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Emerging adulthood: a new stage on the journey?

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emerging-titleWhen did you arrive as an adult? What experiences or accomplishments indicated that you had finally become one? What are the actual transition points between childhood, adolescence, and adulthood?

If you find yourself hesitating as you consider these questions, you are bearing witness to the fact that growing up is an ambiguous process. When we’re young, the distance between childhood and adulthood seems immense – a wide chasm to be crossed at some point in the impossibly distant future. When we’ve “arrived,” we may wonder why we were in such a hurry to get to a destination that seems so complicated. Indeed, many of us wonder if “adult” will ever be a category that will fit us as comfortably as it seems to fit others.

Grow up already!

Recently there has been a groundswell of concern that the journey to adulthood is changing. This often centres around the simple observation that it seems to be taking an awfully long time. Parents are financially “on the hook” for their children well beyond high school graduation. Twenty-five year-old university graduates are moving back into their parents’ basements. Young people are forgoing marriage in unprecedented numbers.¹ Many who do marry are delaying tying the knot and having children until well into their 30s. Some are putting off education or career commitments to travel. Others seem content to work dead-end jobs in order to finance more pressing interests.

A recent, much-discussed New York Times Magazine article pointedly posed the question many are asking: “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” Other headlines such as “Slacking as Self-Discovery” and “Children Who Won’t Grow Up” along with books such as Not Quite Adults, The Death of the Grown-up, and Arrested Adulthood have all noted a growing sense of unease regarding how (or whether!) young people are progressing satisfactorily toward adulthood.

According to U.S. developmental psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, author of Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road From the Late Teens Through the Twenties, these conversations are evidence of a new stage called “emerging adulthood”²  between adolescence and adulthood. Arnett suggests this stage is characterized by a unique flexibility and freedom to explore identity, vocation, and worldview questions in the context of ever-increasing freedom and minimal responsibility. Whether emerging adulthood is a legitimate stage in human development is widely debated. Many critics see it as nothing more than a “delayed adolescence” enabled by Western affluence and misguided notions of entitlement. But what is undeniable is that the term “emerging adulthood” has captured something of the contemporary experience of the transition to adulthood for those who are in the middle of it.

There are a number of possible explanations for the “emergence” of emerging adulthood. Many observers have noted the declining significance of objective “social markers” such as leaving home, getting married, or establishing a career as signifiers of entrance into adulthood. These social markers have obviously not vanished, but we can no longer assume an orderly progression between them. The net result is that the definition of adulthood has become “psychologized” and individuals feel responsible to decide for themselves, based on subjective criteria, when they feel that they have reached adulthood. Adulthood, it seems, may be nothing more than a state of mind.

Growing up in faith?

Just as many people are asking big questions in the area of human development, so too in the area of faith development. Indeed, one of the more troubling aspects of Arnett’s research has to do with religious patterns during emerging adulthood, specifically the trend toward disengagement from inherited faith. This pattern is evident in the dwindling number of twentysomethings in many North American churches. According to the 2009 American Religious Identification Survey, nearly a quarter of 18–29 year-olds now identify with the “no religion” category. What is more, the vast majority of these self-identified “nones” seem to have come from religious homes.

Admittedly, statistics like these can be easily manipulated into alarmist conclusions, and there is some evidence to suggest those who leave the church in their 20s may return in their 30s. Still, the trend is worrying. “Evidently,” Arnett concludes, “something changes between adolescence and emerging adulthood that dissolves the link between the religious beliefs of parents and the beliefs of their children.”

The explanations for this disengagement vary but many point to the way individuality and self-determination have become markers of adulthood. For many, it seems, becoming an adult means demonstrating a level of independence or distance from the relationships and contexts that have shaped them. Arnett writes, “For most emerging adults, simply to accept what their parents have taught them about religion and carry on the same religious tradition as their parents would represent a kind of failure, an abdication of their responsibility to think for themselves, become independent from their parents, and decide on their beliefs.”

It seems unlikely emerging adulthood represents a widespread developmental “crisis of faith,” although this is undoubtedly the experience of some. Instead, it seems the religious patterns of childhood and adolescence are among the first “renegotiations” that take place as young people decide which aspects of their inheritance will define them as adults.

A needed reminder

So what does all this mean? What are the implications for parents, youth workers, teachers, mentors, or others who work with people at this stage of life?

The first thing to recognize is that, for those in the middle of it, emerging adulthood is experienced as a mixed blessing. The freedom to make independent choices and chart a unique life course  is exhilarating. But the heavy task of defining oneself in the absence of clear boundaries and expectations can also produce profound anxiety and uncertainty. There is a common assumption that any difficulties or delays encountered along the path to adulthood come from the “slacker mentality” emerging adults are often accused of having. It’s easy to forget just how disorienting these years can be, especially in light of the collapse of consensus around what adulthood actually entails.

In the midst of all of this instability, it seems today’s emerging adults need the freedom to explore, experiment, and make meaningful decisions, along with enough guidance and direction to navigate that freedom well. In the area of faith, there is a clear need for emerging adults to engage in a process of clarifying and ultimately owning convictions. To be sure, this process doesn’t come naturally; it involves skills that need to be cultivated and encouraged. It will always be easier to borrow from a certain authority or tradition without doing the hard work of appropriating that wisdom for oneself. But if the goal is an enduring faith, emerging adults must be given the space to investigate, ask questions, and arrive at conclusions for themselves.

Yet these trends can also be heard as a plea for community. While the portrait of emerging adulthood can look overwhelmingly individualistic, it often masks a deeper need for communities that will provide the role models, boundaries, and freedom to enable healthier development in life and in faith. We as a church must ask ourselves whether we know what it means to grow up as disciples of Jesus Christ. Can we echo the words of the apostle Paul, who pointed ahead in eager anticipation of the time when “we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13)?

Here, we see Jesus not only as Saviour but also as exemplar, the model of a life lived in communion with God and the service of others, the very goal of our development as children of God. So if our culture is confused about what the end goal of human development ought to look like, we as a church ought to be clearer. In the absence of consensus (or even conversation) about these questions within the church, we run the risk that emerging adults will absorb the answers uncritically from other sources.

Finally, it should be noted that these are not new problems or questions since each generation has been – and will be – called to pass the faith on to the next. This has always been done in the hope that somehow that faith will come to life, that the child who inherits a belief in Jesus Christ will become the adult that loves him and commits to following him. Perhaps the current conversation around the religious implications of emerging adulthood can serve as a reminder of this aspect of our calling.

–Gil Dueck is instructor in theology at Bethany College, Hepburn, Sask. This is a reworked version of a paper he presented at Renewing Identity and Mission during last year’s 150th anniversary event Celebration 2010 in B.C. A version will also appear in a volume of RIM presentations published by Kindred Productions, late 2011.


1. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, married couples now make up less than half of American households. By way of contrast, in 1950, 78 percent of American households were married couples.

2. The concept of emerging adulthood has arisen from the disciplines of developmental psychology and sociology and is unrelated to the “emerging church” conversation.

Read more on this subject

→Consuming youth

→I’m sticking to church

→Peeling back the truth about youth and the church

→Why don’t young adults go to church?

Updated Feb. 10, 2014: links added.

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