Where Do 20-Somethings Fit in Our World—and in the Church—Today?

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Young, tech-savvy, fashion-forward people in their 20s seem to be the envy of both young and old. So why would we wonder where they fit in our world today?

As I have been researching, pastoring and parenting “20-somethings,” it has become evident that this group is having a hard time fitting into our social structures, our churches and our families. They don’t lack the desire to fit in; they lack the navigational resources, markers and support to find their way in an adult world.

In popular literature, I read of 20-somethings (or “millennials”) as both the problem and the hope for the future. I talk with parents who are faced with unanticipated questions and emotions as their kids “boomerang” home after graduating college, choose jobs outside their majors, and delay marriage and parenting plans. I consult with Christian leaders who perpetually ask in hushed voices, “Where have they gone, and how do we get them back?”

So maybe the question of fit has some merit, although I propose we frame the question in more helpful ways.

It is likely that this group can’t and won’t fit the existing assumptions of previous generations, the traditional trajectories toward adulthood, or the participatory expectations of faith communities. This has drawn tremendous worry, suspicion and even blame from adults.

What emerging adults need, however, is greater understanding. This understanding may be trickier than we think, because to generalize any group of people fails to appreciate the uniqueness and complexity of each person.

If, however, we acknowledge this limitation and resist stereotyping, then we can shed light on some of the common aspects of young people in their 20s that may bring both better understanding and appreciation of their particular journeys.

In Christian contexts, this is especially important. When adults accuse young people of “leaving church,” we often misinterpret the dynamics of what might actually be occurring. As a result, uninformed accusations foster shame instead of grace, blame instead of love, and division instead of unity.

Inadvertently, parents, church leaders and employers proclaim a gospel that limits grace, makes love conditional and segments relationships. The oneness for which Jesus prays requires us to live in the light of incarnation by inhabiting emerging adult spaces and seeking to understand them on their terms (John 17; Philippians 2).

This posture will require both courage and a renewed imagination toward what we call them, how we see them and how we support them.

What should we call them?

What if we started by not calling them 20-somethings? Besides sounding generically dismissive (what is a “something”?), this term also fails to capture the multifaceted nature of the lives and challenges young people face.

Some researchers have tried to do better by naming this group “millennials,” drawing from generational theory for help. Millennials are described as individuals born between approximately 1980 and 2000. Their parents are often Gen Xers and their grandparents, boomers. Generation Z (also called iGen, post-millennials, centennials or plurals) follow them.

Millennials are often described culturally as having certain attitudes about work, technology, politics and religion. Depending on one’s perspective, the term millennial is used to evoke hope or disdain.

When we draw sharp distinctions between generations, however, we risk creating too much or too little hope in the “next” generation. Adults then often superimpose expectations upon a younger generation that lead to lamenting “young people these days,” or selectively reminiscing about their own past with words like “When I was your age …” The moment adults utter these phrases, they’ve betrayed the unique aspects of young peoples’ journeys today.

The biggest challenge with using the millennial label is that it remains too broad, missing the uniqueness within this group (currently ages 16 through 36!) and downplaying developmental, cultural and life-stage differences.

If not 20-somethings or millennials, what term might help us better define this season?

“Emerging adulthood” is a phrase coined by Jeffrey Arnett that describes a unique stage of development for those ages 18 to 26. Emerging adults—those who no longer consider themselves adolescents, but have yet to see themselves as adults—predominantly live in post-industrial societies where the cultural norms for marrying, having children or entering a career are delayed.

This identified developmental period has emerged in academic research more recently, as young people have reported needing more training to enter the workforce and thus delaying both marriage and childbearing, choices that afford them more options and autonomy during this period of their lives.

Developmentally, emerging adults report not feeling like adults and being somewhat resistant to the constraints associated with adulthood.

Arnett has identified five main features of emerging adulthood, as (1) the age of identity exploration, trying out various possibilities—especially in love and work; (2) the age of instability; (3) the most self-focused period of life; (4) the age of feeling in between, in transition, and neither adolescent nor adult; and (5) the age of possibilities, when hopes flourish and when these individuals have an unparalleled opportunity to transform their lives and focus them more specifically.

How shall we see them?

When we acknowledge the unique period that emerging adults navigate to find their fit, we see that they have more opportunities than ever; they have more worries as they navigate their unstable lives and unstable world; they have more need to focus on themselves because they feel isolated and stressed; they have more ambiguity as they live in between adolescence and adulthood with few defined cultural markers; and they have more optimism despite their life challenges.

As a result, they need more education and more time to prepare for adulthood; they are more cautious of lasting relationships because they have seen many adults’ relationships fail; and they need more time to become financially independent because they are burdened by student loans, low-paying jobs and limited career options.

Thus, the adult markers valued by previous generations—getting a job, getting married or parenthood—are not the measures emerging adults use for reaching adulthood. Adulthood arrives when they are able to accept responsibility for their actions, make independent decisions and become financially independent.

These goals drive emerging adults’ trajectories and become important interpretive lenses for their actions.

Let’s support, not fix.

When we understand the developmental, sociological and theological opportunities and challenges facing emerging adults, we better support them.

Support, however, must resist “fixing” emerging adults. Instead, it calls for all adults to critically self-reflect on their own lives and consider how emerging adults’ perspectives shed light on their own worldviews. While this piece only presents high-level considerations, it might offer starting points for your home, church or workplace.

Parents, remember that faith and struggle are contagious.

The good news for parents is that emerging adults’ relationships with their parents typically are better than when they were adolescents. While these findings are hopeful, the anxiety of parenting (my wife and I included!) doesn’t disappear after high school graduation.

Anxieties only shift as we hope our kids will make good choices, find their own paths and take the best of their upbringing into their own lives. Often, the frustration and anxiety parents feel isn’t because their kids are doing something wrong; it’s because parents’ own lives and faith perspectives are being challenged. When our children struggle emotionally, relationally and spiritually, we struggle, too.

There is a certain contagiousness to faith. The ways our emerging-adult children question, struggle and live into their faith journeys evokes our own questions, struggles and lifestyle choices. The temptation is to solve their problems so that we feel better instead of addressing the formational work we may need to address.

As a parent, where do I need to let go, grow in my own worldview and take my own steps of faith?

Try this: Be open to hearing your emerging-adult child’s views, questions and longings. Ask them about their perspectives, and before you try to correct them, take inventory of your own emotions and beliefs. What might their questions, outlooks and struggles teach you about your own faith journey?

Churches, remember that religion and spirituality are relational.

In my own research, it became apparent that for many college undergraduates (younger emerging adults), their intellectual spiritual struggles were most felt relationally. In other words, emerging adults hesitated to share doubt for fear of disappointing the adults and leaders in their home churches.

They also expressed frustration because their churches failed to see them beyond their gender or marital status. Programmatic limitations kept these emerging adults from staying connected with their churches and inspired them to find other communities where they could make spiritual and relational meaning.

Many of these same churches have responded with questions like, “Why are you leaving us?”—only adding insult to emerging adults’ already-vulnerable dispositions. Churches must reimagine and redefine their relationships with emerging adults.

Emerging adults are seeking connection beyond prefabricated programmatic categories. They have more to offer and more to benefit from our faith communities if churches welcome not only their attendance, but also their ideas, questions and relationships.

Try this: Instead of inviting emerging adults to join your church’s existing programs, ask them, “Where do you see injustice in our world? What can we do to support your vision to address this challenge?” Emphasize grassroots participation over programmatic attendance.

Employers, remember that for emerging adults, work is self-narrating.

Gone are the days when employees dedicate lifelong work to a company that promises to take care of them with a guaranteed pension.

I know a fellow scholar who teaches college seniors in a capstone course. He teaches that they must advocate for themselves and continue to develop their skills because jobs are not “sure things” and our knowledge economy is perpetually demanding lifelong self-improvement.

Emerging adults are often accused of being disloyal to companies that promise them little. I have found that in the internship programs I have developed and run, emerging adults are looking to work for something they believe in and for mentors who can give them feedback both on their work and on themselves.

Employers, including churches, will best develop emerging leaders if they are willing to hire and mentor the whole person.

Try this: Commit to investing time in emerging adults to talk about their work and their lives in order to assist their pursuit toward work/life integration. This may require you to reimagine the metrics you use to define success and professional development.

Emerging adults are doing just that: emerging into adulthood. Their emerging journey to find their adult fit has unique, increased challenges and opportunities that need our understanding and support.

Helping them fit in society, therefore, doesn’t mean fixing them. In fact, they can fit right where they are.

With the right support, their emerging adult quests can be investments into their adult futures. With the right posture, their lives can inspire and challenge the worldviews of adults, churches and communities. With the right vision, we can embody good news for all and risk being the supportive new community the church is called to be.

This is good news for emerging adults. This is good news for everyone.

To learn more about studying with Steve Argue and classes Fuller offers in youth, family and culture, visit Fuller.edu/YFC.

Steve Argue is assistant professor of youth, family and culture at Fuller Seminary and applied research strategist for the Fuller Youth Institute.