The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood image

The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood

Christian Smith has had a busy time of it recently. A few weeks ago, the Notre Dame professor's book The Bible Made Impossible started a wide-ranging and fascinating debate about the doctrine of Scripture, which we posted on recently. The result was that he has had to write a flurry of articles in the past few weeks, defending his argument, in leading US publications like First Things (responding to Peter Leithart) and Books and Culture (responding to Robert Gundry, forthcoming). He even found time to post briefly on the conversation we've had at whatyouthinkmatters. Then, in an apparently unrelated context, he popped up at The Huffington Post a few days ago, talking about the need for an authentic religious pluralism in today's society, in a rather James Davison Hunter-ish sort of way. And now he's just been reviewed in The Economist for another new book: Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood.

The review, which is very positive about the book, gives a fascinating summary of the findings, which are based on interviews with 230 young people aged between 18 and 23. Calling the book ‘intensely and uncomfortably thought-provoking’, The Economist says the book is worthy of consideration on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly among parents of that generation:

Moral boundaries are less clear than they were; many young adults have been taught not just to tolerate other people’s views and behaviour but to see them all as equally valid ... Murder, rape, bank robbery are seen as wrong. But what about cheating on exams, cheating on lovers, even driving drunk? They talk about whether they might be caught, how their friends would react, how they themselves might feel. Where it is a question of others’ questionable behaviour, a standard answer is that it is up to each individual to decide for himself. Very few think that right and wrong are rooted in anything outside personal experience.

Which may not be very surprising to anybody who talks much to young people, or for that matter has read the book of Judges (see especially 21:25 et al). Anyway:

The message here is that in today’s world there is much that is fun, free and promising about this stage of life, but a dark side of apathy, confusion, loss and grief is less readily acknowledged. The book focuses on five areas: how young adults make ethical decisions; what role consumerism plays in their lives; why they drink so much; why they have sex so indiscriminately; and why ... they are in fact disengaged from civic and political life. The answers in the first area foreshadow most of the rest.

In other words, the lack of a moral framework is what essentially undergirds the shallow, apathetic, spending, drinking, sleeping around culture that characterises many 18-23 year olds. What is striking about the review (in a publication not known for trumpeting cultural conservatism or moral absolutes), is the conclusion:

Yet ‘Lost in Transition’ is not, in fact, a hand-wringing tale of gloom. Nor is the moral map it describes unique to America; there are many echoes in Britain, which was struggling even before its August riots to understand why so many young people seemed adrift. It is really a warning to parents. In the guise, often, of teaching tolerance, we are failing to ensure that our children understand how to frame moral issues and make judgments about right conduct and about what is good in life. The reason for this, Mr Smith suggests, is that we are not so sure ourselves.

So: if we don’t teach our children how to make moral decisions, then they don’t learn how to make moral decisions. Who’d have thought it?

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