The world of adolescence
The best days of their lives?
What drives the young
Sep 17th 2011 | from the print edition
Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood.
CHRISTIAN SMITH is a well-known sociologist of religion. That alone may deter the more deeply secular from reading his book, “Lost in Transition”, which explores the moral map of 18- to 23-year-olds in America. This would be a shame, as it is intensely and uncomfortably thought-provoking. It deserves consideration on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly from the parents of that generation.
A note about method first. Mr Smith (a professor at the University of Notre Dame) and his co-writers have been following the emerging adults on whom this study is based since 2001, when they were just young sprats. The authors have repeatedly surveyed a “nationally representative” sample of over 3,000 and personally interviewed a smaller number. This book relies primarily on intensive interviews in 2008 with 230 of the original group, many of them then in college or university.
Mr Smith starts from the observation, which few would dispute, that adolescents are slower to emerge into adulthood these days: they study for longer, they depend on their parents for longer and they marry later, if at all. The world of real work they eventually enter is not the world of stable, long-term jobs that previous generations knew. During that long transition they have unprecedented freedom—from unwanted childbearing, for example—and no particular reason to rush into commitments of any sort. Moral boundaries are less clear than they were; many young adults have been taught not just to tolerate other people’s views and behaviour but to see them all as equally valid.