The world of adolescence
The best days of their lives?
What drives the young
Sep 17th 2011 | from the print edition
Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood.
CHRISTIAN SMITH is a well-known sociologist of religion. That alone may deter the more deeply secular from reading his book, “Lost in Transition”, which explores the moral map of 18- to 23-year-olds in America. This would be a shame, as it is intensely and uncomfortably thought-provoking. It deserves consideration on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly from the parents of that generation.
A note about method first. Mr Smith (a professor at the University of Notre Dame) and his co-writers have been following the emerging adults on whom this study is based since 2001, when they were just young sprats. The authors have repeatedly surveyed a “nationally representative” sample of over 3,000 and personally interviewed a smaller number. This book relies primarily on intensive interviews in 2008 with 230 of the original group, many of them then in college or university.
Mr Smith starts from the observation, which few would dispute, that adolescents are slower to emerge into adulthood these days: they study for longer, they depend on their parents for longer and they marry later, if at all. The world of real work they eventually enter is not the world of stable, long-term jobs that previous generations knew. During that long transition they have unprecedented freedom—from unwanted childbearing, for example—and no particular reason to rush into commitments of any sort. Moral boundaries are less clear than they were; many young adults have been taught not just to tolerate other people’s views and behaviour but to see them all as equally valid.
In every age the transition to adulthood is a turbulent time. The message here is that in today’s world there is much that is fun, free and promising about this stage of life, but a dark side of apathy, confusion, loss and grief is less readily acknowledged. The book focuses on five areas: how young adults make ethical decisions; what role consumerism plays in their lives; why they drink so much; why they have sex so indiscriminately; and why, despite optimistic claims that Barack Obama awakened young people in 2008 as John F. Kennedy did their parents or grandparents, they are in fact disengaged from civic and political life. The answers in the first area foreshadow most of the rest. What is striking about the responses to a whole string of questions probing how these young people deal with moral issues is how few of them seem to grasp what is being asked. Murder, rape, bank robbery are seen as wrong. But what about cheating on exams, cheating on lovers, even driving drunk? They talk about whether they might be caught, how their friends would react, how they themselves might feel. Where it is a question of others’ questionable behaviour, a standard answer is that it is up to each individual to decide for himself. Very few seem to think that right and wrong are rooted in anything outside personal experience.
在每个时代，向成人期过渡的这段时期都是动荡不安的。这本书旨在说明如今人们都认为这段时期是充满快乐、自由和希望的，而很少会认为是无趣、困惑、迷失和悲伤的人生黑暗面。本书集中研究这五个领域：年轻的成年人如何做合乎道德的决定；用户至上主义在他们生活中处于什么地位；为什么他们喝那么多酒；为什么他们随意地与他人发生性行为；尽管巴拉克奥巴马在2008年时呼唤年轻人要乐观生活，正如约翰 F 肯尼迪唤醒他们的上一代一样，但是为什么他们还是不愿意参加公民政治生活。关于第一个方面的回答预示着本书接下去的大部分内容。一系列探究年轻人如何处理道德议题的问题的回答令人惊奇之处在于，他们之中能够领会所问的问题的人少之又少。他们认为谋杀、强奸、抢劫银行都是错误的。那考试作弊，对情人不忠，甚至醉酒驾驶呢？他们谈论他们是否会遭逮捕，他们的朋友会有什么反应，他们自己的感觉如何。当问到他人可疑的行为的问题出在何处，标准的答案是由各自决定。几乎没有人认为对与错是深植于个人经历之外的。
And so to consumerism. Shopping is personally fulfilling; buying things supports the economy (true enough); if you can afford it, you deserve it. Might it be just a tiny bit gross to own ten cars while others in your city are working double shifts to buy shoes for their children? Apparently not. The good life consists of having a decent job, a decent standard of living and a nice family, not of fighting for justice or saving whales.
As for the prevalence of drink and sex, peer pressure, advertising and the media play their part, but so too does sheer boredom. Many of the young women, in particular, look back with some regret on very early sexual experiences, and on later ones with virtual strangers. And as for politics, what emerges is a strong feeling of disempowerment and distrust. Relatively few young people think they know or can do much about what is going on, and most of those who do follow current events and vote seem to take things no further.
Yet “Lost in Transition” is not, in fact, a hand-wringing tale of gloom. Nor is the moral map it describes unique to America; there are many echoes in Britain, which was struggling even before its August riots to understand why so many young people seemed adrift. It is really a warning to parents. In the guise, often, of teaching tolerance, we are failing to ensure that our children understand how to frame moral issues and make judgments about right conduct and about what is good in life. The reason for this, Mr Smith suggests, is that we are not so sure ourselves.