps us see with more clarity the waves pushing our imaginary suffer, then The Defining Decade by Dr. Meg Jay, focuses on the surfer, and the decisions he or she makes.  Is she turning left or right?  Is she about to wipeout?  What board is he riding?  Looking through the lens of The Defining Decade we see the twists and turns the surfer should make, hold our breaths as they shoot through the pipeline, and rejoice with them as they ride the really big ones.

Though not written from a religious perspective like Souls, there are echoes of the wisdom literature in this book.  Whether describing work, love, or the brain and the body, there is a much needed common sense attitude that comes through to the reader.  We can resonate with her advice saying, “The church has been saying this for years!”

The main theme of Dr. Jay, is that the surfer actually has to surf, and the earlier the better. After college, many emerging adults tend to just drift on their boards without actually standing up.  Dr. Jay wants to change that by lending her experience in counseling to any and all twentysomthings who will listen and realize that their twenties do in fact matter.

Dr. Jay reminds emerging adults about key guides for life:

*Identity capital is important and needs to be cultivated early.

*That prudent life choices in one’s twenties sets the stage for success in later life

*That too many choices can lead to paralysis

*That who you marry is one of the most important decisions in life, and no one in college teaches you how to decide.

*How commonalities and similar likes help sustain a marriage

*That couples who live together actually have more of chance of divorce after marriage.

Those in collegiate ministry can use these books to help them zoom in or pan out to see the particular student or wave as needed.  Souls in Transition can be used to help build an integrated ministry from teenager to early emerging adult.  The Declining Decade makes a good book for an individual emerging adult to read by herself, and to help parents, grand-parents, and lay leaders understand the zeitgeist of mellinnenials.

Putting these two books together helps us see a way forward for ministry with emerging adults:

*Churches need to be coaching parents on how to mentor their children in religious development

*Transmission by participation needs to replace transmission by entertainment

*Mentoring needs to begin early and continue through early emerging adulthood

*Evangelism must be done beyond the church walls since most emerging adults aren’t interested in coming to a church service

*Ministries can reach emerging adults in their brokenness and indecision through incarnational ministry that is passionate, directional, and healing

These two books work well together helping to balance the tendency by some who think a self-help book can solve any problem, or those who think everything is determined by sociological factors.  As Christians we know that God has given us personal choice and a mandate to follow him, yet readily admit that God remains sovereign.  In reading these two books, we are reminded of this tension of sovereignty and choice:  of the crash of the wave, and the use of a board. Let’s do our part in reading these books to be the best surfing coaches, lifeguards,  oceanographers, and weather forecasters we can.