In the glow of graduation season across America, many a proud, tuition-paying parent sighs with relief and thinks, "My work here is done."
Think again, Mom and Dad.
Meet the "emerging adult." Emerging adulthood is the phrase sociologists are using to help make sense of today's prolonged transition from adolescence. And by prolonged, they mean roughly a decade — from age 18 to 29. Cultural changes over a half-century, ranging from increased higher education to delayed marriage, have produced a new phase distinct from adolescence or adulthood.
Telltale signs: constant flux and a general uncertainty about purpose and direction.
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"To an extent matched by no other time in the life course, emerging adults enjoy and endure multiple, layered, big and often unanticipated life transitions," writes Notre Dame scholar Christian Smith in his book "Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults."
Smith and his research colleagues launched a major study to understand the role of religion for American youth. The researchers have tracked 3,290 individuals and surveyed them at two key intervals — between ages 13 and 17, and again between 18 and 23.
"Souls in Transition" tells their story. As the title suggests, emerging adults are unsettled about some of life's most fundamental issues.
"Emerging adults are determined to be free," Smith says. "But they do not know what is worth doing with that freedom."
Nor do they necessarily recognize they're under the influence of powerful cultural dynamics that hinder their quest to "stand on their own two feet," he writes. Trends such as postmodernism and relativism are "confusing," "debilitating" and "thwart many of them from ever being able to decide what they believe is really true, right and good."
In the midst of that confusion, continued parental engagement can be an asset (perhaps counterintuitively) to help emerging adults find that path to freedom they so desire.
One key challenge is continually renegotiating what individual identity means in relation to parents. Still, young people want positive relationships with their parents. They prize freedom and autonomy, but their parents may not recognize they still long for a sense of direction and guidance.
Smith's research found that parents' shaping influence in their children's religious lives was particularly strong — stronger than the direct influence of peers. Yet too often, parents at this stage back away from giving input on some of the most pressing and basic issues, including religious belief and lasting relationships.
Only 15 percent of emerging adults have a strong personal faith and practice it regularly, Smith's research shows. About 30 percent are engaged inconsistently or loosely affiliated with a religious tradition. One in four is indifferent toward religion, while 15 percent are open to spiritual or religious matters but haven't made a personal commitment. The final 15 percent have little or no connection to religion, or hold negative attitudes toward it.
Emerging adults tend to look at church as sort of an elementary school for morals, Smith concludes. Once you've got the basics of right and wrong, you eventually "graduate," perhaps returning when it's time for your own children to learn elementary morality.
This is a stark contrast to the idea of faith as a permanent, transcendent anchor of meaning amid crashing waves of change. Rather than the source of purpose they seek, these young people see a mere shadow of an important historical role of religious congregations: providing community and support for individuals and families from womb to tomb.
American society should brace for broader repercussions if our emerging adults continue to have a narrowing perspective on, and be less engaged in, religious institutions. Those institutions are traditionally a first line of defense for the welfare of the greater community, not just their members.
When support erodes from family, churches and other institutions of civil society, those in need are more likely to become dependent on government social programs.
That's something for parents and other wise counselors to keep in mind while they hope to see emerging adults stand on their own two feet.
As the class of 2010 graduates from college, the struggling economy presents only one set of immediate challenges. Whether these young Americans also choose to "graduate" from the support systems of family and faith may well determine not only their freedom as individuals but, ultimately, the freedom of our society.
Marshall is director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation and author of "Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the Twenty-First Century."