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Review: Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood

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"If we were Old Testament prophets, we might say that all nations reap what they sow, that what we have seen of emerging adult life warns us that America is reaping the fruit of having worshipped the idol of individualistic autonomy, and that since this idol is nothing more than the making of our human hands, and not the true God, it has failed us, is failing us, and will fail us for as long as we worship it . … But we are not religious prophets. We are mere sociologists. So we claim no such thing."

These words appear at the end of Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (Oxford University Press, 2011), in which Christian Smith and three of his fellow sociologists (Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, and Patricia Snell Herzog) discuss the plight of America's 18- to 23-year-olds. Having conducted extensive interviews with a scientific sampling of 230 of these "emerging adults," Smith and his colleagues summarize their findings, including:

  • Emerging adults overwhelmingly have little to no concept of morality. The sexual revolution has evolved so that "hooking up" "carries almost no connotation of audacity, daring, or wildness."
  • Intoxication with alcohol and drugs is "routine"; only 14 percent of 19-year-olds have never been drunk.
  • Materialism is dominant; almost none of those surveyed had any concept of life beyond material consumption, family, and friends.
  • Only 4 percent of emerging adults are genuinely involved in political life.

The authors say the dominant American culture largely caused these problems, leading to the fact that emerging adults simply have not been well-trained. Lost in Transition is hesitant to prescribe remedies, though it does say that families and religious communities could do much to combat these problems. But ultimately, Smith argues, the dominant American vision of the good life must be something greater than material prosperity. We need the transcendent.

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Caleb Nelson
Caleb Nelson

Caleb grew up on a ranch in northern Colorado and is currently pursuing ordination in the Presbyterian Church in America. He lives in Greenville, S.C.

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