It is no secret by now that there is a completely new stage of development among American adulthood—“extended adolescence” or what is coming to be known more respectfully as “emerging adulthood.” In the 20th century, we saw the new stage “adolescence” or “teenager” emerge—an extended period between childhood and adulthood, roughly from age 13 through 18. In 1950, we expected adolescence to be a time of turmoil and self-doubt as a child moved toward graduating from high school, getting married, then taking a job while settling down as an adult—often by age 22. Even half-way through the 20th century the average age of marriage in 1950 was 20 for women and 22 for men. Adolescence ended by age 22. In those days, the majority of young folk did not go to college—they finished high school and entered adult life. There was a time of transition, but it was short—maybe ten years at most.
Today the new transition stage is between teenager and adulthood, and it is much longer, bringing us a new stage—“emerging adulthood.” The majority of young people now expect to attend college. The old factory jobs out of high school have moved out of the country, and a college education is now required for even entry-level jobs. Marriage is increasingly delayed: by end of the 20th century, the average age of marriage had risen from 20 to 25 for women and 22 to 27 for men. For college educated women, it is getting closer to age 30. These young folks have discovered they probably won’t have one job all their lives like their parents did. They “keep their options open” and are slower to commit to marriage and career—and even to God. Many today don’t even expect to “settle down” until about age 30 or even 32. The result is a new stage of development that is strange to older parents and church leaders: the decade-long new stage of “emerging adulthood.”
How should Christian parents and church leaders respond to this new developmental stage? As a college professor, I see this shift every week. Parents complain, “Why doesn’t my kid get with it and move on in life? By their age I was a parent and a pastor in my second church, for goodness sake.” I frequently see seniors who are about to graduate with a ministry degree say, “Well, I’m not sure what I will wind up doing eventually. I’m thinking of traveling a few years or spending a few years overseas or maybe moving home for a couple of years and paying down debt.” Many of my generation were already ordained by age 23, and these young folk expect to settle their calling and career decisions by age 30 or 32, reserving the entire decade of their 20s to “work it out.” So what are the implications for parents, pastors and church leaders of this new stage of adult development? I suggest the following and invite you to ponder them, discuss them and add other implications:
There are exceptions to all this, of course. I have some seniors who are already “middle-aged.” They are sure of their call, already married and plan to launch their life-long ministerial career this summer. But they are the exceptions that prove the rule. The majority expect their 20s to be a time of exploration, transience, and “working through” what they will do with their life. The new stage of emerging adulthood has been coming since the late 1990s, but it is now firmly in place. These young adults aren’t going to adapt to the old 1950s’ systems. We must adapt our old models to new realities.
(copyright 2009, Keith Drury, www.drurywriting.com/keith)
Keith Drury served The Wesleyan Church headquarters in Christian Education and Youth leadership for 24 years before becoming a professor of religion at Indiana Wesleyan University. He is the author of more than a dozen books of practical spirituality, including Holiness for Ordinary People, Common Ground and Ageless Faith. Keith Drury wrote the Tuesday Column for 17 years (1995-2012), and many articles can be found on his blog “Drury Writing.”
Keith Drury retired from full time teaching in 2012. Keith is married to Sharon and has two adult sons and several grandchildren. He is retired in Florida with Sharon and enjoys cycling.