New Data on the Growing Distance Between Youth and Adulthood
The New York Times ran a fascinating article yesterday entitled “The Long Road to Adulthood Is Growing Even Longer” by Patricia Cohen.* The article reinforces a growing body of research, much of which I wrote about in Life Quest: Braving Adulthood with Biblical Passion. The point is, the twenty and thirty-something generations are increasingly choosing to postpone the decisions and responsibilities of adult life, choosing rather to stay in a perpetual state of limbo—between youth and adulthood. They are taking longer to finished education, begin a family, and become independent.
The most interesting stats in the article were as follows: The median age for marriage is now 27 for men, 26 for women. It was 23 in 1980. Today, 40% of all births are to unwed mothers. That’s a massive shift from 28% in 1990. Parents are now spending more on their kids in their twenties than when they were teens. The average parent spends 10% of their income on their “twenty-something” children. One fourth of 25-year-old men live at home with their parents. That’s up from less than one eighth in 1970.
The article emphasized that marriage and parenthood are now viewed as lifestyle choices rather than a normal part of adulthood. The last statement of the article said that our thought that people enter adulthood in their late teens and early twenties is an “archaic idea.”
Biblically, I believe we should do everything within our power to encourage young adults to resist a trend toward immaturity and irresponsibility. Avoiding responsibility is destructive to life. Practically speaking, however, this trend is a reality in today’s culture, and it’s not all spiritually driven. There are many societal forces that make the transition to adulthood more difficult than it has ever been. The cost of living, the expense of a college education, the information age, and the economic challenges of our day all tend toward the postponement of adulthood.
If you are reaching young adults with the Gospel, this is their reality. This is their “normal.” On one hand we should encourage Christian young adults to resist the trends, but in a very real sense the world in which they live and work thinks very differently. When we reach young adults with the Gospel, their social and cultural philosophies are already deeply ingrained with this thinking.
From my perspective the dangerous aspects of the trends are not necessarily that more young adults are single, living at home, taking longer to be educated, or still having financial help. But rather it is the “why” behind these decisions. In some ways, these things may be unavoidable in today’s climate, and driven by circumstances beyond our control. God’s call and purpose may not always include a spouse, a family, a place of your own, or early financial independence. The real danger lies in avoiding purpose, responsibility, and direction. The real loss is when young adults waste a decade or two in folly rather than focusing on living God’s will and fulfilling His call.
Let’s face it, apart from Christ, secular adulthood, with its wreckage and hopelessness, is less than inviting. It’s something to avoid as long as possible. It’s much more attractive and appealing to stay uncommitted and indecisive—unfettered by adulthood’s weighty responsibilities. I would be indecisive too if so many of my options appeared to lead to hopelessness!
In today’s climate, more young adults simply don’t like their odds when they look at the generation who has gone before them. Too many adult decisions obviously result in failure and despair—so it appears easier not to make them. Many are simply choosing the path that appears to have the least risk, and avoiding the vulnerability that big commitments bring.
The painkillers of life are also attractive—alcohol, drugs, partying, illicit sex, etc. All of these things provide a temporary escape from the steady, dull ache of a meaningless life. Life in Christ is quite the contrary. It is purposeful, joy-filled, and abundant. Life in Christ is not something to escape from, curse about, dread, or avoid.
This past week at a College and Career fellowship we had a lengthy group discussion about the ridicule that Christians receive from co-workers for the things they don’t do—like cursing, drinking, drugs, parties, and sex. I said to the group, “No wonder the world needs these things. I would too if I wasn’t saved! Without Christ, life would be worth cursing about. Life would plainly stink! Life without Christ would require some painkillers and escape. Alcohol, sex, drugs, and parties would be the only hope for temporary relief from the pointlessness and emptiness. What a joy it is to know Christ, to know abundant life. Because of Him, I don’t need to escape my life.”
What does the research show us? Hope for the Gospel! It shows us that young adults are searching for answers in a world that provides none. This is a fantastic platform for the God’s Word! Twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings are prime candidates for the hope, joy, and success that Christ can bring!
As for Christians, we may not be able to rush their education, speed up their dating, or move them quickly to financial independence. But we can challenge them biblically to embrace God’s call and to live purposefully, responsibly, and passionately for Him. That commitment will rightfully lead to all the other right commitments in God’s time.
*Patricia Cohen, “Long Road to Adulthood Is Growing Even Longer,” The New York Times, June 12, 2010, sec. U.S., https://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/13/us/13generations.html.
Note: The article also had some interesting links to research related to transitioning into adulthood, and some links to related articles that would be helpful to someone in young adult ministry.