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Lost in Transition by Christian Smith

by Megan Cottam | February 1, 2012

Christian Smith and his fellow sociologists delve into the lives of 18-23 year olds to discover habits, patterns, and mindsets that perpetuate negative behaviors in emerging adults. They explore morality, consumerism, substance abuse, premarital sex, and political apathy.  They document interviews and conversations from this age group that show very candidly the young adult position on these topics. They provide minimal solutions, but instead highlight the need to engage the problems developing in this phase of life.

When questioned about morals, young adults focused on default phrases such as “It’s up to the individual” or “It’s a personal choice” as a defense for nearly any action. This line of thinking was also applied to views on consumerism, where young adults felt there should be no limits imposed on spending, and that if an individual wished to spend large amounts of resources on material goods, it was his or her choice to do so.  Moral thinking seemed relative, and young adults felt little obligation to anyone other than themselves.

Among the “personal choices” of young adults was a large trend towards intoxication, whether through binge drinking or drugs. The prevalence of casual sex and lack of committed relationships was also revealed through this study.  The need for immediate happiness or escape methods contributed to these behaviors, despite the repeated admittance of the pain and damage caused by these actions.

In their final chapter, Smith and his team expose the disinterest and lack of education on political matters.  These five trends are then viewed through the lens of America at large.  The sociologists feel that the larger adult population has failed to prepare young adults to think critically about morals, develop a community conscience, or make choices and commitments for their long-range future.  The culture of immediacies, materialism, and relative acceptance is affecting young adults, and not for the better.

These interviews are powerful talking points for ministers who work with young adults.  However, there are definitely limits to the research collected in this book, as well as a danger of blanketing all young adults into the same behavioral categories.  While I think this work is fairly accurate for college-going students, and extremely important for their campus ministers, it does not portray the motives of those outside the college subculture.  For those in poverty, and especially those without a high school education, life is different, and the reasons for the same negative behaviors have much more to do with power struggles, and expressed anger at oppressive structures than the moral relativity and political languor mentioned in this book.  When the average person talks about “society,” they are usually excluding the permanent underclass in America and instead focusing on the mobile, middle to upper classes. This book, despite its attempt at widespread research, is no exception.

The two most accurate sections of the book tackle substance abuse and sex and their pervasive and negative impact on young adult culture.  In short, practices such as binge drinking, pot smoking and casual sex are rampant, mainstream, and riddled with consequences that are typically ignored.  It is common principle to think that those students in campus ministry programs differ from the average young adult and are usually less involved in sex, drugs, and alcohol than the national average. Too easily, young adult Catholics, especially those in discernment, are treated as though they have no problems and can easily deflect any negative influence in their lives. This is dangerous thinking.   All students, at a minimum, have to tackle this pressure on a daily basis.  The majority have made a mistake or experimented in one category or another at least once.  All students need a forum to talk openly about these issues, without feeling judged for those mistakes. The silence or turning of heads only makes the matter worse.  The facts provided in this book could be a great starting point for a campus discussion.

Less conclusive are the arguments about young adults’ political choices and their views towards morality and consumerism. While the statements about political apathy, moral ambiguity, and pro-materialism are generally true, they are too simplistic.  During the college years, most young adults’ viewpoints on these issues are changing rapidly.  They are exposed to alternative viewpoints and are often shocked into re-evaluating themselves.  They are overwhelmed with information from all sides. They are also told to spend four years focusing on themselves and how they wish to spend their lives.  It makes sense that morals, politics, and social issues like consumerism are in transition, and the default position is one of individualism and relativity.  It takes time and experience to develop sound ideas on these adult issues.  I am confident that these facts will change rapidly by the next age group (24-29) when views solidify once again.

Smith and his team make the critical connection that young adult dilemmas mirror the dilemmas of the larger adult population. How true: Growing up, our two main presidents were Bill Clinton and his sex scandals, followed by George W. Bush and his wars.   Our sports stars were OJ Simpson, followed by every baseball player and Olympian on steroids, and our personal role models often let us down because of embezzlement, sex abuse scandals, and other immoral acts. We have been hurt by adults time and time again, and so we only have ourselves to count on. There is no institution or mentor left that can be trusted enough to show our whole selves to without fearing either complete rejection or the inability to discuss our shadow sides because they are uncomfortable discussing theirs.  This leaves young adults on shaky ground, uncertain to lock down a system of morals for fear of being hypocritical, distrusting of the political world and its manipulation, and with a sense of hopelessness when it comes to changing how anyone else acts. The world is not yet ours; we cannot control it, but have already been hurt by it. Our default position is thus one of escaping inward.

What should you do as a minister with this research? For starters, read the book. But do not draw any conclusions until you have entered our world and seen for yourself what it is like to be a young adult. We do not need people to have a summary of our faults and issues; we need someone to stand beside us as we go through them, for good and for bad, without fear that you are going to abandon us when you disagree with how we have chosen to live our lives. We don’t need people to tell us to live or think differently; we need mentors that show us and invite us to new perspectives alongside the ones we currently claim. Because as long as you tell us we are wrong, we are going to drown out your ideas of how we can become right.

Finally, ministers must shift the focus of how they minister to young adults.  Once mistakes are made and people feel they have lost their worth and value, how can they reclaim it? This research emphasizes that is out-of-date to tell young adults to wait for marriage to have sex and never do drugs.  What happens once we have failed? This is where ministry needs to focus its efforts.

Author information Megan Cottam

Megan Cottam is a 2007 CoC alumna and Coordinator of Christian Formation at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Richmond, Virginia, where she works with her husband, Steven.  They live in intentional community in Church Hill with their daughter.

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