Much — perhaps too much — has recently been made of the phenomenon of “extended adolescence.” (Is anyone else tired of watching movie trailers about men in their late-20s acting like inebriated chimpanzees? No offense to the chimps, of course.) Besides fueling sitcom startups and comedy films, it’s also inspiring an entire field of research in psychology and sociology. Scholars are tackling the topic of whether, culturally, we’re looking at the advent of a whole new life stage: emerging adulthood.
If the conclusions swing the way they did in the last century — when social and economic forces leveled space on the cultural landscape for the newly minted adolescent — we could be in for another major institutional and philosophical shift. Whether law, medicine and education (among others) will change their trajectories in response to this new demographic, as they did for the American teenager, remains to be seen. But consensus is already forming on who emerging adults are and what they’re about.
Jeffrey Jensen Arnett of Clark University in Worcester, Mass., says emerging adulthood is characterized by “identity exploration, instability, self-focus, feeling in-between and a rather poetic characteristic he calls ‘a sense of possibilities.'” Paraphrasing Arnett in the New York Times, Robin Marantz Henig goes on to say, “A few of these, especially identity exploration, are part of adolescence, too, but they take on new depth and urgency in the 20s. The stakes are higher when people are approaching the age when options tend to close off and lifelong commitments must be made. Arnett calls it ‘the age 30 deadline'” in What is it With Twenty-Somethings?
In her Wall Street Journal discussion on emerging young men, Kay S. Hymowitz agrees: “Like adolescents in the 20th century, today’s pre-adults have been wait-listed for adulthood … Unlike adolescents, however, pre-adults don’t know what is supposed to come next. For them, marriage and parenthood come in many forms or can be skipped altogether. … It is no wonder that so many young Americans suffer through a ‘quarter-life crisis,’ a period of depression and worry over their future.”
I’ll say. Who wouldn’t have a crisis over reaching adulthood if it meant that your options were going to become severely limited, but your sense of direction was going to remain hopelessly open-ended? It’s easy to see how that combo can break down into a decade or so of reckless hedonism and aimless wandering, especially if it’s coupled with affluence (or at least sufficient credit approval).
But that’s not the only way people waste their 20s. Others who deeply desire to do well with their lives still commit their share of confused meandering through their college and post-college years. These emerging adults are crippled by something else: I call it analysis paralysis.
The students who plant themselves in the burgundy chairs in my office are a perfect example. They’re here at the Focus Leadership Institute (FLI) because they’ve already been identified as leaders in their spheres of influence, and they want to become better ones. They see the hedonism and the recklessness of their peers, and they don’t want to fall into that. (I suspect many Boundless readers fit the same description.) But lacking a guiding voice in culture — and even in the church — they feel bound as they attempt to make the choices that will move them into adulthood.
Traditionally, these are choices about completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having children. They have always been difficult. (Any of our predecessors who passed each of these milestones with ease probably didn’t sufficiently consider their weight.) But for young adults today, these life decisions sometimes feel like showstoppers: How do I know that I’ve chosen the right major and am heading toward an appropriate career? (Hmm. Maybe as a college senior, I should switch from a computer science major to a music major.) My relationship with my helicopter parents is difficult already. How in the world do I transition to an adult relationship with them?
Don’t even get me started on the pressures of finding that first job out of college. Many young adults subconsciously set the parameters way too high, expecting their first job to singlehandedly determine their career path, fulfill their ministry calling, provide deep personal satisfaction and garner a paycheck that allows them to duplicate their 50-something parents’ standard of living. Talk about pressure!
And while most of the young adults I know still hold up traditional marriage and family as good goals, the Christian culture commands to “guard your heart,” “find God’s best” and “be content in your singleness” are less than helpful in actually pointing the way toward the altar. And the delivery room? They’re not even going to think about that one yet. Because, of course, the proper strategy is to be married for five to seven years and “get to know your spouse” before introducing children into the picture.
All of this adds up to a very real barrier to moving into adulthood. God-seeking, God-loving, God-fearing young men and women want so badly to do it right that they can hardly do anything at all. Perhaps that hesitation is due in part to a hunch that culture’s way of defining adulthood is lacking something. (That thought has been discussed here on Boundless before.) And in many ways, the analysis paralysis is strongly linked to a lack of perspective: It’s much easier to see God’s hand leading you into adulthood after you’re already there than it is on the journey.
That sense of perspective is exactly what the Focus Leadership Institute aims to bring into the lives of emerging adults. You don’t yet have the benefit of hindsight when it comes to making the important decisions that will shape your adult life. But you can certainly benefit from meaningful interaction with a variety of other perspectives.
A semester at FLI begins with the biblical perspective: What does God’s Word have to say about marriage, family, culture and leadership? Then we add a robust academic perspective: Faith and science are not at odds. On the contrary, good research always fits hand-in-glove with Scripture. So we examine what wise scholarship reveals about family, church and society. And finally, a seasoned personal perspective — the FLI staff is hand-picked for their individual expertise and their passion for spending time with students both in and out of the classroom. We mentor, we ask thoughtful questions, and we offer counsel from the perspective of those who are just a few steps further along on the same journey you’re on.
For thousands of students in our 16-year history, the combination has been life-changing. A few recent graduates illustrate both the profound and the practical:
When I got home from FLI, the decisions and transitions of my 20s were still there. FLI didn’t make them go away, and it didn’t make all the decisions for me. In some ways it made it worse … in a good way. I’m no longer content with the way things used to be. I know that God has so much more for my life than I can make of it on my own. I’m still learning the balance between acting on this God-sized passion that was fanned into flame at FLI and feeling the peace of knowing I don’t have to figure out how to do that alone. God directed my steps to FLI, and He’ll direct me after that. –Bethany
FLI gave me the tools to come back home and work on my relationship with my parents — whom I’m still living with as I finish college. –Briana
FLI really impacted the way I view marriage. I had believed the culture’s lie that marriage is a selfish pursuit, but FLI allowed me to discover that when humility is exercised under God’s design for marriage, the result is very desirable. –Rachel
I was so confused after leaving college because I had always assumed by that point I would be ready for the next chapter: job, marriage, babies. I went to FLI hoping to find some direction while I was ‘waiting around’ for the next big part of life. FLI helped me to see that just because this particular season of life isn’t spelled out for me, doesn’t mean it should be wasted. Instead of trying to figure out what my story was going to be for my 20s, FLI directed me to begin discovering how I am a part of God’s story. –Mallory
If you’re between 19 and 26 and would like to spend a semester exploring identity, leadership, worldview, marriage and family with a community of like-minded believers at FLI, pay us a visit at www.focusleadership.org. Or check out this video to hear more thoughts from recent FLI students.
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