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Professor examines emerging adulthood

Abi Hoverman | Thursday, September 22, 2011

The problems facing today’s emerging adults reflect larger issues, according to sociology professor Christian Smith’s research published this month. These problems include a lack of moral reasoning and over-intoxication.

“The problems that these 18-23 year olds have … come from the larger adult world,” Smith said. “[They] should shine a light on all of society.”

“Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood” describes emerging adulthood, the 18-29-year-old life phase that has become increasingly distinct in recent decades.

Smith describes the common mentality among emerging adults as “I’ll grow up when I’m 30,” and “What happens in my 20’s stays in my 20’s.”

Smith and his team have surveyed a group of 18-23-year-olds, who all represent the first half of the emerging adult life period. The book describes trends found in 230 face-to-face interviews conducted across the country in 2008.

The compilation of personal accounts revealed five major problems prevalent to emerging adults, Smith said.

First, there is a general lack of moral reasoning. Many could not describe the rationality behind a moral conundrum and were unclear about their personal morality.

“When asked to explain why anyone should be moral, they

were lost at sea,” Smith said.

The interviews also revealed that mass consumerism and a lack of concern for environment were common.

“Some of it has to do with buying brands, some of it is thinking the meaning of life comes from accumulating products,” Smith said.

The interviewees had low awareness of environmental issues and were disinterested because they thought the problems would not affect them in their lifetimes, he said.

According to Smith, the third problem was the prevalence of and need for intoxication among emerging adults.

“Why is it that a good chunk of young people … can’t have fun without being wasted?” Smith said.

Some young adults are already addicted to drugs and alcohol, perhaps due to the alcohol industry’s positive advertising and the atmosphere on college campuses, according to Smith.

Others engage in drunk driving, experience drunken accidents, such as falling out of windows or getting into serious fights, or are unable to talk to someone without being “buzzed,” he said.

The fourth pattern Smith found was the casual sex and hook-up culture prevalent today.

“This is not everything it’s cracked up to be,” he said.

Smith contrasted dating today from the 1950’s, when high school graduates would settle down soon after high school.

The once clearly defined rules for dating, courtship, engagement and marriage have broken down, Smith said.

“If you want to get married, it’s more confusing,” he said.

“That leads to a 5-year delay on marriage. People are cohabitating, the rules are different.”

The public rarely acknowledges the damaging effects of this casual sexual culture, including STDs, rape, unintended pregnancy, emotionally damaging breakups and abortions, because of their shameful nature, Smith said.

“The reality is that maybe 40 percent of 18-23-year-olds suffer,” he said.

Smith described the fifth problem as civic and political detachment.

Emerging adults today do not volunteer or get involved in their communities. They have grown up in a political environment of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the recession and multiple incidents of lying, including the Monica Lewinsky affair and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, according to Smith.

“Young people look up and see all of these leaders who are not trustworthy,” he said.

As a result, Smith asserted emerging adults believe they can do nothing about the course of the country and turn inward, believing instead they have control over their personal lives.

“They think, ‘I can’t do anything about that, but I’m going to have a happy life, ‘” Smith said.

Smith plans to do another data collection with the same group of emerging adults when they are 24-29-years-old to learn about the second half of the life period.

Until then, Smith hopes the book will create awareness and questioning of an American culture that has caused these problems for emerging adults.

“I want to get our society talking about these things and then working on them,” he said.