Thursday, April 10, 2008

Wuthnow on twentysomething life: Young adults lack support systems

The April 2008 issue of Martin Marty's Context newsletter has this thought-provoking excerpt from Robert Wuthnow's important new book After the Baby-Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion:
"The evidence suggests overwhelmingly that young adulthood is a time when other social institutions fail to be of much help. . . . [As a culture] we provide day care centers, schools, welfare programs, and even detention centers as a kind of institutional surround-sound until young adults reach age 21, and then we provide nothing. Schooling stops for the vast majority, parents provide some financial assistance and babysitting but largely keep their distance, and even the best congregation-based youth groups or campus ministries no longer apply. Yet nearly all . . . decisions a person has to make about marriage, child-rearing, and work happen after these support systems have ceased to function.

"This is not a good way to run a society. No wonder young adults experience stress and confusion, worry that they are not yet capable of behaving like adults, delay settling down, and often make bad decisions about jobs and money. This is not a criticism of young adults themselves. They do the best they can in the absence of much assistance or support.

"We cannot hope to be a strong society if we invest resources in our young people until they are 18 or 20 and then turn them out to find their way entirely on their own. The bits and pieces of support are already there--in family networks, among groups of friends, at singles bars, in day care centers, and even in the workplace. But we have not even begun to recognize the challenges that need to be met."
Perceptive observations, and I think they ring true. This is part of the reason I went on to grad school after graduating from college - I couldn't imagine life outside an educational setting! And I was shellshocked to discover that grad school was completely different from college life, that it lacked the kind of community and relationships that I had experienced in college. It wasn't until I got plugged in to a church singles group in the spring of that first school year that I really started adjusting to life after college. And I fear that too many of our peers never find that kind of community.

I wrote about this briefly in my singles book in my chapter on loneliness and solitude. Many of us experience a quarterlife crisis or what Douglas Coupland called a "mid-twenties breakdown," defined as "a period of mental collapse occurring in one's twenties, often caused by an inability to function outside of school or structured environments coupled with a realization of one's essential aloneness in the world." We typically don't fully understand or grieve the losses of exiting college because we're thrown into the "real world," and a lot of folks end up adrift, without community to help them find their way. (I wonder if the success of Facebook is partially due to a sociological need to preserve some virtual sense of collegiate community as folks navigate the real world.)

In the last lines of the above block quote, I find it telling that Wuthnow did not mention the local church in his list. Ministering to recent college graduates and twenty/thirtysomethings is both a challenge and an opportunity, especially for churches in suburban/exurban areas that have an influx of young workers. Many folks who gravitate toward nontraditional churches or leave church entirely do so out of frustration that traditional churches have little in place for young adults. We want to create viable community and support systems for them/us. But the sad thing is not merely that if the church doesn't, other things will fill the vacuum. What's even more sobering is that other social support systems aren't really there, and a whole generation may drift for years as a result.


Anonymous said...

I whole-heartedly agree with you, but I am left wondering whether it has always been this way, or what has changed over for this generation? Why do we suddenly have this disconnection and lack of support system, when it used to be in place?

Chris Bayee said...

A friend e-mailed me a copy of your recent CT column, and after reading your blog, I wanted to respond.

You raise a good point about the church at large not having nearly the options for young adults - unless they're parents or leader-types. If you fall into any other category you run the risk of being marginalized. My wife and I have seen this over and over at churches.

However, the part about not being able to cope with the "real world" also is telling. My opinion, so take it for that, is that too many Christians are too sheltered. They get an education, but do they work during that time? Or maybe they only attend Christian functions. That's OK, but if you're in a pattern of reliance on spiritual "events" or even educational processes, it's no wonder the 20- and 30-somethings struggle. Has everything been spoon feed to this group to the point they can't build meaningful relationships on their own, can't get to know co-workers or folks in public?

I think the increasing role of social networking and gaming on the Internet is coming at the expense of face-to-face relationships and even the ability to relate to others.

Marcus Goodyear said...

Chris said, "You raise a good point about the church at large not having nearly the options for young adults - unless they're parents or leader-types."

I'm guessing that thirty years ago, most twenty-somethings were married with kids. So the church built a structure support young families.

Al Hsu said...

Thanks for commenting, folks. Chris - I think you're right about (some) Christians being overly sheltered and not being able to cope with the real world. But what struck me about reading the book Quarterlife Crisis some years ago (and Generation X before that) was that this sense of lack of community/support is experienced pretty universally, Christian or not. I think there are a lot of sociological factors contributing to this, what Robert Putnam has called the decline of social capital and such. On the one hand there's nothing new under the sun, and every generation has struggled to find their way. On the other hand, this particular generation has its own unique challenges. Some are economic, some are familial, part of it is the lengthening of adolescence . . . sociologists would say that there's no one particular item that causes a societal trend, but always a complex mix of factors that contribute to it.

Whether social networking/Facebook and the like is merely a survival/defense mechanism of sorts or a truly new form of (disembodied) community, it's probably too soon to tell, but like everything, it's a mixed bag and has its pros and cons.

Unknown said...

I think a lot of the church support levels have to do with what area you live in. In the Triangle there seem to be many churches with "post-college fellowships"/20s-30s groups that don't differentiate between grad students/non-students or single/married people. For churches without such an obvious and immediate need, though, I think it's hard to just to take a step back and think about what could be. In my ministry experience, it's pretty easy to function in the day-to-day and only address unmet needs when they become unbearable.

elderj said...

I totally agree with you; many churches are very oriented around the married with children crowd from their worship service to the kinds of activities they sponsor. Also the increased geographical mobility of this generation makes it more difficult, not less for social support networks to be built and sustained.

Crystal Corn said...

Goodness I agree. As a single mid-twenty-something, I grieve when i see churches throw singles into the ever-popular "college and career crowd". Even the non-traditionals tend to do a "singles" small group with divorcees, single parents, college grads, and everything in the middle. I've actually been told it is "not a priority" not invest in the 20-something crowd because they/we are so non-committing. Gee, wonder why we don't stick around?