Book Review: Lost in Transition: the dark side of emerging adulthood

lost in transition 2Christian Smith’s Lost in Transition: the dark side of emerging adulthood (Oxford, 2011 $27.95) is a refreshingly well-researched take on the current culture of young adults, using real interviews to expose rather than sloppy conjecture to complain.

Smith, a sociology professor at Notre Dame, and his co-authors interviewed hundreds of people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-three and recorded many of their answers to questions on five topics: morality, consumerism, intoxication, sexuality, and civic and political involvement.

For the person who works with young adults or who has one that they care about this book is an excellent way to better understand their world. It deftly sifts through cultural assumptions about “kids these days” and exposes the cultural realities about which we thought we new. For anyone who likes to attach hard statistics to what are usually foggy general notions this is the right book.

In terms of the angle of the writing the book pushes toward the thesis that there is a set of alarming trends among what it dubs “emerging adults”. In each category of interview questions it reveals a lack of direction in thought and standards and penetrates into the often self-centered motives behind the lives of emerging adults.

From a philosophical perspective the first chapter alone is worth buying the book for. This is the only non-religious academic book I have found that pushes the conversation of morality back to the cliff of what the basis for morality is in the first place. The answers and questions illustrate with no uncertainty the lack of any coherent response by young adults and the objective need for an objective answer. The researchers have my gratitude for forcing such an important question.

It is not clear what the particular perspective of the authors is. In proper academic form they keep their personal opinions quiet, but it is clear that they are hinting toward a the need for some brand of coherent moral framework. If the book is written by Christian academics then it is an example of a sort of book almost never seen: a solidly academic work with objective research which puts the current moral culture in a skillful checkmate without resorting to knocking all the pieces off the board.  A sociological book based on actual interviews (and the Oxford name on the spine doesn’t hurt) is a valuable tool to have in order to site in a conversation of the basis for and cultural perceptions of morality that can hold the intellectual respect of secular readers. This is the sort of book I wish more Christians were trained and ready to write.

I recommend Lost in Transition to all in college ministry or who work with or simply love a college-age person.

Sick of Homework

College students are usually excited to start work on their chosen major. They’ve gone through years of mandatory classes which they would not have chosen to take in order to be able to study the topics which they prefer. For some the chosen major and degree seems to promise an exciting education, honor from others, and a sense of accomplishment. But to entrench oneself in academia is not always as fulfilling as one might hope.

When Solomon was old and had lived a life more interesting than ours will ever be he set out to write his final words to posterity. As he turned over each seemingly enjoyable and worthwhile stone in life he showed the bleak landscape of the world scoured of meaning. Each thing we might pursue in the full confidence that we can take its value as a matter of course will show itself to be sadly meaningless on its own. As Solomon comes to the conclusion of writing his work which we call “Ecclesiastes” he shows that even in the act of writing on meaninglessness he finds meaninglessness, saying, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (12:12b). When men grow old they seek an outlet for the knowledge they have stored up over a lifetime and yet even if they find one, as Solomon did, this does not give a real significance to a person. It is on this note that he concludes his book with a short and sweet admonition to obey the Lord.

There are professors who spend their entire careers learning and teaching things that serve no purpose beyond satisfying a curiosity. It is unfortunate that many students also feel that education will be worthwhile in and of itself. There is nothing outside of an obedient relationship with the Lord which can give us the significance and purpose we crave. Those pursuing an education in college will at some point be faced with the ultimate meaninglessness of the studies to which they are devoting themselves without any larger purpose.

Our college students who ask why they should be studying something are asking the right question and the question of why should lead to the answer of who when one is devoted centrally to the Lord, thus giving a proper reason and ranking to education.

Early this summer I walked to my bus stop at UC Riverside for the last time. It was the end of my last day of regular classes at college and it ended quietly, without any fanfare or triumph, and was really rather bittersweet. After years of acclimating to the classroom I was leaving and while I was certainly relieved I was not finished.

As I finished school at an older age than the typical graduate the Lord began to show me a need to enter college and young adult ministry in order to prepare students for what they will face in the secular classroom and to integrate them into a church where they will have the opportunity to grow through service and through being discipled by more mature believers. One’s young adult years are a crucial transition in which one must navigate everything from finances to faith and futures from new angles.

This blog is to serve as a resource for those who find themselves confused, questioning, seeking, or stagnating and who need to delve into the deeper meanings of things . . . or who just need a good recipe involving ramen noodles.

Stop by often. New posts on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Andrew Lacasse