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Lost In Transition: I

What's the matter with today's emerging adults?
Thomas Lickona | 26 January 2012
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This is the first of three articles in an extended review of the recently published book, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, by University of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and colleagues. The reviewer, Thomas Lickona, is a developmental psychologist and professor of education at the State University of New York at Cortland.

* * * * *

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 (Kari Christofferson, Hilary Davidson, and Patricia Herzog). Smith’s book was the subject of columns by David Brooks (New York Times, September 13) and Kevin Ryan (MercatorNet, October 14), both of whom focused on the troubling individualism, relativism, and often less than coherent moral thinking that appear to characterize large numbers of the young adults Smith studied.

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. The good things about today’s young adults, Smith tells us in an endnote, have been amply documented by the scholar Jeffrey Arnett in books such as Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties (2004) and Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood (2009). A portrait of emerging adults that Smith considers “altogether too rosy and optimistic” is Richard Settersen’s and Barbara Ray’s Not Quite Adults: Why 20-Somethings Are Choosing a Slower Path to Adulthood, and Why It’s Good for All of Us (2010).

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.”

This interview sample, Smith explains, was drawn from a larger, “nationally representative” pool of more than 3,000 young persons who had been phone-surveyed by his team three different times, beginning when they were 13-17 years of age. This still-continuing longitudinal study has already produced several religiously focused books such as Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Oxford University Press, 2009). Lost in Transition, the latest book in the series, offers a more comprehensive picture of young adults by reporting on multiple facets of their character.

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?

Lost in Transition gives us its answer in five sobering chapters that report in rich detail the findings of its in-depth interviews with the 230 young adults. “Morality Adrift,” the first and longest chapter, includes a few hopeful findings (most of Smith’s interviewees say they wouldn’t do wrong to get ahead), but the overall picture is not encouraging:

  • 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.”

If Smith’s sample is representative, then most emerging adults, failing to perceive the moral dimensions of many life situations and decisions, have a greatly diminished capacity for living an examined life—and therefore a greater capacity to engage in morally harmful behavior (cheating, drug use, uncommitted sex) without considering whether it’s right or wrong.

Equally troubling, in Smith’s view, is that most emerging adults lack the necessary moral reasoning capacity to function effectively as thinking citizens. Because they regard morality as just a matter of personal opinion, they are ill-equipped to engage in thoughtful reflection and intelligent discourse about the important moral issues of our day—issues that demand our attention in a world that, as Smith points out, has become “much more complicated, pluralistic, and morally challenging.”

The chapter “Captive to Consumerism” reports what interviewees said when asked, “What would living the good life look like to you?” Only one-quarter spoke of wanting to help others or being a positive influence in others’ lives. Smith summarizes: “We expected at least some of them to speak critically about the emptiness or dangers of all-out materialism, but we heard almost none of that.”  He comments:

Could it be that the triumph of liberal, democratic capitalism has erased from the common American imagination any higher, transcendent horizon? We came away from our 230 interviews with emerging adults thinking that, for most, their horizon is disappointingly parochial: Get a good job, become financially secure, have a nice family, buy what you want, enjoy a few of the finer things in life, avoid the troubles of the world, retire with ease. Nothing much bigger, higher, more meaningful, more transcendent, more shared, more difficult.

The chapter “Intoxication’s Fake Feeling of Happiness” concludes sadly that getting drunk “is a central part of emerging adult culture.”

“The Shadow Side of Sexual Liberation,” a particularly poignant chapter, shines a light on a dimension of youth experience that secular social science tends to neglect or deny. The authors write: “All is not well among the emerging adults who inherited the sexual revolution launched by their parents and grandparents in the 60s and 70s. A lot, though not all, of emerging adults today are confused, hurting, and sometimes ashamed because of their sexual experiences played out in a culture that told them simply to go for it and feel good.” One young woman describes the prevailing sexual culture in this way:

I think obviously sex is no longer sacred, and people are just giving it away . . . Men get what they want with women, which generally speaking is physical fulfillment, and women think they’re gonna get what they want , which is commitment. And people just go from one person to the next.

Finally, the chapter on “Civic and Political Disengagement” concludes that “almost all emerging adults today are either apathetic, uninformed, distrustful, disempowered, or, at most, only marginally interested when it comes to politics and public life.” Those interviewed, in the authors’ view, were characterized by “nearly total submersion of self into private networks of technologically managed intimates and associates.” Some even sent text messages between interview questions.

Individualistic in their moral reasoning, focused on material comfort, frequent abusers of alcohol and drugs, disposed to temporary sexual relationships, and civically disengaged—that, without the nuances, is the picture of most (not all) emerging American adults that Smith gives us. (And remember, he’s focusing on just the dark side.) Is he right? How can we know? We’ll look at those questions next.

Next week: Part II: An accurate picture of today’s youth?

Thomas Lickona is a developmental psychologist and professor of education at the State University of New York at Cortland, where he founded and directs the Center for the 4th and 5th Rs (Respect and Responsibility; www.cortland.edu/character). He has written or edited nine books on moral development and character education including Raising Good Children, Educating for Character, and Smart & Good High Schools. He has appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America", "The Larry King Live Radio Show,” National Public Radio, and Focus on the Family. He can be reached at lickona@cortland.edu

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | books, emerging adults, moral relativism
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