Responding to Christian Smith: Conclusions, Solutions

This is Part 5 in a 5 Part series of posts responding to Christian Smith’s Book “Lost in Transition.”

After all this talk, what are the conclusions presented in the book, Lost in Transition?   The dismal outlook is that if emerging adults are unable to approach basic issues of right and wrong and possibly collaboration, they will be unable to lead lives which require significant investment “in the common good, or even actively contribute to institutional functionality by sustaining and practice moral virtues such as acts of care and goodness that go beyond simple procedural justice.”

They will also be unable to participate in the process of civil disagreement or community building.  They are falling quickly into the hands of marketers, advertisers and salespeople who are growing rich off shrinking emerging adults idea of what their lifestyle should look like now and in the future. Their horizons are bounded by money and a comfortable lifestyle, nothing much more exciting or life changing than that.

Do I hold with most of the analysis and statistics presented in this book?  Well, I think that based on the statistics Christian Smith provides some compelling critiques, and one of his final conclusions is simply emerging adults live in a vacuum of influences and responsibilities and duties.  We/They live and party with people their own age, few wise voices, and lots and lots of time. (comparatively.) How then can we get out of this mess?

Smith suggests regulating advertising companies to not advertise to minors, offering required courses in moral reasoning, and families and older friends staying in contact with emerging adults as a starting point.  What he’s advocating is an entire culture change however, a lifestyle change.  And change of this sort won’t happen overnight, and possibly couldn’t happen for an entire generation (20-25 years) or more.  That’s depressing news.  But, this is hardly reason to give up, or to stop doing what it is that needs to be done on a personal level and more.

I think, speaking as an emerging adult, what needs to be done is community building specifically amongst and between the old and the young between healthy well adjusted emerging adults and their peers.  There are young people that do contribute civically, that are committed to moral reasoning (or at least to discussing difficult issues) and to learning what types of dreams might bring more satisfaction than money.  And how those dreams can be extended from themselves to include and prosper those around them.  I guess, my answer to this problem, is to bring the solution back down to community and family, and even more so, to deep conversation.

Much of what passes for conversation in day to day life is trivial, mediated by television, blurbs, texts, and plenty of mediums designed to truncate discussion.  It is easy to make it through the day with few meaningful interactions with friends, or conversations about morals and life dreams. So that is where I think we need to start, to form deep friendships, to form deep connections to others, and to dream and envision what might be created together with other.  We must make places where we are connected and responsible.

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Responding to Christian Smith: Community and Civic Participation

This is part 4 in a 5 part series responding to Christian Smith’s book Lost in Transition

This final chapter of the book was the shortest, only thirty pages, and covered three topics; politics, volunteering and donating money.

On Politics: The facts state that seventy percent of emerging adults are uninterested or have completely given up on politics.  Some twenty five percent are somewhat well informed via news sources, but only four percent (mostly male, very true in my own experience) truly identify with politics, being able to name multiple issues, substantive knowledge, and are civically engaged.  I would have said that I was uniformed, until I read excerpts from the interviews and found, to my own horror that I’m in the twenty five percent that are considered well informed.  Knowing that I am, in fact, only minutely interested in politics I felt a brief frisson of fear for the future of America.  I identify with a few issues (the environment, education, transportation (ie: public and biking), which is what puts me into this game.  It turns out GOOD magazine is spot on with it’s monthly challenge this February with specific daily goals to increase civic awareness.   I suspect, though, that their reader demographic may mostly include the 29 percent that makes up the well informed and very political.

PS: Interested in knowing how to vote in Massachusetts? The Answer is Right Here.

On Volunteering and Donating:

Nearly all assume that volunteering and financial giving are simply unrelated to their current existence but perhaps will become more important as some future time. Someday, when they have a lot more time and money than they do now, they may begin to volunteer and give money to good causes…. Any sense of their dependence on a larger social infrastructure or on shared institutional goods that cannot be taken for granted but must be actively sustained… is nonexistent.

However this is one case where I believe that Smith does not give credit to the larger sociological forces at pull in the lives of these young people.  Many are either attending full time college classes, or working irregular shifts at low-level occupations or possibly unpaid internships.  Leaving aside the monetary pieces of these two aspects (debt accrual, and poor wages) there are the strange hours kept by emerging adults in this period of their life.

So far, in my own research on volunteering there are numerous struggles to finding a place to volunteer.  Volunteering requires time commitments (often as long as a year, and preferably longer), reliable transportation and set hours, things many if not most emerging adults cannot guarantee.  This is before you can even assess goodness of fit at the place you want to volunteer.  I’m not saying it can’t be done, or that volunteer work can’t be found, however it can be daunting to even begin this search, particularly if you are expecting a change in your circumstances, something which many emerging adults anticipate on a yearly basis between 18-23.  Once you have a stable job (something that happens as life progresses) it is easier to manage your time, even if you do not seem to have any more of it. Time will never just “appear” for anyone.  So to this, I answer, it is easier to give money when you are young, or possibly just blood.

Christian Smith doesn’t mention another piece of a public life though, and that is community participation.  I’m not speaking of voting for the school board, but simply attendance at city events.  These events are wonderful, but most often, they are geared for families and seniors (in Salem, tourists too).  Although emerging adults in Salem may want to participate in Restaurant Week for example, perhaps $25 dollars is too steep for them, and there could more prix fixe courses in the $15 dollar range.

Movies on the Common are geared more toward families, and not toward young people.  I’m not saying that these activities are bad, just that most of them are not targeted toward engaging emerging adults.  The first time you attend an event that you think might be cool, and you are the only one there under 50 will cause you to think again about attending.  (For example, it appears the average age of membership in the Beverly Artists Guild is 65, with one or two outliers who happens to be in their thirties), even though there is an art college and artist studios in Beverly!  This is certainly an area that towns and cities could improve upon; simply capturing the interest of emerging adults in the life of the town and offering them opportunities to volunteer.  I would like to mention that Beverly is reaching out to young people hoping to solicit their involvement in town however.  Congratulations Beverly Main Streets.

Responding to Christian Smith: Materialism and Consumption

This is Part 3 in a 5 Part Series responding to Christian Smith’s Book Lost in Transition

When it comes to Emerging Adults it seems as though the goal of life can be summed up in a few words: money, lots of it.   Although most didn’t want several houses, and a dozen cars (yes, some did), a minority seem to conceive of a good life beyond making money to support a comfortable (middle class) lifestyle or something a bit more extravagant.  When asked what they wanted to achieve in life the majority (60 percent) mentioned financial security as an important piece.

I somewhat fall into this majority of emerging adults, imagining days in the future when I can afford a car that doesn’t have a 19— on it’s registration and possibly a little extra space for a guest bedroom or a sunroom in my home.  However, I do diverge from another crucial belief of the surveyed emerging adults who hold that if you earn money it is yours to spend as you please, with no thought to limited resources on the earth, how much you already own, or how little someone else has.  In essence, they hold there should be no limits on wealth or consumption and little pressure socially or legally to donate money.

The larger questions behind these two concepts of money are, What is the good life? and How much do we need to contribute to the common welfare?

How can we begin to look beyond money, or things that money can buy?  The first step may be to turn off the television. Literally true, as Juliet Schor wrote about in her book the Overspent American; the more television you watch, the more things you want to buy.  The more people you see on TV who have plenty of money who are spending it in irresponsible ways, or have never-ending wardrobes, or simply just watching so many advertisements makes you more discontented with your own belongings.  Which means you spend more money.

Some of the other broader ways to address the issues are

:To focus on character development. Money is often a way of focusing on the outward appearances in life, but it can’t bring the same satisfaction as a job well done, a goal achieved, or an experience that you’ve worked hard for.  It is also a poor substitute for friends.

:To understand the paradox of simplicity.  First, it turns out that beyond meeting basic needs and some comforts, more money doesn’t make people any happier.  (This research is touched on in a lot of places, but I read articles most recently in Time magazine, and the aforementioned book by Juliet Schor.)  Simplicity additionally provides an environment that allows you to think clearly and see what really matters in life, much of which is intangible. Rather than be clouded by the latest thrill or gadget you are able to live with a balance of old and new, the familiar as well as the novel.   The less you have, the more you are able to enjoy others.  (Should you be interested in a Christian perspective on simplicity, I would recommend Richard Foster’s book Freedom of Simplicity)

:To focus on charity in both senses of the word.  To be charitable toward others by giving them benefit of the doubt and kindly glossing over their faults is one way of looking at this.  However, when it comes to giving money charitably, I think the best way to do it is to plan it into your budget at whatever amount is possible on a monthly basis, the same as any other bill, whether it be ten, one hundred, or more dollars each month. After all, people that give away money are happier and healthier.

Again, this comes down to the question, What is the good life? And how are we to define that? Is there any way that what one person answers should relate to another person’s answers, or can everyone define the good life in their own way, even if it contradicts?  That brings us back to the morality question.  Did you come up with any answers yet?

Responding to Christian Smith: Moral Relativity and a Third Way

This is Part 2 in a 5-Part Response to Christian Smith’s Book: Lost in Transition

Christian Smith begin his critical first chapter on morals by saying:

“We began our exploration of some of the more unsettling aspects of contemporary emerging adult life by focusing on the question of morality, moral beliefs and moral reasoning. How do emerging adults think about morality?  How do they know what is moral?  How do they make decisions? Where do they think moral rights and wrongs, goods and bad, even come from? What is the source or basis of morality?  And how important is it to emerging adults to choose what is morally good?”

Most emerging adults are both morally individualistic and morally relativistic; that is, though they may personally believe something is wrong for them, it may not be wrong for everyone.  Many believe if something is “right” a situation was or will be improved by the decision made. Which leads to the fact that some compromise their own moral beliefs if something will get them ahead in life or will make them happy.  Surprisingly many also operate morally through rules and laws, often not questioning authority; that is, if something is illegal, it is wrong, not because it is inherently wrong. Therefore, if stealing was legal, it would be morally right. Finally though many can name examples of extreme moral dilemmas (eg: whether to murder or rape) few of them could name or recognize moral dilemmas in their own lives.

This first section is fundamental to the rest of issues presented in the book, as it turns out all the other sections lead back to one underlying dilemma, morals and ethics on the one hand, but a deficient or simply missing ability to reason on the other.   Without an ability to critically think about moral issues, emerging adults will be left with puzzling life problems they are unable to acceptably answer (that is, their logic is flimsy and quickly shredded), as well as an inability to exist in a society that pulls together a diversity of beliefs and viewpoints.  (case in point: the current contraception ruling). It should be clear that teaching reasoning skills does not mean advocating for a particular agenda, and that holding certain ethical beliefs also does not mean agreeing at every point.

There are a lot of ways to respond to this chapter, for example going through and answering any of the questions proposed by the introductory quotation. ( Trust me, it is a delightful thought experiment to ask yourself why you believe what you believe, and to discover what ways you are inconsistent in your own thoughts).  However, I’d like to respond with the current way that I work through difficult issues.  I call it the Third Way.

First I ask myself what framework and definition an issue is being considered under.  Second, I examine both the underlying assumptions (and often the logical fallacies) and attempt to follow through on the offered logic will take me.  Finally I re-frame the issue based on what I’ve uncovered and attempt to arrive a different solution.

I have started calling this the third way since generally when I am faced with a moral decision (and often any confusing decision, moral or otherwise) it appears that there are only two choices.  Should I choose black, or white?  It is necessary through thought, research, and discussion with peers and sages to search for what other options are possible. Then, I adjust my action and thinking.

There are rarely complete about-faces in this process.  I don’t find that I start out believing one thing is wholly right, and end believing it is wholly wrong.  Instead, gradations appear where before there were none at all.  This can be a very frustrating process, prior to examining an issue there were just those two answers, afterward there isn’t really just a third way, but often a fourth, fifth, sixth and so on.   This is the type of nuanced thinking I believe we must foster in emerging adults, one which believes that there are deep components to all decisions in our lives which require examination and often (polite) debate.

Responding to Christian Smith’s book “Lost in Transition”

I have been in a whirlwind of social and academic activity lately, as well as engaging heavily in community building.  I like when that happens, but it does mean a little of the quieter pursuits that I enjoy fall by the wayside, namely contemplative blog post writing, and intensive personal reading.

However, I have been processing Christian Smith’s book Lost in Transition for over a week now, and would like to present some of the material in the book.  I’m going to break this down into five parts, with the following part serving as an introduction.  Some of these posts are longer than I would normally write, so for that, I apologize.

Part One: The Premise, and an Introduction

The concept of Emerging Adulthood is about 10 years old now, a theory that those between the ages of 18 and 29 in America are in an intermediary phase of life, which precludes them from official membership in “adulthood.”  Adulthood, for the purposes of establishing it’s otherness from emerging adulthood, is defined as marriage (and/or starting a family), a stable job, a breaking off from the support of parents, completion of education, and one’s own living space and rooted community.  I am very interested in sociologists, psychologists and reporters who study and write on these topics from a scholarly and statistical point of view, as I feel like I experience this phase of life from a much more gritty point of view daily.  I write about this topic frequently. (You can type “emerging adulthood” in the search box for specific references),

Christian Smith, a sociologist I very much admire, has written several books about teens and young adults and their religious views (see here); so with his extensive surveys and knowledge he realized “There was much more of a story to tell than the first book disclosed, and more about emerging adults beyond their religious lives that needed to be reported and considered.  That story became this book.”

This is a story of the “dark side” of emerging adulthood as contrasted with a few others who write about some of the lighter side. (A few are by authors, Jeffrey Arnett ,the leading researcher on the topic, and Richard Setterstein and Barbara Ray. )

In his introduction Smith states his intention to use “the sociological imagination to engage in social and cultural criticism and moral argument.”  Thus, he is up front that he writes with a value-laden analysis of American emerging adult culture and that he and his co-authors “do not assume that our position in what follows will be self evident and universally shared.”  Once the bias is stated he is able to define what it is that he finds to be the dark side, namely: (1) an inability for young adults to think coherently about moral beliefs and problems, (2) an excessive focus on consumption and materialism as the good life, (3) prevalent lifestyles of routine intoxication and drug usage (4) sexual encounters which are not practiced in an environment of physical, mental, or emotional health, and finally (5) an inability to care about, invest in, and hope for the larger world through civic and political participation.

These are not problems he thinks emerging adults developed on their own, but have inherited from larger cultural institutions and yes, older adult culture.  Since his book is written using information from surveys of youth between the ages of 18-23 I am a little older than these surveyed emerging adults, but not by much.   Therefore, I felt an acute sense of connection with many of the quoted interviews, particularly those dealing with moral beliefs, materialism, and civic participation, because those are questions I feel as thought I am still asking and attempting to clarify my own position toward.

What I want to respond to in these chapters are some of the main points under each of the “dark” sides.  Then, to follow this summary with some of my experience and observations in navigating these areas, and then to conclude with Christian Smith’s suggestions for growth on the macrosocial and microsocial levels.