Why young adults are emerging into adulthood without a moral compass
Lost in Transition:
The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood” (Oxford University Press, $27.95)

For those tempted to see the young men and women occupying Wall Street and Main Streets from coast to coast as harbingers of a new era of political engagement by the young, Christian Smith’s newest book, “Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood” (Oxford University Press, $27.95) has a message for you: Don’t believe everything you see on TV. 

During the summer of 2008, Smith, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, along with a group of researchers, fanned out across the country to conduct a series of in-depth interviews with young adults between the ages of 18 and 23 on everything from political involvement to sexual behavior and decision-making. They spent the next three years compiling the data, as well as attempting to make sense of what they found. And what they found is less than good. 

For example, despite the large crowds of young people television cameras have recently captured protesting corporate greed, a mere 4 percent of the young people Smith and company interviewed can be described as politically engaged. Sixty-nine percent, on the other hand, could be termed “apolitical.” The results are equally grim when it comes to morality, sexuality and even emerging adults’ conception of “the good life,” with nearly two-thirds directly linking their personal happiness to their personal wealth. 

Recently, Our Sunday Visitor interviewed Smith about his findings and what they mean for the culture as a whole. 

Our Sunday Visitor: What is the “script” contemporary culture is giving to emerging adults? How is the culture, directly or indirectly, telling them that they should live? And to what extent are emerging adults living according to that script? 

Christian Smith: The cultural script of emerging adulthood is that people in their 20s should delay settling down into real, full adulthood. The script says to hold off on marriage until the late 20s, not have children till later, remain a student for many years, and explore various career options before deciding what job to settle into. Emerging adults in their 20s are supposed to be preparing for financially successful futures and having fun in the meantime. That may involve partying, hooking up, “going crazy,” and just enjoying all the freedom and opportunities of youth. 

OSV: How do most merging adults define “the good life”? What do they tend to leave out of that definition, and why is that a problem? 

Smith: For most emerging adults, “the good life” is focused on material prosperity and financial security. Most want secure jobs, big incomes, whatever consumer purchases they desire, vacations, leisure, and abundance for themselves and their future families. 

What is left out are visions of the good that involve the transcendent, the spiritual, faith, community, the common good or an environmentally sustainable world. 

OSV: Of the trends or problems you discovered, what did you find the most troubling? Was there one that has more ramifications than others or that is connected to other trends and problems you highlight? 

Smith: The widespread lack of emerging adults’ ability to engage in even simple moral reasoning was quite troubling. Most emerging adults do have subjective moral sensibilities and intuitions. But few are able to reflect on them, to think through more deliberatively what is right and wrong, good and bad, and why. That lack of explicit moral compass seems to me to underlie a lot of the other problems observed in the book.

OSV: In the book you draw a connection between civil disengagement and social media. Could you explain that connection? 

Smith: When “community” becomes increasingly defined as the collection of online “friends” on Facebook, the idea of a real, material, flesh-and-blood, geographically located community is marginalized. Social media enables people to pick and choose their networks in a virtual context, to present less-than-fully-real versions of themselves to others, to interact in blips and blurbs 24/7. But that form of social relations is very different from what we have, since Aristotle, traditionally meant by friends, community, and public life. My suspicion is that the virtual world is corroding the real world in these ways. 

OSV: You also drew a fascinating connection between binge drinking/intoxication and consumerism. Could you explain that connection? 

Smith: The compulsion to get intoxicated and mass-consumer materialism are connected, we think, in that both become, in a society like ours, forms of addiction and distraction. Americans can be addicted not only to things like drugs and alcohol but also to shopping, entertainment and the consumption and discarding of material products. Beneath all of it, it seems to us, is a kind of desperate, though not necessarily recognized or conscious, sense of empty boredom, meaninglessness and spiritual vacuity. 

OSV: How, as adults and as a culture, are we failing today’s emerging adults? 

Smith: The implications of our book suggest that American adults and American culture are failing to engage emerging adults and teach and model for them moral reasoning skills, visions of a good life that transcends material consumption and immediate bodily pleasures, and the value and importance of participation in public life for the common good. There is a failure to model and inculcate a sense of moral bearings, responsibility for others, and the making of a life and a self through commitments and promises. The responsibility ultimately comes back to our larger culture and society into which emerging adults are being very well socialized. They are not different from mainstream American society, they simply reflect back to us what our basic adult values, practices, and commitments are. 

OSV: What do you fear might be the long-term consequences of the dominant trends you highlight in your book, both for the individuals involved and the culture? 

Smith: Even in the short run, there is already plenty of confusion, grief and aimlessness in emerging adult life. It is not all freedom and happiness. There is ample turmoil and suffering for many. The longer-term consequences are anyone’s guess, but it seems to me that the “ideal” emerging adult lifestyle is not much preparing youth for moral integrity in a challenging world, success in marriage, responsibility and sacrifice, democratic citizenship, or ability to deal with others and difference in difficult situations in a pluralistic world. It is hard for me to see how a world power can continue its merry way when its culture is centered on material comfort, individualistic self-satisfaction, addictions of various sorts and moral relativism. 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.