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: 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