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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Emerging Adults

Young Americans are slower to “grow up,” but want strong parental ties

By John W. Kennedy
June 5, 2011

In many of life’s milestones, young adults are going down a different path than their predecessors, taking longer to finish college, find a spouse, start a career and settle into a stable church life. And as never before, emerging adults are dropping out in the midst of higher education, cohabiting instead of marrying, struggling to find the right job, and cutting religious ties.

Yet extended adolescence has hardly estranged them from their parents. In fact, half of young adults ages 18-24 move back home after leaving. They aren’t ready to navigate the rites of passage to adulthood as quickly as their parents or grandparents did. Indeed, 1 in 10 is still living with their parents until age 30.

“Emerging adults aren’t in a hurry to grow up because it doesn’t look like any fun,” says Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, author of Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road From the Late Teens Through the Twenties. “They know eventually they will have to settle into a stable adult life, but many figure 30 is early enough.”

Because many don’t enter adult transitions until about age 30, Arnett believes a new stage of life he terms “emerging adulthood” has developed between adolescence and young adulthood. As the saying goes, 30 is the new 20.

Consequently, parents are afforded an extra opportunity to offer emotional and practical guidance for kids who are adrift.

Today’s young adults had a childhood of being driven to sports practices and music lessons in the family van, instead of jumping on a bicycle and riding there alone. Togetherness growing up, according to Barbara E. Ray, co-author of Not Quite Adults: Why 20-Somethings Are Choosing a Slower Path to Adulthood, and Why That’s Good for Everyone, has led numerous young adults to consider a parent as a best friend. Unlike in past eras, adult children and parents go shopping together and watch games with each other. Half of those between 18 and 25 see their parents every day.

“Kids are in near-daily contact with their parents, texting, calling or emailing,” Ray says. “Young adults today see their parents, and especially their mothers, as a source of not only advice and counsel, but also companionship and comfort.”

Sometimes that results in parents being the safety net for a child who has found living alone too daunting. The parental home enables the child to save hundreds of dollars a month in rent, pay down college debt and be more strategic in pursuing suitable employment.

“Kids aren’t just living at home playing video games,” Ray says. “They are making smarter decisions to launch them on a more secure path.”

Still, parents need to do more than just hang out with their offspring to make an impact. Brian Pingel, director of the Center for Youth and Leadership at North Central University in Minneapolis, says while college students today are constantly online and texting, they really aren’t forming deep relationships.

“This generation of kids has constant communication, but minimal connections,” says Pingel, who has worked with young people for two decades.

He says in order for young people to become autonomous adults, they must learn resiliency from their own troubling situations.

“Some of the things parents do that they think will help, comfort and protect their children actually delay their development,” says Pingel, who is assistant professor of youth studies at NCU.


Only 15 years ago, 20-somethings couldn’t wait to leave the nest. Now, half of those between 18 and 24 still use their childhood bedrooms.

Expecting a son or daughter to move out at 18 and make it alone is asking a lot these days, Ray says, especially in light of recent economic conditions.

Well-paying, secure manufacturing jobs with a pension now are rare, replaced by low-wage service-sector jobs offering few benefits.

Nevertheless, young people today expect work to be fun, according to Arnett, who describes “emerging adults” as those ages 18-25. He says many have unrealistic hopes of starting their own businesses or identity-based jobs.

Arnett says the driving force behind the move to delayed adolescence is the social changes in the 1960s and 1970s. Before then, few couples engaged in premarital sex; now most couples live together before or instead of marriage. The lofty status once afforded marriage has disappeared, he says.

Ray says many young adults aren’t abandoning marriage, just delaying it. They often use cohabitation as a “test drive” to see who is “compatible.” Marriage these days often follows other goals, such as finishing college and starting a career.

Another group of 20-somethings doesn’t see marriage as tenable, because they put marriage on a pedestal. Ray says they want the white wedding dress and the white picket fence, but because they are economically strapped and struggling to stay afloat, they compromise.

“They want companionship, so they live together instead,” Ray says. “But these relationships often break up.”


In the past, events such as marrying, buying a home and establishing a career also drove young people to become serious about religious commitment, especially once they started having children of their own. But if the transition to adulthood lasts a decade rather than a year or two, disengagement from the church may become permanent, according to Drew Dyck, author of Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults Are Leaving the Faith … And How to Bring Them Back.

Dyck warns that young people are defecting from the faith at an unprecedented rate.

“This protracted time of rootless living hardly encourages consistent religious involvement,” Dyck writes in Generation Ex-Christian.

Often emerging adults are suspicious of organized religion, and find claims of the exclusivity of salvation in Christ and the authority of Scripture to be stumbling blocks, says Dyck, managing editor of Leadership Journal. They view the foisting of authoritarianism of institutional religion to be a barrier and tend to cobble together their own belief system, he tells Pentecostal Evangel.

Dyck says myriad young people have adopted a soft neo-pagan worldview that denies the existence of a transcendent God, yet sees the environment or earth as the locus of spirituality.

“Young adults are some of the most creative, innovative, passionate people to ever have walked on the planet,” says Ryan Moore, Young Adult Ministries coordinator for the Assemblies of God. “The challenge is to provide opportunities for community to this very relational generation.”

Being relational at church is more of a challenge for a generation accustomed to posting updates daily, if not hourly, on Facebook.

“Church still needs to be an authentic place to belong,” Moore says. “The church can provide the grace, meaning and truth that young people seek.”

Technologically savvy young people are particularly drawn to a church engaged in social issues.

“If they sense that their church doesn’t care about pain and suffering going on around the globe, they will walk away,” Moore says.


More and more 20-somethings are moving back home after breaking up in a relationship, losing a job, finishing college or starting graduate school.

Ray says young adults benefit more from involved parents than parents who take a hands-off approach after the child turns 18. She advises parents whose children move back home to treat them as adults — letting them make their own dinners and do their own laundry. But the time for nagging, such as asking whether the child went out to look for a job that day, is over, she says.

Returnees enjoy being around their parents, but they also like their freedom, Arnett says. They aren’t looking for criticism about their dating behaviors, eating habits or spending patterns, he says.

Spiritually speaking, Dyck says parents frequently respond poorly to children who walk away from the faith.

“Often the reaction is to go on the offensive and clobber the kid with Bible verses — or to fail to engage at all,” Dyck says. He advises parents to talk about their own faith experiences positively and to engage in frank discussions about spirituality. He suggests not getting bogged down in tangents of politics or morality, but rather to keep the discussion gospel-focused.

“By and large they hunger for authentic spirituality,” Dyck says. “Few young people have a negative perception of Jesus.”

The Barna Group reports that 4 out of 5 people have “disengaged” from the church by the time they reach 29. A break from the faith of one’s childhood usually is the result of the young person seeing the church as hypocritical or parents as biblically uneducated, Dyck says.

“Many are vulnerable to defection because they never developed a deep faith in the first place,” Dyck says. “Many see a disconnect between what their parents claim to believe and what they do.”

Young adults are impressed with parents and other older adults who are transparent about their struggles and don’t offer pat answers for the doubts they face.

“Some young people have done all the good things — yet their mom got cancer, dad lost his job and their parents got divorced,” Moore says.

The chief factor in whether a young person retains faith after college or starting a career is having a mentoring connection to an older adult Christian, Dyck says.

Pingel likewise urges middle-aged churchgoers to offer encouragement to young people in their congregations.

“Even the smallest conversation of support and appreciation can be life-changing for these kids,” Pingel says.

JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel and the father to three 20-something sons, two of whom moved back home temporarily.

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