On “emerging adults”

July 20, 2012
Susie Guenther Loewen |

As someone in my late 20s, I don’t really consider myself a “young adult” anymore, yet I keep encountering that ambiguous label. In a recent CBC Doc Zone documentary about young adults entitled, “Generation Boomerang,” a psychologist talked about a new category that has emerged in our society in this particular generation. Whereas in our parents’ day, graduation from high school meant one had reached adulthood (hence the laws allowing 18-year-olds to vote and get married, for example), these days we think of there being an additional time, from about 18 to 25, when one is an “emerging adult”: not quite old/mature enough to take on adult responsibilities, but no longer a child. Factors like a lack of financial independence, continuing to live with one’s parents instead of setting up one’s own household, and not being ready for marriage and family responsibilities are apparently what determine whether one is an “emerging adult” or, well, an actual one. And the trend in our society is to put these supposed marks of adulthood off until later.

If my own experience in a number of Mennonite churches is any indication, it seems that we’ve enthusiastically adopted this new category, since most churches have some form of young adult program, if not a pastor dedicated to this age group. Because of concerns that youth and young adults won’t remain in the church, many churches see these extended youth-group-like programs as necessary to keep young adults engaged. So, is it working? Well, that depends how it’s done, and I would guess that there are drastic variations from one congregation to another. I also think that it’s a bit of a dangerous path to go down, especially if we don’t work through the full implications of (over)emphasizing this extra age category.

In some cases, it might be the young adults who want to continue to participate in smaller, age-specific groups much like youth – an understandable feeling, since, let’s face it, it’s pretty intimidating to make the adjustment from youth to adulthood. I also wonder, though, if young adults continue to be labeled as such primarily because their parents and other older adults in the church don’t quite want to admit that their children have truly grown up. In the documentary I saw, this was part of why young adults aren’t stepping into adult responsibilities as quickly: a lot of it had to do with what expectations are (or aren’t!) placed upon them. Parents didn’t want their newly-adult children to be overwhelmed, so they tried to protect them from challenging circumstances. Through the power of suggestion, though, this sent the message to the young adults that they aren’t ready or capable of facing such things. The question then becomes, when do young adults learn to deal with challenges and to take responsibility? While the documentary talked about 25 as the rough cut-off point for this “emerging adulthood” stage, some churches still consider 30- or 35-year-olds “young adults.” So when is the cut-off? Is it simply subjective, i.e., whenever a person feels like he or she is no longer “young”? Is it when people get married and have kids (so-called “settling down”), if they ever do? I’m sure I’m not the only one who is wondering when I’ll stop being considered a “young adult” and just be an adult.

In the church, this can translate into an assumption that young adults aren’t willing or able to participate as full members, whether or not they’re baptized. Surprisingly, some congregations see this as a way of being hospitable to young adults, since putting pressure on them to contribute (or even to attend worship regularly) is seen as a negative thing! From my own perspective, I think the opposite is true. If people are told that it doesn’t matter whether they’re in church or not, they won’t feel included – they’re more likely to feel a sense of indifference and a lack of trust in their abilities to contribute in a meaningful way. There’s a difference between putting pressure on young adults to be interested in the church, and encouraging and recognizing the existing commitment of younger adults to the church, especially those who are baptized members. Isn’t baptism, after all, what our tradition has tended to see as the main mark of adulthood and responsibility, the so-called “age of accountability”? I don’t think I’d be as involved in the church (or in the line of work I’m in) if it weren’t for the encouragement of people in my home congregation, who invited me to participate and take on responsibilities when I was still in youth. “Young adulthood” and before are actually crucial times for younger people to become more fully integrated into the life of the church - not through separate, young-adults-only, somewhat frivolous social events, but participation in the intergenerational life of the church – worship planning and leading, committee work and decision-making, etc. This sends the message that the contributions and ideas of young adults are recognized and valued, which boosts the self-confidence of young adults who may be feeling uncertain about their abilities amid all the messages about “emerging” adulthood (which at times sounds like a polite synonym for perpetual adolescence).

I realize the irony of writing about this here, on a website that is devoted to “Young Voices,” and is somewhat segregated from the rest of the Canadian Mennonite. While I’m not thrilled about the stark separation between the two websites, it’s been interesting to see the topics that have come up in the Young Voices section over this past year or so – topics which are remarkably similar to those explored in the rest of the Canadian Mennonite! I think this is a clear sign that “young adults” are already engaged in thought and discussion about many of the same (serious) issues as the rest of the church – in other words, they’re willing and able to take responsibility for a critical and mature sort of faith, in themselves and in others. So, it would seem that those generational divides that we keep hearing about, prompting us to label and separate ever-more-specific age groups in the life of the church, really aren’t as crucial as we think. After all, the church is a community in which the Spirit is poured out on both young and old (Acts 2:16-17), overcoming the barriers which threaten to divide generations in the Body of Christ.

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