"When there is no authority in religion or in politics, men are soon frightened by the limitless independence with which they are faced. They are worried and worn out by the constant restlessness of everything." Alexis de Tocqueville observed this about 19th-century Americans and their budding instincts on freedom and religion. But he could just as well have been describing today's young adults. In a new life phase that sociologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett labeled emerging adulthood, Americans ages 18-29 enjoy more options for work, marriage, and location than perhaps any previous generation. They are also one of the most self-focused, confused, and anxious age groups, led into an "adultolescence" that prevents a majority from committing to people and institutions.
All of this, says Christian Smith—sociologist at the University of Notre Dame and director of its Center for the Study of Religion and Society—seriously shapes emerging adult's religious beliefs and practices. His Souls in Transition (Oxford), the follow-up to his and Melinda Lundquist Denton's groundbreaking Soul Searching, suggests that the church can root emerging adults in Christ at a time when they are tempted to float away. CT associate editor Katelyn Beaty recently spoke with Smith about his findings.
What cultural shifts have produced this new life phase called emerging adulthood?
Much social transformation since the 1960s and '70s has created it. A higher proportion of American youth are spending more years in higher education. They are waiting a lot longer before they get married and have kids. That's partly related to wanting to stay in school longer. It's partly related to wanting to be "free" longer. It's also associated with things like the availability of artificial contraception.
Another factor is changes in the global economy that make jobs more fluid and unpredictable. You no longer settle into a job that you'll have the rest of your life. You may be transferred, you may lose your job, you may need retraining, you may need specialized education. All of this puts young people on edge, wanting to keep their options open when it comes to work.
All this has also created cultural changes that perpetuate an interest in being wild and free, sexually hopping around, for a time. As they exit the teenage years, young people basically understand they have up to 12 years before having a family and settling into their "real job." And those are very important years.
How do all these transitions affect emerging adults' religious attitudes?
Most of what happens in emerging adulthood works against serious faith commitments and putting down roots in congregations. Most emerging adults are disconnected from religious institutions and practices. Geographic mobility, social mobility, wanting to have options, thinking this is the time to be crazy and free in ways most religious traditions would frown upon, wanting an identity different from the family of origin—all of these factors reduce serious faith commitments.
For some emerging adults, the chaos helps them find that religion is an extremely helpful antidote. But that's after they have been through many difficulties. And only some look to faith to provide stability; most do not go there in the first place.
All that said, there is a significant minority of emerging adults who are raised in seriously religious families who continue on with that. It's not a story of consistent decline. But overall the culture of emerging adulthood puts many pressures on faith practices that are undermining or depressing.