The in-between years

Emerging adulthood conference addresses ambiguous life stage

Henry Neufeld, Special to Canadian Mennonite

Emerging adult: it’s a relatively new category to describe the life stage between adolescence and the adult they will become.

They are no longer teens but are not yet fully independent adults. The term “emerging adults” usually describes young adults who don’t have children, who don’t have their own home, probably have not determined their lifelong career or completed their education.

It’s an “in between” ambiguous period, a period of instability. It’s a time to distance oneself from parental ties; in effect, a time to leave home, establish new friends, test new ideas and make independent decisions. It’s a pivotal time, a major transition often accompanied by feelings of lost identity. Legally, many youth become “adult” at age 18, but socially, culturally, relationally, they are still at loose ends.

The category is fairly new because of the longer time youth often live in their parental home due to the cost of education and housing. These young adults are seeking their own identity. They need to figure out who they are, their vocational direction and young-adult relationships. These factors are often compounded by the young person’s financial insecurity, general instability in life, and feeling trapped in the pre-adult phase. It’s time to flourish or founder.

A newborn infant’s growth stages can be readily charted; at two, six or 12 months, clear developmental markers indicate the child’s growth. Comparable charts for emerging adults are not readily available, especially not for spiritual growth.

Thomas Bergen, a residence coordinator at Vancouver’s Menno Simons Centre, a home for 23 university students located near the University of British Columbia (UBC), spoke recently at a mini-conference on “ministry to emerging adulthood” in Vancouver. He wondered what such a chart for young adults might look like, then pointed to Ephesians 4, where Paul told the believers there that they were to no longer be as infants, but to speak the truth in love.

Gil Dueck of Columbia Bible College in Abbotsford described young adults’ efforts to navigate life’s decisions, including faith issues. He noted a lot of interest in analyzing the patterns of emerging-adult behaviour. “The young people of today aren’t that different,” he said, noting, though, that “the world around us is changing rapidly.”

He pointed out that emerging adults are exploring newfound freedoms. They often face “a decade of instability” as they navigate their way through life. Adulthood usually indicates the confidence of knowing, or at least thinking they know. He cited young people’s use of Twitter, while their parents might still be mastering email and Facebook; the latter are tools of the past for emerging adults.

UBC chaplain Sue Perry observed that emerging adults find new friends throughout the internet and are connected to people all around the world; their peers are not necessarily local, she said.

“How do emerging adults know when we’ve reached adulthood and what should the transition look like?” asked Dueck. There is no clear path because developmental markers have not been developed for emerging adults. And for good reason. By the time of early adulthood, varied personalities and habits have developed, but there is no one clear path to follow.

Instead, the options for the emerging adult are endless, and that doesn’t make their choices any easier. Some will work, some will attend Bible school, some will travel, some will drift for awhile, unsure of what to do. Whichever path they follow, it will likely have one major impact: it will involve taking some risks. Some paths will have a dead end, but all will help develop skills to stand alone. In addition to leaving home, some will take a break from church, not attending at all or trying different churches and exploring other faiths. Churches, on the other hand, tend to give little freedom to those youth who want to explore.

Dueck said that youth today are sometimes raised with unhelpful ideas—”Be whatever you want to be,” or “You can do anything”—when these sentiments are not realistic. The young person hitting adulthood must face the question: “Who am I, and who am I in the eyes of others?” he said.

One student said that self-motivated actions are most important. “My generation is anti-establishment,” he said, “and church ministry is establishment. We don’t like to be told what to do. Structure is an offence. . . . I don’t know why I should be in church.”

“We need to hear of Jesus as love, as a prophet and as a social teacher,” said Dueck, adding that church is still one of the few places where young people can meet one another. Emerging adults need to see values communicated and adult behaviour that is conviction-driven, he concluded.

See also “The kids are all right ... aren’t they?” 

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