May 19, 2017


Emerging adults and the faith

We will be hearing a lot about young people from now through at least October of 2018. That’s because the next meeting of the world Synod of Bishops, scheduled for then, will have as its theme “Young people, faith and vocational discernment.” It’s an important topic because our young people today must meet challenges unlike any of previous generations.

They have been called Generation Z, a term thought to be first coined by Crispin Reed in an article in February 2007. It loosely embraces those born between the mid-1990’s and 2014. It’s a generation that is comfortable with technology and interacting on social media for a significant portion of their socializing.

They have also been called “emerging adults,” thought of as roughly those in age from 18 and 25, sometimes as late as 29. This terms seems to have originated with Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a professor at Clark University in Massachusetts, who saw it as a time between adolescence and adulthood that really didn’t exist in previous generations.

This is largely because of the economic shift from manufacturing jobs that young people could enter immediately after high school or college, to careers in information, technology and human services that require many more years of education. They might leave their parents’ homes at around age 18 or 19, but they aren’t yet ready for adult life.

At some stage in our lives, all of us must take the values we have learned during our childhood and adolescent years and either accept or reject them. According to Arnett, the time for identity exploration and development that once took place in adolescence now takes place during emerging adulthood.

We can see that in the statistics for marriages. Although 80 percent of emerging adults are in a romantic relationship, the U.S. median age at first marriage between 1980 and 2009 increased from 24.7 percent to 28.1 percent among men, and from 22.0 percent to 25.9 percent among women. It probably has increased even more since 2009.

All of this has not been good news for the Catholic Church. There was a time when it was accepted as normal that young people would drop out of religion during their late teens or early twenties, while they were “finding themselves,” but would return to the Church after they married and started having children.

Now that period has been extended considerably, and fewer of them are returning because our post-Christian culture has overwhelmed whatever formation many might have received during childhood and adolescence.

Studies show that only 15 percent of 20-year-olds and 20 percent of 30-year-olds attend church weekly or more. Twenty percent say that they belong to no religious tradition.

Notre Dame Sociologist Christian Smith has identified six religious types among emerging adults: Committed Traditionalists, who know religious doctrine and practice regularly, 15 percent; Selective Adherents, who accept some religious beliefs but reject others, 30 percent; Spiritually Open, not spiritually committed but open to the idea of religious practice, 15 percent; Religiously Indifferent and Religiously Disconnected, who do not know much about religion and don’t care about it, 30 percent; and the Irreligious who are secular in orientation and critical of religion, 10 percent.

Thus, according to Smith, 55 percent of emerging adults are not committed to religious institutions, are not knowledgeable about them, or are critical of them.

Arnett has written that many emerging adults are deists, which is hardly new in the United States. Many of our Founding Fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, were deists, who believe that God created the universe but remains apart from it. So emerging adult deists are not religious and are unconcerned about doctrine.

However, Arnett believes that this is a normal developmental feature of young adult life, a period of exploration and a necessary step toward adult autonomy. He also points to the high rates of volunteerism among emerging adults as a sign of their moral seriousness and compassion for others.

The question is whether the period of emerging adulthood among Generation Z is only a stretching out period, and the young people will eventually affiliate with religious institutions, or if the lower religious participation among this generation is a long-term problem.

The bishops at the Synod of Bishops next year will have a lot to consider.

—John F. Fink

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