Emerging Adults in Transition

Newsflash: young people do not have much money! Okay, perhaps not the most ground-breaking finding ever, but it is one of the elements of emerging culture that Christian Smith and Patricia Snell mention in their summary of the cultural world of emerging adults (ages 18-23) early on in Souls in Transition. They admit that such a summary “unavoidably oversimplifies the actual reality” (33). Yet even though all emerging adults are all different, Smith and Snell recognize there are many elements that represent the culture they share. I am not going to go through all of these for there are many in this by far longest chapter of the book. Instead I will look at a few that most directly speak to ministering on the college campus, especially those that have been confirmed in my own experience.

Emerging adults live in a world of “frequent and varied major life transitions…not a lot in life is stable or enduring. Some of what seemed to be proves unreliable or unpredictable..Changes are incessant. A lot is up in the air” (34). If you look back on your college years or your early twenties you can probably remember a life similar to this. Some of these descriptions of the cultural world of today’s young adults are not unique to their generation. Yet even in the similarities with previous generations, there are differences. Perhaps the major difference is that college has become the new high school. In the past while everyone went to high school what happened after high school varied: some went to college, many others entered the workforce. Today practically everyone goes to college and the idea of not going to college seems almost unheard of. Once only a high school diploma was necessary, now a college diploma seems necessary (with graduate school replacing college as the place some go for further education).

This has led some to conclude that 26 is the new 18 and to create a new stage in life with titles such as “Extended Adolescence“.  With numbers in college ever increasing and many continuing on into graduate school into their late twenties things like getting married and having kids (“settling down“) are postponed. Emerging adults live in a world constantly in flux: they go to college, are introduced to new worldviews, change their majors, date a few different people, make diverse friends from various backgrounds, and get jobs and move to new places. This gives them many distinct opportunities and opens the door to more transitions.

In the midst of these transitions, emerging adults are seeking to “stand on their own two feet” without the help of parents or others. Along with this, they are trying to figure out all of the “skills, tasks, responsibilities, systems, and procedures they have to learn” (35). Such elements of young people’s cultural world demonstrates why campus ministry is absolutely vital. For many emerging adults, the majority of these years will be taken up with education. During this time of education they are away from home trying to figure out who they are and how to survive in the world. As we will see later, Smith and Snell show that many of them do not make being part of a religious community a priority. While a few will seek out a church while away at college, or in a new town at their first new job, most simply will not. Campus ministry goes to the campuses where these students are during this topsy-turvy time of life rather than waiting and hoping they come to us when they are twenty-five or thirty.

Finally, Smith and Snell discovered that most emerging adults are optimistic about the future. I definitely see that in many college students who believe if they work hard, get good grades they will get a job and a decent living one day. As they work through many transitions, seek to be independent of their parents and try to figure out the skills necessary to succeed in the world, they hold optimism for their lives.

I find this encouraging and challenging. It is encouraging working with young people because they are very optimistic and positive. The challenge is to build a Christian community they can be a part of while at college. Campus ministry fills the gap so that when these students arrive in that future they are so optimistic about a relationship with Jesus and commitment to a Christian community is a part of their life.

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