Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties by Jeffrey Jensen

Young people are different today that young people in other generations. Young people today are similar to young people in other generations. I think that most of us can get behind one of these two premises. Arnett’s research into young adults premises the first, but often supports the second.

This is a readable and informative presentation of Arnett’s research into young adults and his advocacy of the term emerging adult as a replacement to the typical moniker of young adult. He examines emerging adults (18 – late 20’s or early 30’s) and reports on their attitudes and experiences in a variety of typical situations – work, education, family, sex, religion. Through these he attempts to paint an image of a demographic very different from this demographic 20 years ago, or 50 years ago.

Yet the issues grappled with by people in this demographic haven’t substantively changed. Who am I? How should I live? How do I find meaning? How do I get by in this world? What do I believe? Emerging adults come up with different answers but the questions remain constant. What often distinguishes them from their peers in other eras is the amount of time at their disposal for working through these issues.

If there’s a way to summarize the thread running through all of the varied responses to the core areas examined in the book (something Arnett does not do), it’s that emerging adults by and large see authority as vested in themselves. They are the ones to determine what beliefs they will or won’t accept, what behavior is appropriate, what sort of work they will or won’t do, what sort of education they do or don’t need. They see themselves, to a large degree, as individual agents and resist at almost every turn any attempt by family, work, or society in general to dictate their behavior.

This is a very real challenge for those who seek to work with, minister to, or relate to emerging adults. Emerging adults are often convinced that they hold (or should hold) all the necessary answers and simply need to discover them. They often fail to see that the possible options for those answers are all external to themselves, and that they will still end up choosing or creating their own unique solution from pre-defined possibilities. You can have the most eclectic playlist on your iPod, but you’re still choosing from music that somebody else created and provided to you in one way or another.

Attitudes about sex and religion are not likely to surprise people who work with young adults, as these are areas where our culture has very persistently hammered out the drumbeat that you must make up your own rules and your own mind about these things, and nobody has the right to tell you otherwise. Marriage is seen as something they must be fully formed and shaped for, rather than something integral to forming and shaping them. Sex is by and large seen as a personal matter dictated more by rules of health and safety rather than moral and ethical implications. Religion remains of intense interest to emerging adults, but they are more likely to want to craft their beliefs into a personal ethos rather than seeing themselves as a faithful adherent in a long history of faith and action.

Arnett often focuses on emerging adults from highly dysfunctional family backgrounds, particularly in the four case studies he provides at the end of the book. I’m praying that these are not typical people in their awful family experiences, and if they aren’t, I’m not sure why he would specifically skew his presentation by focusing solely on emerging adults from abusive and unhealthy families. However the case studies are rather superfluous and don’t really contribute anything substantive or even helpful. Perhaps they are intended for shock value.

If you aren’t familiar with any emerging adults personally, this book may be a shock to you. Those who work with emerging adults will probably agree with the bulk of what Arnett describes. And if you are an emerging adult, odds are very good that you’ll see yourself in many of the descriptions here. Arnett simply describes, he does not judge. This is an important thing to remember in ministering to emerging adults. Taking our cue from St. Paul among the Greeks, it would be best to focus on proclamation rather than judgement. Trust the Holy Spirit to do His work in His time and His way. What emerging adults are looking for initially is a place and people who will welcome them in and allow them the time and freedom to search and explore and measure. They view themselves very much as a work in progress, and if we expect that this work must be complete and Biblical before they are welcome in our congregations, we are going to continue to find our pews emptier and our congregant demographics skewed to the older end of the spectrum.

Don’t misunderstand – we are to be faithful in calling a spade a spade and a sin a sin and not redefining Scriptural expectations to suit our cultural tastes and preferences. However when and how – not if – the law is applied is critical. Emerging adults have been culturally trained to walk away from anyone or anyplace that does not take the time to know and appreciate them for who they are and what they have been through. The Church does a disservice to the Gospel when we insist on adherence to the Law as a condition for fellowship with emerging adults (or anyone, for that matter), rather than welcoming and loving people and allowing the Law and the Gospel to do the necessary work that only the Word of God can do.