Who are “emerging adults”? Well, one clue is that if you have used the phrase from the meme displayed, you either are an emerging adult or you probably picked it up from one of them.
I will put my cards on the table and let you know that this age group is my absolute favorite. I love being around them, listening to them, arguing about their favorite music, laughing at their memes, and hearing their stories. If you are (or if you love) an emerging adult, this list is a great place to start in order to get acquainted with their wild world.
1. They are (and are not) young adults
Dr. Jeffery Arnett is the founding father of the term “emerging adulthood.” He recognized that 18-29 year old’s exhibit a unique stage of life that does not simply make them "adults who are younger," but rather, younger people who are no longer adolescents but who do not always consider themselves full-blown adults. This list will help break down why this is the case. But first, you should note that this designation is a social construction just like adolescence. In the ancient world, people were largely known by two defining stages of life: childhood and adulthood. Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and Quinceaneras are remnants of cultural norms that spawned specific rituals to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. Adolescence was not created until the modern era when our loss of these defining rituals left us with softer transitions from stage to stage. But just because it is a construct does not mean that it is not a helpful designation that allows insights and clarity for those going through (or disciplining those going through) this time of life.
2. Emerging adults feel caught between two stages of life
Dr. Arnett observes, "when asked whether they [emerging adults] feel they have reached adulthood, their responses are often ambiguous, with one foot in yes and the other in no." The marks of adulthood vary with a mixed application of independence & responsibility in everything from finances to relationships. Arnett notes that to call them young adults would require them seeing themselves as adults at all. But these changes are non-linear and incremental from 18-29 years of age. Therefore, as this group emerges into adulthood, it is important to note that there is a constant tension between feeling like an adult and not feeling like an adult. This can lead to a number of common issues such as imposters syndrome or delayed maturity.
3. Emerging Adults are transient:
18-22 year olds who attend college, usually have to completely change their routine and living situation every 3-5 months. Schedules, habits, acquaintances, expectations, and sleeping arrangements are continually uprooted and restarted. Emerging adults bring this habit of rapid change into the rest of their 20s. In her book, Generation Me, Jean Twenge researches a pattern that has continued to be true for years after its publication:
"That’s the other sad reality: not only is GenMe single for longer, but they often don’t stay in one place long enough to make friends. More than 1 out of 4 people aged 25-29 moved in the last year. It is shocking to consider the number of professions that require frequent moves for advancement."
Even with the effects of the pandemic, emerging adults experience a unique set of variables that makes travel and moving easier than in other times of life. And as Twenge notes, this has a profound effect on how they form and build community.
4. Emerging adults are exploring and cultivating their identity:
This likely comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with this age range. However, it is not the fact that they are forming their identity but how that is important. While every generation experiences identity formation during this stage, not every generation develops it the same way. Older generations were much more influenced by social norms and expectations. These allowed emerging adults to find their identity in common labels and trends deemed as proper by their communities. Current generations are not nearly as influenced by social labels of what is appropriate or inappropriate. The journey has become more individualized and isolated. The fact that emerging adults are seemingly on their own to make choices about their identity can be packaged as freedom but often results in anxiety or apathy.
5. Emerging adults tend to be self-focused
Self-focused should not be confused with egotism. While the possibility of being self-involved is as likely as it is with any adult, that is not what we are examining here. Self-focus comes from a unique combination of variables. With marriages being pushed to late twenties (or averted altogether), the time span between family of origin and new family responsibilities widens. With few people to be responsible for and fewer demands on them generally, emerging adults find themselves with an autonomy and solitude that is unique to this time of life. As a result, there are opportunities for reflection, exploration, and indulgence. While this possibility has its vices, it can also have its virtues. If emerging adults are able to use this time to seek out therapists, mentors, safe community, and spiritual discipleship, then a time of self-focus can be beautifully beneficial.
6. Emerging Adults are filled with hope and possibilities
The years following high school are ripe with opportunities. Once the twelve years of obligatory schooling are over, the burgeoning student has a host of choices before them. This kaleidoscope of choices continues as emerging adults try new jobs, new cities, new relationships, and new identities. For the first time in their life, they have access to life-changing choices that are their ultimate responsibility. This seemingly endless combination of possibilities causes a mixture of hope, excitement, anxiety, and fear. Particularly with vocational and relational discernment, emerging adults need a strong foundation of practical theology to guide their notions about how to choose along the endless buffet of options.
7. Emerging adults get a mind of their own:
Or rather, a brain of their own. In the journal for Adolescent Health published by US National Library of Medicine, neuroscientists note that the prefrontal cortex of the brain (or frontal lobes) are in crucial stages of development during emerging adulthood. This is significant because
…the prefrontal cortex coordinates higher-order cognitive processes and executive functioning. Executive functions are a set of supervisory cognitive skills needed for goal-directed behavior, including planning, response inhibition, working memory, and attention These skills allow an individual to pause long enough to take stock of a situation, assess his or her options, plan a course of action, and execute it.
This hub of cognitive development is important to understanding the maturity and limits of emerging adults. The emerging adult brain is significantly different from the young adolescent brain in many ways. James Fowler noted this developmental shift in how this age group responds to faith and metaphysics. Fowler’s research demonstrated a move from the Synthetic-Conventional stage (13-18) to Individuative-Reflective stage (18-22). The high school mind is developing a growing comfort with abstract thought and layers of meaning. They are starting to claim their faith as their own, however, it is usually still the faith of their family. Issues of religious authority are important to people at this stage: parents and important adults, friends and religious community in particular. For all people in this stage, religious authority resides mostly outside of them personally. When a person reaches emerging adulthood, new patterns emerge. They start to question their own assumptions around the faith tradition & start to question the authority structures of their faith. This is often the time that someone will leave their religious community if the answers to the questions they are asking are not to their liking. Greater maturity is gained by rejecting some parts of their faith while affirming other parts. In the end, the person starts to take greater ownership of their own faith journey. We often refer to this as deconstruction and it is particularly prevalent in emerging adulthood. But that does not mean that it is problem. In fact, when we learn more about the brain science of this group, we can better understand and guide this new faith journey.
8. Emerging adults are not losing their faith.
As I mentioned above, emerging adults are going through a significant cognitive developmental stage that factors into their faith journey. Many have looked at this trend and often labelled it as a loss of faith. While there are certainly statistics to back up an exodus from Christianity, some data is misread to support an exit from the faith when really, emerging adults are experiencing one of these possibilities:
a. An exodus from religious institutions. Leaving church does not necessitate that someone has let go of their faith. There are multiple factors why emerging adults are hesitant about organized religion.
b. A strong critique of faith foundations. Emerging adults might push back hard against Scripture, ethics, leadership, and doctrine. While many faith leaders I’ve observed who work with emerging adults take a I-will-convince-you-otherwise-so-that-you-get-back-on-track approach, I recommend seeing this push-back as an attempt to get meaningful answers to questions that are actually signposts for deeper anxieties and insecurities. If we listen carefully and are patient, we can walk with this group towards meaningful reconstruction out of deconstruction.
c. Taking time away from regular practice in order to work through trauma. Some emerging adults are on parallel journeys of faith and mental health in an escape from toxic people who weaponized religion against them. Their abandonment is not a disregard for their faith, but rather a need to re-categorize what is toxic and what is life-giving.
9. Emerging adults are not fooled.
Authenticity is key. In my work with emerging adults, they have a sixth sense for disingenuous religious salesmanship. Even when they participate in these highly curated worship conference experiences that are so popular with this age group, there is an uneasiness that mulls in their stomachs when they come back and talk about it. Sure, they had a great time. But the carefully crafted emotional pitch and the uniform behavior clues them in that some of these experiences don’t quite feel real. There is a craving for something real even if they have no idea how to articulate or qualify this desire.
10. Emerging adults don’t need reactionary trends. They need the gospel.
Everything from purity culture, to worship culture, to what topics are taught can often result from some other cultural stimulus. Social scientists have noted patterns of how our theology has been shaped as it reacts to a social or cultural variable (which is likely, also, reacting to some other cultural/political or religious variable). If we have the courage to examine our strategies for emerging adult discipleship, we might find that we have been often steered by influences that have nothing to do with the gospel. At the end of the day, I can find no better thing to anchor all our efforts to than the gospel. I’m not talking about an evangelistic message as much as I am referring to the beautiful truth that first set us free and continues to set a banquet table of shalom from which we must feed every day. It is the Life Source we must draw from every morning in order to remember what is true about us already because of Christ’s resurrection. We must preach it to each other and ourselves as often as possible lest we forget and live like orphans. I challenge and implore those of us who minister to emerging adults to reassess our discipleship strategies and ask: is the central hub of this effort leading people back to the gospel of Christ?
If you are an emerging adult (or if you love emerging adults), I hope this little article has given you some new things to think about. There is so much to learn from this amazing group of people and I hope that we can continue to learn from each other as we tackle these topics in more depth together.