Picking up where I left off last time, I want to take another look at “emerging adulthood.” In two weeks, the third and last installment of these musings will consider what bearing “emerging adulthood” has on the church.
I’m intrigued by what in particular seems to represent “full” adulthood in people’s minds. What would you say if I put you on the spot and asked, “how do you know when someone is an adult?” I suspect many would answer with some combination of what have been traditional milestones of adulthood: moving out of your parents’ house, finishing your education, becoming financially independent, starting a career, getting married, buying a home, etc.
I’m not really sure how useful those measurements are anymore. The milestones are still important, of course, but do they really reflect a straightforward delineation of life stages? I think not. From where I sit, at least, those milestones play an entirely different role, and happen in all sorts of different sequences, for my young adult peers. Some of those changes are because of drastically changing social landscapes and economic realities – for instance, the length of time and expense required for higher education and advanced degrees, and the economic downturn and accompanying constraints on the job market.
The traditional milestones of adulthood seem relativized not only by the timing of their onset, but by how fluid they are. Young adults move out of their parents’ houses, and then back in (and repeat). Young adults work, and then go back to school. Young adults live together and decide about marriage later. Young adults change jobs, sometimes trading stability in order to find work that is fulfilling and meaningful. Young adults search amidst confusion about where to live, what opportunities to pursue, how much debt to take on. Some young adults may appear to “delay” adulthood and its traditional trappings because they are first needing to wrestle with deep issues like their sexual identity, or their addiction or mental health, or wounds from their families of origin. Figuring those things out can be a lifelong process, but I at least admire the young adults who want to wrestle with these things while they’re younger instead of stuffing them away for decades only to face them in midlife or later adulthood. Religious exploration and commitment can likewise be in flux during young adulthood. But I have an easier time respecting a 25 year old who appears wishy-washy but who is giving serious thought to questions of serious importance than I do a 50 year old who has just gone to church all along, unquestioningly, simply because it’s the socially expected thing to do.
I come at these questions about emerging adulthood with some personal investment, to be honest. My ears perk up when I hear people make comments implying what it means to be “grown up” or not. I wonder, at what point in my young adulthood did others see me as an adult? Was it when I moved out of my parents’ house? (Then again, it was a whopping 5 blocks from there to my college dorm room). Was it when I finished college? Moved 700 miles away to do a Masters’ degree? Signed my first lease? Got my first job? Opened an IRA? Bought my first house? Got a dog? Got ordained as a Rev.? Started a PhD program? Did I become more fully an adult when I got married two months ago, at age 34? Or do I still need to become a parent before I’ll be fully recognized as an adult in some contexts? There have been so many messages over the years, both overt and subtle, implying that my singleness in particular was a real liability when it came to being regarded as an adult, and I struggled mightily with that.
At the same time, I’ve tried to trust and put stock in the importance of psychological and spiritual growth, and remember that maturity is not measured solely by mortgages and marriages. And I aim to be careful about how I use the language of adulthood.
Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “There are years that ask questions, and years that answer.” I think that’s applicable to the journey of adulthood. To some degree, I think all of our years contain both questions and answers. Young adults may be mired in big questions, but that doesn’t mean they need to find all the answers in order to graduate to full adulthood. Adulthood in its most flourishing forms keeps making room for new questions and new answers.