Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

Emerging Adulthood and Younger Adults: Trends & Forces Affecting the Future of Faith-Formation: A Changing Church in a Changing World—Trends #7 and #8

For Trend #7, Faith Formation 2020 describes the trend of “emerging adulthood,” which means that “the transition to adulthood today is more complex, disjointed, and confusing than it was in past decades.  The steps through and to schooling, first real job, marriage and parenthood are simply less well organized today than they were in generations past.”

I was born in 1961, at the end of the Baby Boom, and received a bachelor’s degree on schedule in 1983.  I went straight to a graduate professional school and began my first career in 1985.  It was assumed in my demographic (white middle class) that a young adult would either go to college and then find a job or would find a reliable job soon after high school.  The expectation for young adults to have a career, family and home of one’s own was dominant in my culture, even if exceptions were not hard to find.

That expectation no longer describes life for adults in their 20s and 30s.  Upheavals in the labor market and larger economy have shrunk opportunities and kept per-capita income nearly flat in three decades.  Economic booms and burst bubbles have brought instability.

Citing a 2006 book by Anya Kamenetz, Carol Howard Merritt notes that “the median job tenure of workers from 25 to 34 is just 2.7 years.”  They change jobs and industries more often and “have more frequent periods of unemployment and underemployment.”  This rings true with my personal experience with younger adults in church, nearly all of whom are smart, creative, compassionate, living with large debts or poverty-level incomes or both.

I know plenty of congregants, colleagues and my own relatives whose adult children are living at home—still or again—or depending on regular financial support of their parents.  Financial-advice columnists worry that most younger workers have saved or invested little toward their retirement needs.  Stagnant incomes and frequent changes in jobs mixed make this hard.  So does the merchandizing of our consumer culture, and the rapid upgrades on expensive technology.

Trend #8 is “the rise of a distinctive … faith and spirituality” in the post-Baby Boom generations.   Faith Formation 2020 speaks of  the “uprootedness and change” experienced by most young adults, but it also explains that this life stage involves considerable creativity and exploration.  Its report cites the social scientist Robert Wuthnow’s image of “religious tinkering” among people in their 20s and 30s.

While the “tinkering” image shows curiosity and experimentation, it does not necessarily imply commitment to a religious institution or even longevity in any one location, which we have come to identify as an aspect of long-term commitment.

The Rev. Carol Howard Merritt calls younger adults a “nomadic generation.”[1] In her 2007 Alban Institute book Tribal Church (which is also the name of her blog), she also refers to them as “the missing generation,” which means missing from churches.

I’ll post more on Tribal Church.

[1] She is a progressive Christian minister who grew up in Presbyterian churches and has served a number of them as a young woman; having hit age 40 she no longer calls herself a younger adult.  Also, she prefers the terms “older adult/younger adult” to the terms of sociological jargon like Boomers, Generation X, Millenials.


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