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The Kids Aren't All Right: Christian Smith's Lost in Transition

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The Kids Aren't All Right

A report on "the dark side of emerging adulthood."

The sequel to youthful rebellion against one's elders is often a quieter rite of passage that comes later, when you start shaking your head about "kids these days." Perhaps a measure of this is rooted in fear that future caretakers may not treat our elderly selves according to the same values we hold. But other times you wonder, Are they doing OK? Have they known true joy?

For the past decade, sociologist Christian Smith has been seeking answers to questions like that in a combination of national surveys and in-depth interviews called the National Study of Youth and Religion. While the project isn't quite a U.S. version of Britain's "Up" series, Smith and his fellow researchers have endeavored to interview the same group over time, following their development from adolescence to adulthood. They have chronicled this research in 2005's Soul Searching (Smith with Melinda Denton) and 2009's Souls in Transition (Smith with Patricia Snell).

But for the latest book in the series, 2011's Lost in Transition, Smith et al. examine what they call the "dark side" of emerging adulthood. In chapters focused on morality, consumerism, alcohol and drug use, sex, and civic and political participation, the authors argue that their study of 18- to 23-year-olds reveals a generation that lacks moral reasoning skills, highly values consumption of material goods, frequently abuses alcohol and other substances, has found much pain in sexual "freedom," and is largely apathetic about social engagement beyond immediate relationships.

The book combines reportage and assessment, and the authors make no apology for it. They do, however, explain their somewhat unusual approach by arguing that even seemingly objective research "depends not on 'value neutrality' but on its opposite, on value commitments to truth, scientific integrity, accountability, and so on" (their emphases). In both the acknowledgement of researchers' viewpoints and the defense of truth's possibility, theirs is a refreshing and admirable stance. But the authors' delineation of their viewpoint falls short in one critical area: human nature.

In their desire to take seriously what they see as real problems, Smith et al. decline to compare their findings with research on previous generations. As they explain: "If something one thinks is a problem is happening in the present, it may help to put it into historical perspective. But … in the end what matters is whether or not something problematic is happening now and how to respond to it." Initially, this sounds persuasive, especially in the context of a section evaluating two typical but flawed responses to reports about "kids today." Yet the authors state from the outset that they are more interested in why today's youth have some of the problems they do than whether such troubles have changed over time. It is not possible to answer that question without assessing both the circumstances and nature of the subject. Is struggling to form healthy relationships something new (and therefore more attributable to circumstances), or is it something humans have struggled with in varied ways, across generations and cultures (and therefore more an issue of our nature)?

In their conclusion, the authors underscore a statement by Christopher Lasch:

There is only one cure for the malady that afflicts our culture, and that is to speak the truth about it. Once we can bring ourselves to do that, it will be time to worry about "constructive solutions" … for our young—discussions of which, so long as they are so absurdly premature, serve only to distract our attention from the truth about ourselves.

Yet without balancing their consideration of "the good" with an equally thorough look at human nature, Smith and his colleagues risk lapsing into some of the shortsighted analysis they would avoid—singling out systemic forces like mass advertising, for instance, when individual human selfishness and what some would call our fallen nature also play a role, in both the production and consumption of ads. It's hard to discuss "the good"—especially distinctions between the merely healthy and the ideal—without also grappling with humans' capacity to achieve it.

Another analytical problem is created by the book's thematic division, which makes it difficult to identify any possible correlations. Occasional remarks link chapters ("Partiers are particularly vague, open, and unclear about moral standards in general"), but mostly the book reads like five separate studies. And useful demographic data they did collect—on education, for example—is largely kept out of relevant discussions, like the chapter on morality. Though Smith and his colleagues are generally thoughtful in their analysis, several of the questions asked to assess subjects' morality were framed in fairly abstract terms, with multivalent words like "morality" undefined (a parallel in my field of training, religious studies, is the problem of asking someone if they're "religious"). Though there were some questions about specific scenarios, it seems possible the authors' findings are partly a comment on the subjects' abstract thinking skills and not just their value systems per se. Unfortunately, it is difficult to discern if this is correlated with any other trends, such as schooling, number of books read, hours of TV watched per week, that would help distinguish between problems in intellectual training generally and moral education more specifically. Clearly the interviews were quite long already, but it seems at least some demographic details could have been covered in a few additional questions.

These shortcomings notwithstanding, Smith and his co-authors have made an important contribution to our understanding of emerging adults and the challenges they face. Consider the chapter on sexuality, which chronicles the frequent pain and emotional devastation experienced by those encouraged to share their bodies early and freely, with little guidance on healthy boundaries. The defense of sexual freedom often works to suppress any findings that in fact such liberty can be damaging, yet the authors report that "for a significant number of emerging adults—especially but not exclusively women—sexual freedom is accompanied by real hurt, confusion, grief, anger, and regrets." Let's hope that their work will pave the way for a more honest, unflinching look at the fruits of "freedom."

Christians reading Lost in Transition may be tempted to dismiss the book as a chronicle of secular woes. But that would be to miss much of the story. Despite the lack of corresponding demographic data that might sketch how faith does or does not line up with certain behaviors, the book paints a portrait of religious youth who are often just as confused and "lost" as more-secular peers. In one of the more striking interviews in the chapter on sex, the authors describe a young man who clearly articulates that sex outside marriage is wrong yet describes a self-centered life of non-committal sexual liaisons completely at odds with what he supposedly believes. We need more than a change in message, if the church is producing young people whose espoused belief is "on message" yet so radically discordant from their belief in practice. (See my review of James K. A. Smith's Desiring the Kingdom for more on this.)

But churches might also respond to the book with some modest structural changes. Smith and his fellow authors note that isolation from other (and especially older) generations presents a significant problem for emerging adults, leaving them few resources capable of the mentorship and guidance they need. Churches in college or university communities might consider ways to better integrate students into their congregations—say, by augmenting the "college fellowship" with multigenerational Sunday school classes or even "adopt a student" initiatives pairing couples or families with students for occasional meals or holiday celebrations throughout the school year.

And all of us who have discovered the joys of creativity, the arts, and intrinsically rewarding work could make a point of sharing that with one or two emerging adults we know. Though Smith and his colleagues don't comment on this, the emerging adults quoted showed a striking tendency to perceive work as solely a means toward the end of acquiring more stuff. They also seemed to have a significant lack of creative experiences, especially of the arts (versus entertainment). Few of those interviewed seemed aware their hands could do more than type and text, caress another, pour drinks, or drive a car. Is it any wonder that "boredom" was frequently cited as a factor in substance abuse, and "the good life" frequently construed in narrow, materialistic terms?

In short, nearly any reader of Lost in Transition is bound to take away a sense that those of us over 23 have our work cut out for us. For some, that may be research and writing that builds on the fine foundation laid by Smith and his colleagues. For others, it may mean reassessing the advice we've given and causes we've fought for, and whether or not we're truly helping those growing up after us. And for almost all of us, Lost in Transition probably means prioritizing our relationships with at least one or two emerging adults we know.

Copyright © 2013 by Anna Broadway. This article first appeared in the January/February 2013 issue of Books and Culture.

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