"When there is no authority in religion or in politics, men are soon frightened by the limitless independence with which they are faced. They are worried and worn out by the constant restlessness of everything." Alexis de Tocqueville observed this about 19th-century Americans and their budding instincts on freedom and religion. But he could just as well have been describing today's young adults. In a new life phase that sociologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett labeled emerging adulthood, Americans ages 18-29 enjoy more options for work, marriage, and location than perhaps any previous generation. They are also one of the most self-focused, confused, and anxious age groups, led into an "adultolescence" that prevents a majority from committing to people and institutions.
All of this, says Christian Smith—sociologist at the University of Notre Dame and director of its Center for the Study of Religion and Society—seriously shapes emerging adult's religious beliefs and practices. His Souls in Transition (Oxford), the follow-up to his and Melinda Lundquist Denton's groundbreaking Soul Searching, suggests that the church can root emerging adults in Christ at a time when they are tempted to float away. CT associate editor Katelyn Beaty recently spoke with Smith about his findings.
What cultural shifts have produced this new life phase called emerging adulthood?
Much social transformation since the 1960s and '70s has created it. A higher proportion of American youth are spending more years in higher education. They are waiting a lot longer before they get married and have kids. That's partly related to wanting to stay in school longer. It's partly related to wanting to be "free" longer. It's also associated with things like the ...