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.

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One Thing We Can All Agree On

You most likely saw social media publicity of the Kony 2012 video campaign. One of the main posters to promote the campaign has an overlapping republican elephant and a democratic donkey with an olive branch between them and the phrase “ONE THING WE CAN ALL AGREE ON” at the bottom.

The matter of Joseph Kony and the child soldiers and other atrocities in Africa and around the world are not really a particularly political issue. The poster works so well precisely because the elephant and donkey do not really belong on it. We feel that we can breath so much more easily when there is finally something on which we can all agree. Certainly you have had the experience of talking with someone whose political, religious, or philosophical views are starkly different from your own. When the topic of conversation becomes too divisive we are quick to use the pressure valve of the weather or sports or anything innocuous. But we might also try to have a conversation about things of great meaning by finding a common moral ground talking about vague things such as love or functional society or something without any real definition. We might dissolve a politically nuanced matter with a statement like, “I just think we should help the poor,” and thus erase all real substance of a conversation by thinking we have arrived safely at the heart of the matter.

The Kony 2012 poster taps into this mentality. It upholds an issue and takes it as a matter of course that we can all agree that Kony is doing wrong and must be stopped. The young people today are hungry to feel that they have fought for social justice and pushed the 21st century world toward the inevitable progress we have promised ourselves. Western youth yearn for harmony and peace in the social discourse and feel that while there are so many divisive issues it is so refreshing to settle on one which everyone would find agreeable. We feel no qualms about posting things about the Kony video; in fact we feel excellent.

A team interviewed young adults for the book Lost in Transition: the dark side of emerging adulthood (Oxford, 2011) and asked them questions about their moral reasoning. They found that 40% said that they primarily decide on what to do morally based on what will make them happy and one in ten would do what would help them get ahead (p. 51).

In his book Terror in the Mind of God (University of California Press, 2000) Mark Juergensmeyer wrote of his interview with convicted terrorist Mahmud Abouhalima in the United States Penitentiary in Lompoc, California. Juergensmeyer said that Abouhalima “challenged our dedication to the virtue of tolerance when we have been unwilling to tolerate religious enthusiasts such as himself” (p. 245). Mr. Abouhalima is exactly correct.

Joseph Kony and his ilk may not think that what they are doing is wrong at all. It might make them rather happy. It might be their best means of surviving and “getting ahead”. In fact those who would say that morality is based on such things or that it is all really just relative in the end have no basis to call what Kony is doing wrong, yet they are the same young adults who feel so reassured that nobody would disagree with stopping him. There really may not be something on which we can all agree, after all. To the moral relativist who says that the right thing to do is what you desire to do, Kony ought to hold a place of honor as one of the few men brave enough to actually take that idea and run with it.

The Christian community has an enormous opportunity with the young adults today. Somewhere in them they know something of what is right and they hunger to be a part of establishing justice for the oppressed. As Christians we can offer them someone in whom they find their place: one of submission to a law of love and of value imparted by the lover. We offer a fixed standard, a person to whom we can belong both in obedient service to the one who defines justice and in a fixed and committed relationship with the one who invented faithfulness. We can offer the one who makes people valuable and who values them alongside his own son. Let us look to meet the needs not only of the oppressed but also of the groaning hearts of those who seek to rescue them.