Today I came across a wonderful TED talk video (thanks, Tom Oord!). Psychologist Meg Jay reflects on misconceptions about emerging adults. She points out that too much of popular culture, media figures, and even educators have viewed “30 as the new 20“. In other words, because of later ages of marriage, childbirth, career launch, and so on, that the decades of the 20s is a period of marking time until real adulthood starts.
Personally, I blame “Friends” for glamorizing a bunch of 20-somethings (at least originally) trying to find direction in their lives.
Meg Jay says that rather than seeing the 20s as this great period of uncertainty and role exploration it should be the time of personal work building toward the future. Specifically, she calls for twenty-somethings to 1) build identity capital, 2) develop weak ties in addition to strong ones, and 3) begin picking prospective family.
Sociologist Christian Smith used the National Survey of Youth and Religion to point out the problematic nature of an undirected twenties decade in Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. Smith and colleagues report on the high degrees of binge drinking, problems of substance abuse, impermanent sexual relationships, and high degrees of directionless-ness. This data follows closely on what Jeffrey Arnett’s work suggests in terms of emerging adults.
So what can we do to help our students avoid the melodramatic lessons of Chandler, Monica, Ross, Rachel, Joey, and Phoebe? How can we use what Meg Jay has learned in her clinical work to make the twenties not a period of open exploration but a period of stage-setting? I think her three challenges have direct implications for Christian educators.
First, she argues that young people need to build identity capital: “Do something that’s an investment in who you might want to be next.” It’s not that the student needs to have things mapped out. But a vague sense of general direction can be useful. Our task is to help students pay attention to what they’re learning about their own strengths, weaknesses, interests, passions, and causes. They aren’t taking a bunch of required classes for some job but are sifting through a range of options. It’s okay for that to be unfinished — the process of narrowing pays dividends down the road.
Second, twenty-somethings need networks. Not just the roommates and those across the hall or who hang out at Central Perk. They need to connect with others: “New things come from what are called our weak ties, our friends of friends of friends.” With that shout-out to Mark Granovetter’s classic sociology piece about the “strength of weak ties”, Meg observes that twenty-somethings need diverse, cross-generational contacts. This can be a challenge for a Christian college. Frankly, the homogeneity is just too high. Faculty members become important contacts, not for potential letters of recommendation, but because we provide someone outside of family and friendship networks who can be honest with students and use our own contacts to help introduce options.
Third, Meg says that rather than seeing relationships as transient in the twenties, it’s better to see them as exploring the kinds of relationships that are affirming: “Picking your family is about consciously choosing who and what you want rather than just making it work…“. In the Christian university context, this means focusing on quality relationships while avoiding pushing couples into premature commitments. Engagement ceremonies have their place but we must stay clear of “ring by spring” expectations or old tropes about MRS degrees. The real work is in being with others, understanding how the student relates to them and why. In our Christian environments, we should be cautious about “this is the person God meant for me”. Far better to say, “God created me to flourish with this type of person”.
Twenty-somethings who take Meg’s advice seriously will exhibit a common orientation: they will be thoughtful and reflective about the situations in which they find themselves. Their classes can provide clues about passion and direction, if they are looking for them as opposed to simply meeting requirements. Their networks can stretch them with new dreams if they are aware of what possibilities are in front of them and think of strategies to pursue them. Their relationships become means of learning about oneself and not about solving some life puzzle.
All of this puts special pressures on faculty members and student life personnel in the Christian college or university. I must be open with my students about the challenges they will confront. I must be in sufficient relationship with them to ask good clarifying questions as they’re considering options. I must see that my investment in them runs long after they leave my class and the university.
But if I do these things, it means that they are well on the road to the life they dreamed of. The returns on those investments are absolutely immeasurable.