A Long Adolescence In A Lame Direction? Part 1

A recent edition of Christian Education Journal, a publication of Talbot School of Theology, focused on College and Young Adult Ministry (Series 3, Volume 5, Issue 1, pages 11-27).  One of the articles in this journal was written by Dr. Chris Kiesling, professor of Christian Discipleship and Human Development at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, KY.  The article, “A Long Adolescence in a Lame Direction?  What should we make of the changing structure and meaning of young adulthood?” will be featured in a series of three different articles over the coming weeks.

The first article in the series lays the foundation for understanding the changing nature of when a person “reaches” adulthood.  Kiesling identifies societal factors and discusses their implications.

Dr. Kiesling’s article is posted here with permission of Christian Education Journal. For more information about the journal, go to:  http://wisdom.biola.edu/cej/issue/?i=70.

The next article in the series will focus on Christian Education tending the young adult life course.

For several years I have found it intriguing to ask people of various ages the following questions:
“When did you know or how will you know when you have become an adult?”
“Was adulthood something you acquired/grew into or was it bestowed upon you – (i.e. did it require others to change their perception/expectations of you?)”
“What meaning(s) do you associate with adulthood today?”

The answers I typically receive are indicative of how complex and individualized the journey to adulthood has become, especially in North American culture. Some people in their mid-to-late forties report that they are not sure they feel fully adult; whereas others report feeling “grown up” when their parents divorced and they were launched into a caretaker role. Some collegians point to moving out of the house, becoming financially independent, or starting a family; while mid-lifers say that becoming fully adult only occurred for them when the older generation died and they became the matriarch/patriarch to whom the family now looked. In my own family constellation, I wonder about the confusion created when my thirteen year old son is given an “adult dose” of medication and encouraged to attend confirmation classes in the church, while having to wait several years before attaining “adult” status permitting him to drive at age 16, vote at age 18, drink at age 21, or consider a Presidential campaign at age 35.

Sociologists and life course theorists have historically monitored five key social events as indicators of the adolescent journey into adulthood: leaving home, finishing school, landing a job, getting married and having children. Furstenberg, Rumbaut, and Setterstein (2005), give clear evidence that the timing and sequencing of these traditional markers are now “less predictable and more prolonged, diverse, and disordered” (p.5). The Network on Transitions to Adulthood (2006) report that in 1960, over two-thirds of young adults had attained all five of these markers by the age of 25; by the year 2000, this was true of less than half of females and less than a third of males. Researchers studying these trends observe that: (a) the post-adolescent experience is now prolonged in length and without a fixed endpoint (Côté, 2000), (b) adulthood no longer begins where adolescence ends (Network on Transitions to Adulthood, Homepage); (c) adulthood is now the longest and least understood stage of the lifecourse (Côté, 2000); and (d) the logic undergirding one’s journey to adulthood may differ widely across geographic contexts within the United States, often functioning as the greatest constraint to adult development (Network on Transitions to Adulthood, Coming of age). Hence, what once was a rather seamless transition to adulthood, is now pluriform in shape (Schweitzer, 2004) and much more complex to navigate.

I realized how quickly these shifts have occurred and how monumental they may be when playing the Milton Bradley board game LIFE with my eight year old son. The presuppositions undergirding this game were stunning in the way they reflected the social structure, cultural scripts and meaning of the life course in the post-World War II era. The game, crafted for play in the 1960’s (http://www.hasbro.com/default.cfm?page=ci_history_life) does not begin at birth, underscoring perhaps the reality that by this time in the nation’s history one’s place in society was not determined by “accidents of birth” – i.e. gender or the family one was born into. One’s role in life was not predetermined by the sequencing of generations, nor ascribed by a family role one was expected to assume when a member of the older generation vacated their place at the table (Schwietzer, 2004). Instead, the game begins with a choice constituted by the options endemic to modernization. One may either enter college and pursue a career – with the expectation  that this choice, once made, will structure the family income and define one’s vocation for the rest of LIFE, in accord with an apprenticeship model of career – or one may forego this option, risk a lower salary, but enter a quicker engagement of the life course. After rounding this first bend toward adulthood, the pathway suddenly becomes uniform and carefully sequenced. Everyone, without choice, and by the necessity of the way LIFE is structured, must soon stop and attain a second social marker – getting married (at the church no less). Interestingly, one’s spouse does not come with a salary or a career choice of his/her own. Instead, they accessorize the key player’s pursuit of life, and there is no option of decoupling. Subsequently, for the first time in the game’s sequencing of life events, a player may now land on a space that enables one to add children. If so, a player is awarded a life card – suggestive of a moral valuation that having children enhances the life course. Another throw of the dice and the game structure once again mandates attainment of a sociological marker – buying a house. This is a typically a single occurrence, anticipating that the family will occupy this geo-physical space presumably within a stable and interrelated community, for the rest of LIFE; unless of course this player proves to be the best competitor by attaining the greatest wealth, thus finish the game first and attaining the consummate prize of retiring at millionaire estates – nuclear family intact, identity never altered, and immortality never pondered.

In this Milton Bradley world, the social structure couples and orders events in a way that makes cultural expectations clear and navigation through the life course relatively easy. Education is the requisite pathway to career; marriage precedes and is enjoined with childbearing; a normative pattern establishes what it means to live a good life; few choices are required, and those that are determine a relatively stable place in society. Adherence to these passage and cultural expectations provides a high sense of belonging within families and communities and relatively little conscious deliberation to make the journey. But consider what is required of a young adult when the sequencing and timing of these societal markers uncouple; when the conceptual itinerary by which to navigate the life course becomes scrambled; and when identity is no longer restricted by social ascription! Further, consider the impact this has on the individual if we take seriously Mead’s (1934) understanding that the organization of the self reflects the organization of society.

Côté and Levine (2002) deepen my understanding of society’s reorganization of personhood by distinguishing social identity from personal identity. Social identity is constituted by an individual’s position in the social structure, especially as that position is influenced by cultural factors and social roles. Social identity is that part of our self-concept that we derive from membership in a social group whether defined by sex, nation, religious origin, political ideology, social class, family, age, or profession (Zavalloni, 1975). Historically, cultural norms exercised considerable pressure on an individual to fit into and share the values, beliefs, attitudes, role enactments and expectations associated with a particular social identity mold. The options available to a person were heavily limited by gender, family background, or other accidents of birth. Thus, if you belonged to the social class of “woman,” your social identity was largely constituted and constrained by being a mother and a housewife. Likewise, if Catholic, you would be expected to attend mass and confession as well as adhere to certain beliefs; if Republican, to vote the party ticket.

In more recent decades, what many pundits have regarded as “post-modernity,” may better be described as a further ordering of Western society around a specific kind of individualism. Liberation movements, educational attainments, economic mobility, medical advancements and the effort to “give children a better life than we ever had” removed previous restrictions of social identity, freeing individuals from traditional statuses. With social identity diminished, or at least reconstituted around self-selected affinity groups, the search for meaning is largely sought within oneself (Klapp, 1969). Whereas life in an agrarian society may have been characterized as the sequencing of generations; and whereas life in an industrial society may have been characterized as career; life today, contends Schweitzer (2004), is an individual project, primarily a “matter of personal choice” (p.10). In other words, North Americans today find less self-definition from collective or traditional structures, thus relegating social bonds (church, denomination, political party, family) to a voluntary status (Côté and Levine, 2002). Often these affiliations are engaged only insofar as they contribute to self-interest or self-development rather than carrying any collective, familial or intergenerational obligation.

From interviews with young adults, Jeffrey Arnett (2006) discovered that most did not point to traditional sociological markers as constituting for them the meaning of adulthood. Rather they named psychological, intrasubjective, and personal measures as more salient indicators. Arnett (2006) concluded that the hallmark of adulthood is now associated more with taking responsibility for the self than with taking responsibility for others or in making lifelong commitments – e.g. marriage or childbearing. Taking on family roles is no longer perceived as synonymous with adult responsibility (Network on transitions to adulthood, 2006). Biased toward independent self-construal, North Americans claim the right to choose which duties and relationships oblige allegiance (Markus and Kitiyama, 2001). They recognize that in the absence of structural support and social markers to signify a normative pattern, attaining adulthood now requires a highly self-directed maturational process (Côté and Levine, 2002).  Côté and Levine (2002) comment that today the task is not for people to fit their brick into an already established blueprint; instead, they must engage in constructing the whole house.

The implications emerging from such a monumental reorganization are profound:
1. Such freedom requires much of people. If a social role is not predefined and there are few guiding norms, a person is likely to constantly reappraise themselves in light of their most recent relational exchanges. If the task of adulthood involves acquiring responsibility for developing the self one becomes; and if a person recognizes that they have to live with whatever choices they make; then they may feel assaulted by the culpability that neither childhood nor societal limitation can provide an alibi for failure or limitation. If social markers are no longer sequenced such that attaining one leads toward the next, there is a consequent need to keep thinking ahead in regard to how one might navigate the life course. Questions of identity that in previous eras were addressed and resolved decisively in adolescence, now become prolonged adult dilemmas (Côté and Levine, 2002). Consequently, the task of simply knowing what one wants for oneself may enjoin one on a lifelong quest (Côté and Levine, 2002).

Furthermore, to formulate identity in a fluid society now means a person cannot guarantee the trajectory that any particular resolution may at one time have been able to predict. The average adult today purportedly changes work roles six times across their working years (Network on Transitions to Adulthood, 2006). Without an underlying social structure, a person’s identity choices are more often experienced as questioned than confirmed (Côté and Levine, 2002). So much is this the case that Côté (2000) contends that whereas the industrial revolution produced “the economic man” of that generation, contemporary society has created “psychological adulthood.” Colloquialisms capture this shift: What used to be sought in “making one’s way” (what can I do well?) has become “finding oneself” (who can I be?); and the consequent new right being heralded is to “be whatever one pleases” (Klapp, 1969).

2. For those with familial support and financial resources, and a maturational process that facilitates self-directed agency, this new moratorium may open the door to more fulfilling levels of personal development (Côté and Levine, 2002). However, less advantaged populations, especially those “graduating out” of public systems (foster care, juvenile justice, and special education), often fail to acquire the life skills, or to feel enough in control of their life to navigate adult passages well (Foster and Gifford, 2005). In such a context, Côté and Levine (2002) foresee widespread problems with identity making. Important to recognize is that the primary emotion haunting contemporaries in their struggle toward attaining “psychological adult” is not that of guilt, but anxiety. Further, the high value being placed on individualism may allow psychological payback for some, but it may also contribute to a society of “cultural narcissists” (Klapp, 1969), who rarely make decisions on the basis of what contributes to community cohesion.

3. With individualization heralded as a cultural good, inevitably marketers commodify it. Mass production creates the need for mass consumption, and mass consumption depends on marketing strategies targeted at convincing people of restless, perpetually unsatisfied desire (Beck, 1992). Default individualization, driven by marketers, creates the conventional strategy to attain identity capital by fashion statements, body shaping, impression management, etc. Such strategies create the illusion of individualization, while actually setting up further diffusion (Côté and Levine, 2002).

4. The ascendency of individualism and the elevated necessity of identity-making, shifts the value-base for morality. When identity is socially ascribed and reinforced by tradition and culture, consensual morality is natural and is experienced as objective fact (Baumeister amd Muraven, 1996). However, as personal choice becomes ensconced as the requisite for living a full life, enlisting voluntary support for a communal moral ethos becomes at least parochial, and often carries little power to produce social cohesion. Without consensual morality in the public sphere, the cultural script shifts toward educating people to respect different values – i.e. coexisting without insisting on conformity. This too increases the psychological burden on an individual who often finds no clear basis by which to adjudicate between competing group claims. Inevitably, the implicit cultural dictum becomes – “find within oneself what feels right.”

Baumeister and Muraven (1996) point out that traditional values, culturally engrained, lent positive values to certain ways of doing things – i.e. by orchestrating one’s life to align with these proximal values, persuasive criteria aided everyday choice-making and endowed life with personal meaning. Though liberation in many sectors came as a result of relativizing the authority and consensual power of these value bases, history has shown that once destroyed such value bases are difficult to replace (Baumeister and Muraven, 1996). Culture may often try to find something that carries a shared sense of value and/or power (Fowler, 1981) and elevate it to a cultural or vocational ideal (work ethic, romantic love, sexual pleasure, nuclear family, sports heroes, or the self), but as ends in themselves they can easily become new idolatries. Furthermore, with societal restructuring creating a preoccupation with identity, and with culture convinced that individuality is the preeminent value, a revolutionary shift occurs. Morality and self-interest are joined in the pursuit of the development of the self (Baumeister and Muraven, 1996). The ancient posturing of morality operating to restrain and oppose self-interest for the sake of the common good, now releases people to freely engage with clear conscience in whatever may be presumed to be one’s right. Distrustful of the ascriptive and the traditional, persons are less likely to turn to a minister or to Scripture for direction and wisdom, and instead become more inclined to follow the conventional directive to look within, discover one’s own truth, or find one’s voice.

These shifts may largely account for the widespread interest in spirituality at the same time that religion, perceived as an organization that freezes identity exploration, is regarded with diminutive valuations. Spirituality in conventional understanding is individualistic, associated with the subjective and experiential; whereas religion is regarded as more formally structured, associated with institutions, prescribed theology and rituals (Roehlkepartain, et. al., 2006).

Chris Kiesling (Ph.D., Texas Tech University) serves as professor of Human Development and Christian Discipleship at Asbury Theological Seminary, in Wilmore, KY.

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