Emerging adulthood . . . or ‘screwed generation’?

How the church should respond to single, unemployed, educated young adults

August 17, 2011 | Young Voices
Julia Thiessen | Special to Young Voices

From The New York Times to the Mennonite Brethren Herald, emerging adulthood has become a topic worthy of many printed pages and even more blog posts.

As increasing numbers of twenty- and thirty-somethings remain unmarried and without long-term employment, there seems to be a loose consensus that just as the early 20th century gave birth to the adolescent, so the 21st century has created yet another stage of life. This stage is one of great flexibility and very little responsibility, leading many to worry that mine is a whole generation of slackers.

However, a recent MacLean’s cover has called these emerging adults the “screwed generation.” This and other similar stories suggest that recent economic troubles may have shifted the finger of blame. With few jobs and prohibitive housing prices, young people simply cannot progress easily down the prescribed road to adulthood.

How is the church to respond? It is my hope that it can see this as an opportunity, rather than a problem. After all, the prescribed road to adulthood is fundamentally a way of gauging worldly success, not Christian growth. As Anabaptists, we do not grow our church through having children, and we do not build our communities only through marriage. Moreover, Mennonites have long valued unpaid overseas assignments and enriching employment over high salaries, both of which are becoming more popular in this new demographic. Perhaps the presence of emerging adults in our congregations can keep us questioning our definitions of success.

I also see potential in the particular traits and skills fostered by the emerging adult lifestyle. Unlike the writers of the above-mentioned articles, I clearly belong in this category: 28 years old, unmarried, unemployed, over-educated. For the last several years, I have not had the time commitments of family or regular employment, so, like many others my age, I have instead dedicated my time to new friends and intellectual pursuits.

Living in Toronto this past year, I have been part of a community of engaged and supportive individuals ranging in age, occupation and religious background. Such a life of diversity and flux requires receptivity and hospitality, and I believe these traits are a gift that emerging adults have to bring to the church. Also, as more and more young people pursue advanced degrees, I hope the church is able to engage us in our areas of expertise.

Of course, there are many downsides to the life of the emerging adult. The last several years of my life have also been characterized by profound loneliness, aimlessness and occasional feelings of uselessness. But this, too, presents an opportunity, for I am confident that these struggles are not unique to the emerging adult generation. We in this age group are not the only members of the congregation to be unemployed or unmarried, and I’m sure we are not the only ones who experience feelings of confusion and futility. For this reason, I hope the church does not seek to cater to the emerging adult demographic with new programs or initiatives, which could increase the isolation many young adults already feel, but instead looks for the points of continuity and similarity with other generations.

I have heard many sermons in the last year on the importance of stepping back from one’s busy life and multiple commitments, of taking time for study and prayer, but I have not heard any about having too few commitments and too much free time. I yearn for a sermon on this topic, and I imagine there may be some retired people in our congregations who would feel the same. I hope that the presence of emerging adults can draw attention to a different, but hardly novel, set of concerns.

I urge the church to embrace the vision we emerging adults have of our lives, but also to recognize the struggles that accompany such an uncharted life.

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