‘Emerging Adult’ new term for 20-somethings

515bxkgrdll_bo2204203200_pisitb-sticker-arrow-clicktopright35-76_aa240_sh20_ou01_Today Amazon delivered my copy of Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett.  A research professor of psychology at Clark University, Arnett became fascinated at the different choices 18-t0-20-something year olds were making compared to preceding generations.  Further research bore out his initial findings:  people 18-29 were delaying their entry into adulthood.

The book covers issues 18-29 year olds face — parents, love and sex, marriage, college, careers — weaving these together with the stories of real emerging adults.  Arnett’s narrative is lively, engaging, and informative, based on 10-years’ of research in this age group.

I was particularly interested in the chapter, Sources of Meaning: Religious Beliefs and Values.  Here are some of Arnett’s research findings:

  • This group falls into 4 categories: agnostic/atheist 22%; deist 28%; liberal believer 27%; conservative believer 23%.
  • 58% said their religious beliefs were Very Important or Quite Important.
  • 79% believe a higher power watches over them and guides their lives.
  • Only 25% think attending religious services is Very Important or Quite Important; 42% said Not Important at all.

Other observations I found interesting included:

  • Several students believe that God is like ‘The Force’ in Star Wars.
  • Disillusioning or bad church experiences result in anger, resentment, or hostility toward religion.
  • Emerging adults tend to “personalize” their own religious views by combining or borrowing from other religions or spirituality traditions.

But I found most disturbing this statement describing the correlation between childhood religious training and the current beliefs of emerging adults:

“In statistical analyses, there was no relationship between exposure to religious training in childhood and any aspect of their religious beliefs as emerging adults — not to the current classification as agnostic/atheist, deist, liberal believer, or conservative believer; not to their current attendance at religious services; or the importance of religious beliefs, or the importance of religion in their everyday lives; not the their belief that God or a higher power guides their lives or to the certainty of their religious beliefs in emerging adulthood.”  p. 174

In other words, childhood religious training appears to have no bearing on religious beliefs or practice when teens reach the emerging adult ages of 18-29.

Reading this book, after reading Lost and Found by Stetzer, Stanley and Hayes, I found Arnett’s book to be more disturbing, and wondered if Stetzer’s book is too optimistic about the success of existing churches with this group of emerging — Stetzer calls them ‘younger’ — adults.

Emerging Adulthood is published by Oxford University Press, and is intended for use as a textbook, but is highly readable, and not geared just to academics.  Churches seeking to engage emerging adults would benefit from reading and discussing Emerging Adulthood before attempting ministry to this age group.

6 thoughts on “‘Emerging Adult’ new term for 20-somethings”

  1. Just reading your synopsis of the book is enough to make me depressed about those around me. It’s one thing to look in on the youth and see this, but quite another to live amongst them everyday and see this happening and not know what to do.

    In all honestly, I wonder how I, a twentysomething Christian, turned out how I did. I am not part of the 22% agnostic/atheist, 28% deist, 27% liberal or the 23% conservative. I am a moderate orthodox Christian who is a part of 25% of those who believe attending church is important and who doesn’t believe in cafeteria Christianity (pick & choose beliefs). So what happened? Am I just an anomaly amongst the emerging adults?

  2. Informative and disturbing results here. Does Arnett examine anything at all that looks at young adults adopting any of the views of a positive role model (parent, pastor, teacher, etc.)? In other words, if formal (or informal) training appears to have little effect, then what effect does mentoring or the like have?

  3. Jason, thanks. Arnett does say that within each of these 4 categories there is diversity, and that all do not fit neatly into one profile. You, of course, would be the exception, and somewhat of an anamoly. But then committed followers of Christ are somewhat of an anamoly in the greater culture, too.

  4. Bryon, Arnett says there is no correlation between childhood training and current beliefs or religious practice. But, he goes on to state that it is at this point in life that emerging adults take on their own belief systems, and I would think that there are outside influences, including mentors, who would influence their spiritual formation.

  5. I am a 23 year old former Southern Baptist who now identifies herself as agnostic. I found your blog while searching Google for link about “agnosticism for 20 somethings.” I identify myself as agnostic because I do not have enough firm evidence one way or the other. If I said I was an atheist, that seems no different to me than to proclaim that I was a believer in God.

    It’s not that people my age aren’t interested in religion. For me, it is more that as I entered the late teenage years and developed the ability to differentiate my own beliefs from those imparted to me through cultural transmission by my parents that I struggled with the discrepancies of logic that I found in organized religion.

    People in my generation have been raised to question everything and ask for hard scientific and anthropological evidence, including religion. This is a good thing, because those who find religion and develop faith have hopefully come to those conclusions through careful study and investigation of the theology and evidence. Those who are born into a religious philosophy and never question it act merely as sheep following the heard.

    I have a deep respect for people with strong religious faith. As an inquisitive human being, I do at times wish that I could find a belief system that worked for me. However, I struggle with religious people and organizations who immediately hear my lack of faith in a higher power and write me off as a “sinner” or someone who needs to be “saved.” I am merely trying to find a faith that I can see solid logic in, so when religious people present their arguments with “the essence of faith is not knowing, not having hard evidence,” I am naturally suspicious given my academic and scientific background of investigation and questioning. If a given religion is truly the correct path to dedicate my life to, shouldn’t it be willing and welcoming of a few serious questions first without bristling to the “insult” of examination?

    I believe people of my generation also struggle with the audacity of certain religious groups which espouse a belief that they, and their practices, are the only absolute way to do things and towards reward in the afterlife (assuming there will be one). My generation has been raised in a culture rich with technology and travel, which have allowed us to connect with people from across the globe since childhood. We have grown up knowing that we must work with people with differing cultural and religious backgrounds in order to function adequately in our modern society. So when we are presented with a form of religion that claims to be the one and only way to salvation and redemption, with assertions that all practitioners of other belief systems are doomed to suffer an eternity in hell, it is only natural that this sounds narrow-minded and arrogant to us.

    I hope this sheds some light on this topic for you, from someone on the outside looking in. For a more light-hearted look at my questioning about the origin of religion in our world, you might enjoy watching the movie “The Invention of Lying” with Rickie Gervais, 2009.

  6. Sarah, thanks for your well presented comment. I think you have hit on a couple of issues that we who have committed our lives to faith and faith communities need to be aware of. First is the intolerance faith groups, and members of them, often exhibit to those not like them. People of faith, of course, are not the only ones to do this, but when you claim adherence to a religion of peace and love, intolerance seems kind of incongruous to me. Intolerance also extends to other cultures, and a serious problem the religious right has is the association of American culture with their version of Christianity. God and country, or at least their version of it.

    Secondly, and this is a valid point too, we’re often not very good with seekers — people looking for answers. Evangelical Christianity in particular seems to want others to “buy in” quickly because that’s what they’re supposed to do according to a lot of really bad thinking.

    God, much less any religious commitment to God, is not going to be damaged by close examination. So, I welcome the skepticism of your generation. My encouragement to you would be to continue to explore. If you have not done so, I would recommend a book I am just finishing — Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul. Moore is a Christian (former Catholic monk), but writes from a broad perspective of psychology, history, and spirituality. He is unapologetically spiritual, and you might find some of his insights interesting.

    You sound like a capable and intelligent young woman who is honest in her search, and dissatisfied with the responses you have received so far from the faith community. The responses and attitudes you have a problem with are also problems for many of us in religious faith, so you’re not alone in that regard.

    I trust that you will continue your quest in this area. I’m quite a bit older than you, but find the journey to be interesting and full of surprises after all these years. All the best in your journey, and drop in again when you have the time. — Chuck

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