Lost in Transition II: An accurate picture of youth?

We cannot stake too much on one study of young adult moral attitudes.
Thomas Lickona | Feb 2 2012 | comment  



This is the second 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 Christopher Smith and colleagues. The reviewer, Thomas Lickona, is a developmental psychologist and professor of education at the State University of New York at Cortland.

* * * * *

We can be grateful to Christopher Smith and his colleagues for Lost in Transition’s wake-up call to take a hard look at what is happening to our young and, by implication, to modern society. But it’s important to ask: How can we be confident that the portrait Smith paints, based on interviews with 230 18-23-year-olds, is an accurate picture of this age group in general?

The authors tell us that the 230 young adults whom they interviewed for this book came from all social groups and regions of America. However, they don’t tell us specifically how this sub-sample of interviewees was selected from their 3,290 “nationally representative” telephone survey subjects in order to ensure that the relatively small, in-person interview sub-sample was truly representative of the 3,000+ subject pool and of 18-23-year-olds in general.

The authors do say, in explaining their presentation of results, “Because our focus here is on culture, not measurable characteristics distributed in a population, we will draw almost exclusively upon our personal interview data [from the 230 subjects], not our survey data [from the 3,290 subjects in the telephone survey research].”

I was grateful for the times when Smith did provide information from both data sets, since that allows us to judge the validity of the findings from the 230 personal interviews by comparing them with the larger telephone survey results.

Sometimes discrepancies emerge. For example, in the “Morality Adrift” chapter, we read: “In our nationally representative [telephone] survey, 16 per cent of American emerging adults agreed with the statement, “It is okay to break moral rules if it works to your advantage and you can get away with it.’” But among the 230 young adults interviewed face-to-face for the Lost in Transition report, more than twice as many—34 per cent—said they might do something they considered morally wrong if they could get away with it. Why such a big difference, one that makes those personally interviewed appear to be significantly more unscrupulous than their telephone survey counterparts? Smith doesn’t speculate about the reasons.

In other instances, Smith does offer helpful comment on such discrepancies. For example, in the national telephone survey, nearly six in ten—57 per cent—express at least some regrets about their sexual experiences. But during the in-person interviews, fewer than four in ten express sexual regrets. In face-to-face interviews, Smith suggests, it may be even more difficult to talk about such personal matters. He also notes that “real problems related to sex may exist” and manifest themselves in later years, problems about which emerging adults are currently oblivious and about which they presently have no conscious regrets. One young woman, for example, laughingly describes getting very drunk at a party and “making out” with three guys (“just to do it”); later, when her boyfriend expresses his unhappiness with this behavior, she says, “Whatever.”

Bottom line: There’s more to getting an accurate picture of any age group than first meets the eye. People may say one thing on the telephone, something else in person. They may have a particular perspective on their experience now, but a very different one ten years from now. The caution for readers: Be aware of these sources of variability when interpreting any given finding or generalization about the character and behavior of youth (or, for that matter, any other segment of the population).

What do other studies show?

In their effort to describe the dark side of emerging adults’ character, Smith says that he and his colleagues are documenting current problems that are serious enough to warrant our attention—but they are not interested in making comparisons with previous generations. They therefore don’t present any trend data from their own research or from other studies. However, anyone reading Smith’s portrait will naturally wonder, “Are young adults today worse than they used to be—or have things really changed all that much?”

Fortunately, for those with that question, trend data from another source are available that permit us to make at least some kinds of comparisons. For more than 40 years, UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute has surveyed entering freshman at hundreds of four-year public and private colleges and universities and published each year’s results in a report called The American Freshman. Because the American Freshman survey includes questions about life goals and various social-moral issues, it provides one barometer of national values.

Admittedly, three factors limit the comparability of the UCLA data with Lost in Transition’s data: (1) the UCLA survey gives us a snapshot of entering college students, typically 18 years of age, before they had any substantial experience of college life, whereas Lost in Transition’s sample spans ages 18 to 23, the time period during which Smith says macrosocial changes have taken their toll on young adult character; (2) the UCLA survey profiles only college students, whereas Smith studied young adults of all educational backgrounds; and (3) the UCLA survey is a questionnaire that does not ask respondents to give reasons for their responses, whereas Smith’s 3-hour, in-person interviews were able to probe and reveal the quality of young persons’ thinking and their larger world views.

Despite these limitations of comparability, it’s helpful to look at Smith’s findings in the light of UCLA’s trend data. On UCLA’s survey, in 1970 only about a third (36 per cent) of all freshmen said that it was “essential or very important” for them to “become very well off financially.” But by 2010, that percentage had climbed to more than three-quarters of all freshmen (77 per cent). Making a lot of money had entered the cultural bloodstream big-time.

In 1970, more than three-quarters (79 per cent) of college freshmen said that “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” was essential or very important. By 2010, however, that figure had plummeted to less than half of entering freshmen (47 per cent).  

In 1970, nearly six in ten (57 per cent) of college freshmen said it was essential or very important to “keep up to date with political affairs.” But by 2010, only one-third (33 per cent) said that this was important to them.  

These three UCLA-documented 40-year trends among college freshmen—rising materialism, fading interest in deeper life questions, and declining interest in public affairs—align strongly with Smith’s portrait of 18-23-year-olds today, giving us more reason to trust his data and conclusions.

Another point of convergence: In 1970, two-thirds (67 per cent) of college freshmen said on UCLA’s survey that “raising a family” was essential or very important to them, and by 2010, that had increased slightly to 73 per cent.

Similarly, Smith reports that six of ten of his 230 interviewees spoke of marriage and family as something they desire as part of “a good life” (although we might ask whether the quality of their marriage and family life will end up suffering because of their focus on material success coupled with what may be a weak commitment to making a marriage work, a commitment that requires strong character).

Here, however, is a point of significant contrast between the UCLA data and Smith’s findings: On the UCLA survey, “helping others in difficulty” was rated essential or very important by 71 per cent of entering freshmen in 1970; it was still essential or very important for 69 per cent of freshmen in 2010. Moreover, over the course of this 40-year period, “influencing social values” showed a slight increase, from 35 per cent of 1970 students considering it essential or important to 41 per cent in 2010.

By comparison, Lost in Transition’s interviewees appear much more self-centered. Smith reports that only a quarter spontaneously spoke of wanting to help others or have a positive influence in the lives of others.

Why this difference? It may be that on UCLA’s questionnaire, social desirability leads students to respond to the item “helping others in difficulty” as being important to them, whereas in Smith’s in-person, open-ended interview—which asked questions such as “What, ultimately, do you want to get out of life? What do you really want to accomplish or experience in your life before it’s all over?”—interviewees had to bring up, on their own initiative, helping or influencing others as an important life goal, and only a minority did so. So here is another case where the picture of youth character that emerges may be significantly influenced by the researchers’ methodology.

Youth attitudes toward sex

What about UCLA’s trend data for agree-disagree items designed to measure attitudes on social-moral issues?

In 1974, the first year an item on sexual attitudes was included, 44 per cent of entering freshmen “strongly or somewhat agreed” with the statement, “If two people really like each other, it’s all right for them to have sex even if they have known each other for only a very short time.” About three decades later, in 2005 (the last year for which this attitude toward sex was included), the percentage was virtually unchanged (45 per cent).

Thus UCLA’s sexual profile of entering college students, revealing nearly half to have an approving attitude toward early sexual involvement in a relationship, is consistent with Smith’s portrait of today’s emerging adults as including large numbers who have been drawn into the hook-up culture.

According to Smith’s large telephone survey sample, the average age for both first oral sex and first sexual intercourse is 16. The typical never-married 18-23-year-old has had three oral sex partners and three sexual intercourse partners. Sixty-five percent say they have had intercourse many times.

Today’s young: more pro-life

On the issue of whether unborn life deserves protection under the law, the UCLA data show a shift in a different direction.

In 1970 (three years before the Roe vs. Wade and Doe vs. Bolton Supreme Court decisions legalized abortion in America through all nine months of pregnancy), fully 86 per cent of entering American freshmen taking UCLA’s survey agreed with the statement, “Abortion should be legal[ized].” Only seven years later, however, that percentage had dropped to 56 per cent. It slowly rose to its second highest level (67 per cent) in 1992, and then declined again to its present level of 56 per cent, still way below where it was 40 years ago.

Because the UCLA questionnaire doesn’t ask freshmen to explain their responses, we don’t know from those data why the young are now more pro-life than they once were. But this much we do know: The UCLA data on young people’s abortion views square with other recent poll results showing that persons under 30 are now markedly less supportive of abortion rights than any other age group.

For those who think that human rights begin in the womb, this trend toward less youth support for abortion can be seen as a bright spot, offsetting at least a bit Smith’s overall picture of young adults’ morality as lacking in sensitivity to life’s moral dimensions.

Who’s to blame for the problems of emerging adults? What can be done to try to ameliorate these problems? We’ll look at those questions next.

Next week: Who’s to blame, and what should be done?

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  



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