Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood
by Christian Smith, with Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, and Patricia Snell Herzog
Oxford, 296 pages, $27.95

A few years ago, an intern came to me with what he no doubt thought was an exciting new idea for a piece about “the youth vote.” After having read a few too many press releases from MTV, he wanted to “get out the message” that young people should go to the polls “so their voices can be heard.” As editors go, I don’t think I have a reputation for being curmudgeonly, but on this particular occasion I could hardly contain myself.

“Frankly, I don’t want the youth to vote,” I told him. “They don’t own property, they don’t pay taxes, they don’t have kids to send to school. They have no financial stake and little moral stake in society and, until they do, I’d prefer they stay the heck away from the polls.” OK, maybe I was a little harsh. But this demographic”the unmarried, childless, economically dependent types”is a growing segment of society.

They’re now called emerging adults. And, much as I think that they don’t understand enough to make informed decisions about the long-term future of the country, what worries me more is that they may never know and may never even care. That’s the idea that haunts me after reading Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood .

According to sociologists, what we used to think of as adolescence has been extended now through one’s twenties, thanks to higher rates of college attendance, greater job insecurity, a longer period of financial dependence on parents, reliable contraception, and (relatedly) delayed marriage. Perhaps the delayed age of marriage (now a median of twenty-six for women and twenty-eight for men) is the most symbolic of these elements. This postponement of marriage is a sign, we say colloquially, that men and women are afraid of commitment. And according to Lost in Transition , these young people are unwilling or unable to commit to anything at all.

The authors, led by Christian Smith, draw on data collected in the National Survey on Youth and Religion to arrive at their findings. The NSYR, under the direction of Smith, a professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, and Lisa Pearce, professor of sociology at UNC“Chapel Hill, gathered information through surveys and interviews from 2001 to 2010.

The data has already been used to diagram the religious and spiritual side of teenagers and young adults in America today in two other books: Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults by Christian Smith with Patricia Snell, and Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers by Christian Smith with Melinda Denton. For parents, teachers, and religious leaders, I can hardly recommend these books enough.

Lost in Transition provides a detailed cultural profile of a generation that is completely disengaged. Take Reggie, for instance. “My thing is, my relationships right now begin and end with sex. If I’m going to take someone out, then more than likely we’ve already had sex.” He says he is actively “avoiding” a committed relationship. “I like to do my own thing when I want to do it. I don’t want to have to answer to anyone, not right now. I’m 21.”

The authors suggest that Reggie is pretty typical of their male respondents. The themes of their interviews are “Have fun. Don’t commit. Don’t get bogged down. Don’t be changed. Don’t get obligated. Avoid hassles. If someone else gets involved and upset, that’s their problem.” While the female respondents are not so casual about sex”they report being hurt many times by the men they are dating”they seem to strive for the men’s level of detachment. As one young woman told the authors, “It’s like you [as a female] want guys to think that you don’t care . . . . it’s just gotten to be a huge thing [among girls] that, yeah, I can sleep with you and not talk to you for three days, and I don’t even care.”

In addition to being detached from their romantic (or simply sexual) partners, most of these young adults are also detached from their churches, their local communities, and their country. According to the authors,

they are not only not engaged in politics, they are also not big on volunteering and voluntary financial giving . . . . They are so focused on their own personal lives, especially on trying to stand on their own two feet, that they seem incapable of thinking more broadly about community involvement, good citizenship, or even very modest levels of charitable giving.

When asked about volunteering, one typical respondent explained, “I actually don’t have time for it. I feel like if I’m going to do something good for the community I might as well do something good that I get paid for too.”

Oh, and about that widespread heralding after the 2008 election of a new generation of politically active youth”Smith and his colleagues call this idea “sheer fiction.” They find no more than one of every twenty-five respondents to be engaged in politics in any meaningful way. The conversations with those other twenty-four that Smith et al. recount are even more disheartening than the statistics:

I: How do you feel about ?politics in general? Are you ?a very political person?

R: Naw.

I: Do you pay attention to ?politics and world and ?national events?

R: No.

I: No? What would you say your own political position is? . . .

R: I don’t have one.

I: You don’t have one? So you wouldn’t consider yourself to be a Republican or Democrat, conservative, liberal?

R: Naw.

I: Are there any social, ?political issues you especially care about?

R: No.

This sort of conversation”typical of what the interviewers call the “apathetic” segment of the population”happened in more than a quarter of the interviews. Another 13 percent are dubbed “uninformed.” Their answers were very similar to those of the apathetic, except they barely understood the questions. What’s worse, few young adults expressed the slightest embarrassment that they were so ill informed and unconcerned. In other words, they had no sense that these are things that they should know or care about.

Despite their lack of understanding and interest in the world around them, these emerging adults, Smith and his collaborators insist, are not unintelligent. Rather, the authors argue, no one has taught them to ask questions about morality or to think about what is important in life. Smith and his coauthors blame, at least in part, “the tolerance-promoting, multiculturalist educational project” for some of these problems. In the effort to make the next generation more accepting of other people and other views, they have made the generation accepting of everyone and every view.

Six out of ten respondents, according to the authors, “said that morality is a personal choice, entirely a matter of individual decision.” To the extent that they can, the respondents “completely avoid making any strong moral claims themselves, as well as avoiding criticizing the moral views of others.”

When they do want to criticize something on a moral basis, emerging adults don’t even have the language at their disposal to do so. One young man told his interviewer, “I don’t think anything in life is absolute.” When pressed on the question of whether murder is always wrong, he replied, “I mean, in today’s society, sure, like to murder someone is just ridiculous.” Ridiculous? He went on to add, “I don’t know, in some societies, back in time, maybe it’s a good thing.”

And why was it maybe good for some people to murder other people “back in time”? Well, because, as any emerging adult will tell you, “everybody’s different.” The authors report that “nearly any question asked of them about any norm, experience, rule of thumb, expectation, or belief is very likely to get an answer beginning with the phrase ‘Well, everybody’s different, but for me . . . ’”

This individualistic relativism is not bad news just for conservatives fighting to preserve traditional moral values, by the way. Liberals will find little support for their causes from this generation. The authors, for instance, expected at least some emerging adults to express concern about environmental issues or dependence on foreign oil”many of them were college students, after all”but almost nothing in the responses suggests that the green messages had made an impression.

More broadly, “few emerging adults,” they report, “expressed concerns about the potential limits or dilemmas involved in a lifestyle devoted to boundless material consumption. Most are either positive or neutral about mass consumer materialism.” Indeed, when they were asked separately about the most important things in life, material goods typically topped the list.

Perhaps the funniest (if you can call it that) part about the answers to questions about materialism is the number of respondents who justified their frivolous purchases by saying they were helping the economy. The environmentalism apparently hasn’t stuck with this generation, but Keynesian economics is alive and well.

It’s not surprising that emerging adults have been so taken with materialism. As the authors explain, “Having freed people from the formative influences and obligations of town, church, extended family, and conventional morality, American individualism has exposed those people to the more powerful influences and manipulations of mass consumer capitalism.” Whatever the cause, the eighteen-to- twenty-three-year-olds portrayed in Lost in Transition seem aimless and self-absorbed. Both statistically and anecdotally, their story is indeed a dark one.

In a recent column about the book, David Brooks suggests that “many of these shortcomings will sort themselves out as these youngsters get married, have kids, enter a profession or fit into more clearly defined social roles. Institutions will inculcate certain habits. Broader moral horizons will be forced upon them.” I am far less optimistic. Emerging adults are spending more time away from those institutions (especially the religious ones) than have previous generations. And it’s not at all clear that they’re going to come back. A fundamental demographic shift is occurring, and it may end up making the moral shift permanent.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is the author of The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For.

Get a digital subscription to First Things to read on the iPad , on Kindle , or online .