(This is a rant, a critique, and a revealing of myself as well; it is a post that I am writing as I am asking myself the same questions as others are; it is a post that reflects my own thinking that is in process)
There seems to be a lot of confusion these days in the 18 to early 30’s population. This is nothing really new, but there is a growing trend to identify what is going on. Because issues and questions are arising that weren’t present in previous generations. Now they might have been present, but how these issues were resolved were different. But in the United States and in other Western industrialized nations, the process of transition has taken on new dimensions.
Are these new dimensions in transition healthy? Unhealthy?
One of the things that has really interested me is how I combine my Master of Divinity degree in theology with the Marriage and Family Therapy degree that I am currently working on. And one of the points of contact between these two areas of study that keeps arising is the issue of identity. It is one question that can be addressed in many different ways. When it comes to theology the question is usually answered by looking at identity in terms of “calling” or our relationship with Jesus Christ. Who are we in Christ? When it comes to psychology it is usually addressed in terms of life stages, and how one answers the question of “Who am I?” in each stage of life. This is a very elementary way to look at this issue, as there is much more complexity involved, but I think it is helpful.
It is helpful because I believe that some of the transitional problems in the college to post college to young adult age demographic revolve around the issue of identity, and these transitional issues can only be properly answered by how we understand ourselves in each stage of life, and more importantly, how we view our identity in Christ through these transitions.
As a Christian I cannot properly resolve my questions, and transition from each life stage without having a life that is properly rooted in my relationship with Jesus Christ. Without Jesus Christ I cannot properly understand my identity and who I am. Knowing these things helps me properly live in, and move on from each stage of life that I find myself in.
Why have I decided to write on this topic? Because for the first time in my life I am having to really answer these questions for myself in ways that I have not previously had to. And because I cannot recall a time in ministry where I have fielded more calls and emails from students asking questions about who they are, and what is okay or not okay for the stage and age they find themselves in. It is a time of confusion, which often raises up fear as people wrestle with the question of how normal the feelings, doubts, questions, emotions, etc. that they are experiencing are.
This topic is not really new as I mentioned before. You probably became very aware of it over the last year from this article They Just Won’t Grow Up in TIME Magazine.
This article focused on the topic of Twixters : (source of definition: Wikipedia)
The word Twixter describes a new generation of Americans who are trapped between (betwixt) adolescence and adulthood. They are young adults (18-29) who jump from job to job and mate to mate but still largely depend on their parents. The conventional wisdom is that they are not lazy, just immature (it seems possible that they could be both, but apparently their immaturity is more important here). Time Magazine has recently done a thoughtful exposÃ© on Twixters, putting this largely forgotten demographic in the spotlight.
This demographic can also be referred to as:
There is definitely many more terms that is often applied to these people who now find themselves in college, post college and young adult demographic. There is also some flux in the age. Usually going as low as 18, and sometimes as high as the early to mid-thirties. Relevant Magazine talked about this in the article, Get This, Are You A Twixter.
This is a pop culture phenomenon in many ways. But there is also some serious research on this issue. Probably the most helpful research and information is being done by Jeffrey Arnett, and a couple of his books,
Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens Through the Twenties
Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood: A Cultural Approach
In a document titled Emerging Adulthood: The Risky Years, Ages 18-25 he lists some characteristics of this demographic:
What is emerging adulthood?
–Lasts from about age 18-25; for many, lasts through the twenties
–Begins with the end of secondary school; ends with the attainment of full adult status–?
–Exists mainly in industrialized societies, but growing in developing countries.
Social Changes leading to emerging adulthood
–Later ages of marriage and parenthood
–Longer and more widespread education
–Birth control, fewer children
–Acceptance of premarital sexuality, cohabitation
Five features of emerging adulthood
–The age of identity explorations
–The age of instability
–The self-focused age
–The age of feeling in-between
–The age of possibilities
Top Criteria for Adulthood
–Accept responsibility for one’s self
–Making independent decisions
–Become financially independent
Those are some basic statistics and ideas. Depending on who you read, and what you read, some of the ideas, theories and statistics will vary. But what I find fascinating is the five features of emerging adulthood:
–The age of identity explorations
–The age of instability
–The self-focused age
–The age of feeling in-between
–The age of possibilities
All of these things combined can tend to make people confused, doubt, ask questions and produce a certain amount of fear. Think about it. If you are in age where identity is explored, and there is instability, and you are feeling in-between, but there is also a lot of possibilities, but you are also self-focused. Wow!
What does this mean for us? These are some of the things I am seeing in my own ministry and in the communities that I am a part of, read about, and observe.
Students are leaving college, and they are wondering what am I going to do? What they decide to do will form a lot of their identity. So they explore all the options, wrestling with what their job says about them. They also explore multiple relationships, some traditional, and some not so traditional, wrestling with what this person, or these people, or this community says about who I am. Does this community or this relationship give me a sense of success; of popularity; does it make my appearance more attractive to those around me; etc., etc. What about where I live? If I live on this side of town than I must be successful, or run in the right group. Exploration of identity is being explored in many ways from the right career, to the right friends, to being seen in the right places.
Age of Instability:
This stage is causing a lot of instability because there really is no rooting of identity in something that is solid. The exploring moves one away from stability, as they move in and out of different groups; move to different places in the city, state or country, to pursue a different job to gain identity, etc. And it feels so much more unstable because our parents didn’t seem to wrestle with this as much. Though they might have, there seemed to be more social norms and constraints that helped transition people into each stage in ways that we do not experience.
This is an age that seems to be all about “me.” In this stage there doesn’t seem to be much concern necessarily for others. This is not a malicious thing, but the question doesn’t really arise of how what “I” do benefits others. The question is more about how this benefits “me.” The concern is more about how what a person does can benefit them. This makes sense in many ways and is nothing unique to this stage, but there seems to a more self-indulgent sense of self, a more self-indulgent focus on “me.” This self-focus keeps people in this stage from properly moving on. Why? Because transitions into other stages such as marriage and having kids and raising a family are not self-focused endeavors. Being married, having kids, and raising a family require sacrifice of a person, and require a person asking the question “What is better for my wife/husband, kids, family, etc.” And since this stage is so self-focused, people often have a fear of moving onto other stages because they don’t want to give up what they have, or give up their lifestyle, or give up their life being about them. Often a person will try to transition into a new stage trying to do the same things that were a part of the previous stage, and they realize that this doesn’t work. Transitioning from one stage to the next often requires a giving up of things. Saying yes to one thing, necessarily requires saying no to other things.
Age of Feeling In-Between:
This stage is a weird place to be because one is leaving a community such as college, and then moving onto adulthood. But the transition often seems to large to make all at once. So often a person moves little by little, with one foot in each place, and maybe a hand or two in other places. There is usually not a full-committment to anything, but rather a watching and waiting to see what should be next. We see this in ministry all the time. In fact, about two years ago, our church started a post college ministry that would fill in the gap between the college group and the young adults. So you have a college ministry of 18-22 year olds. Then you have young adults which is like 25-35. And in-between is 23-24. Very small age group. It is a great ministry, but it speaks of what is going on in our culture.
Age of Possibilities:
This could be one of the more difficult factors. As the saying goes the world is your oyster seems proper here. There are so many possibilities, and no one wants to choose one, and then find out they made the wrong choice. This creates a sense of paralysis which keeps this age group from often making any decisions; from committing to anything. What if I choose the wrong spouse to marry? So instead I will not committ at all, and just date, and hook-up and maybe co-habitate. What if I choose the wrong career? Then I won’t feel fulfilled, and I will have missed out on my dream, etc. What if I choose the wrong church? Instead I will hop around, going to the church that is cool for the moment, but I don’t want to committ in case another church becomes the place to be. This endless option of possibilities is both a very difficult and paralyzing thing, but I also think it can be a good thing. People can believe they can do anything, and often pursue their dreams with passion because there are so many opportunities.
I think that one of the underlying factors that arises out of these things is fear though. People are afraid to committ, to take the focus off self, to make the wrong decision, to be in-between, to not have answers, etc., etc. This article says Twixters fear making decisions and making mistakes. And obviously they go hand in hand. So no one makes a decision, so there is no mistake to be made. And instead, in this stage we often float carelessly around, doing what we want to do, and what makes us happy, because that is what matters. Because that is who we are, that is our identity.
My Own Wrestling
I am 30 years old and I can resonate with a lot of what is being said about this generation and age demographic. The possibilities seem endless to me at times. I am a pastor, but I am also in school studying counseling. I want to write a book, and I would love to have a radio show someday. I also want to live abroad for a year or more at some point in my life, with my family, doing missional work. And on and on and on. Tons of possibilities. But now that I am married also, I have had to transition out of my previous life stage and into a new one. This has required me to take a lot of the focus off myself, and to think about my wife, and a future family, and on and on. And I know in this transition that God is still showing me, and asking me to become less self-focused than I am. To die to myself, and carry my cross, and follow him (Luke 14:27). He is asking me to learn what it means to not only submit to him, but to mutually submit to my wife (Ephesians 5:21).
So I find myself in-between as well, like many of my students and friends. And things seem very unstable at times.
But for me I think the question revolves around the issue of identity. And for you I believe it does as well.
Finding Our Identity in Relationship with Jesus Christ
Henri Nouwen likes to point out that Jesus’ identity rested in his relationship with his Father. That before Jesus did any “ministry” that we know of, he knew who he was. He knew that he was loved by his Father, and that his Father was well pleased. In Mark 1:11 at Jesus’ baptism the text reads: “And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.'” Jesus’ idenity didn’t rest in the fact that he could heal people, and cast out demons, perform miracles. It didn’t rest in his actions or doing. But it rested in his being. My professor made the comment the other night that Western cultures, especially in Christianity, often form their identity on doing, rather than being. I think he is right.
As a college pastor my identity often rests in the students I work with and how they see me, and what they say about me. It rests in what kind of influence I have, and the sermons I can preach, and the people I can minister to. Do, do, do. I am often not content, or never content in just being a child of God. My identity is formed, thrives, and is affirmed in what I can manufacture and say and do. Sabbath is a reminder to me that God is pleased with me when I do nothing; when I create nothing. But I am not always content with that. That does not make sense to me. That can not be right I want to say at times.
Not Forming Our Identity Around the Wrong Things
I believe that the trouble that most people in the “emerging adulthood” demographic have, and wrestle with, is the issue of identity. They buy, do, consume, all in an attempt to form and stabilize their identity. The only problem with this. Our identity rests in things that have no eternal value, and when we soon realize that clothes, houses, money, cars, popularity, etc., can’t fulfill us, then we realize we have been chasing the wrong things. But that’s often all we know how to do. In Matthew 6:19-21, Jesus says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” When we do things and wrap ourselves in things that we hope bring us a sense of worth and identity, and it is not Christ…we feel very unstable.
Being Content, Regardless of Circumstance
In Philippians 4:11-13, Paul says, “Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
This may be simplistic, or seem that way, and that is because it is. It is very simplistic, yet so hard to do. Paul knew what it was to be content, regardless of circumstance. Jesus knew that his identity was in the relationship with his Father, not in his doing.
When you and I learn to have an identity which finds its place in Jesus Christ, and the relationship we have with him, rather than in the things we do, I believe we are in the right place. When we learn what it means to be content, regardless of circumstances, our identity is secure, because it is not based on, or circumstanstial to the things we surround ourselves with, or try so hard to do and be. Identity is never stable when it is based on circumstances or circumstantial things.
In the “emerging adulthood” demographic we are in a time and place in our life when we are forming a better sense of identity, and we are searching for the things that will bring that to us. But instead of searching for the things that do not fulfill, we should learn what it means to cultivate a relationship with Jesus Christ, and what it means to have an identity formed in him. This helps us learn to be content in each stage of life, or wherever we may find ourself, which will help minimize our trouble transitioning from one stage to the next.
As a college pastor I talk to many students about this issue, as I work through it myself. And the best thing that I can come up with is to allow students and people space to ask questions, and to always point them towards a relationship with Jesus Christ. To be content in Him. To make them aware that circumstances don’t shape who we are, but relationships do.
I am all over the place, so I will stop now. But thanks for reading this post if you have even gotten this far. It is not a post that I have said all that needs to be said, but rather it is a post that I wrote while exploring these issues myself.