Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, by Christian Smith with Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, and Patricia Snell Herzog. New York: Oxford, 2011, 284 pages, $27.95.

Two of Christian Smith’s previous volumes have been reviewed here in Ordained Servant.[1] Smith, a sociologist and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at Notre Dame, has emerged as one of the premier students of adolescents and “emerging adults,” eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds, though the focus of this volume is on the eighteen- to twenty-three-year-old age range. The two previous volumes addressed the religious/spiritual character of young people; this volume deals with more general realities. In all three, Smith et. al. join others[2] in noting the phenomenon of delayed adulthood; adults “emerge” later than they once did, and most marry at about five years later than they did just a generation ago (from 1960 to 2006, women’s marital age went from 20.3 years to 25.9, men’s from 22.8 to 27.5).

Emerging adulthood is at heart about postponing settling down into real adulthood ... Emerging adulthood as a social fact means not making commitments, not putting down roots, not setting a definite course for the long term. (231)

This volume is not alarmist, nor does it deny the good traits of this demographic group:

And many emerging adults we have studied are interesting, creative, and sometimes very impressive people. But the happy part of emerging adulthood is already well documented and only part of the story. There is a dark side as well ... the truth we must report is that underneath all of that is for many a dark underbelly of disappointment, grief, confusion, sometimes addiction. (3, 228)

Methodologically, Smith et al. employ what they call “sociological imagination,” an approach that

seeks to understand the personal experience of individual people, on the one hand, and larger social and cultural trends, forces, and powers, on the other, by explaining each in terms of the other. (4, emphases his)

The book is the result of surveys that were conducted first with 3,290 individuals aged thirteen to seventeen (followed by personal interviews with 267 of them) in 2001, and follow-up surveys and interviews with the same individuals (insofar as possible) in 2007–8. Based on their surveys and interviews, the authors are persuaded that “to be in one’s twenties today is not the same experience as it was decades ago” (227). Values-wise, Smith et al. deny that such a study can be value-free, so they name five “goods” that inform their evaluation of emerging adults, to each of which a chapter is devoted:

  1. To be able to think coherently about moral beliefs and problems.
  2. To have values that transcend material acquisition.
  3. To avoid routine intoxication.
  4. To have healthy sexual relations.
  5. To be aware of the broader social, cultural, institutional, and political world.

The “dark side” of emerging adults in America is that these five goods are remarkably lacking, and the authors believe that some of these areas “without exaggeration, are matters of life and death” (17). Many readers (such as myself) will not be at all surprised to learn that the first, third, and fourth are significant issues for emerging adults, but I was both surprised and chagrined by the second and fifth categories.

As a “baby boomer” myself, reared in the sixties and educated at college in the mid-seventies, I recall my generation’s fairly self-conscious suspicion of “the system,” which certainly included suspicion of the economic/commercial system. Though many of the ideals championed by young people in our generation (free love, communalism, seeking “enlightenment” via drugs) may have been unwise or immoral, they were at least ideals, and “the good life” was self-consciously sought outside of mere material/consumerist well-being. If anything, our parents regarded us as too idealist, as too unconcerned with the pragmatic realities of material well-being. Current emerging adults are the mirror opposite; their primary (and, in some cases, only) goal in life is materialist/consumer well-being:

Few emerging adults expressed concerns about the potential limits or dilemmas involved in a lifestyle devoted to boundless material consumption. Most are either positive or neutral about mass consumer materialism. Only a few have reservations or doubts. (71)

While each of the major chapters in the book is disturbing, this one (“Captive to Consumerism”) was surprisingly so, and bleak at that.

Equally surprising was the fifth chapter, “Civic and Political Disengagement.” Regarding their engagement with the broader culture and its institutions around them, the survey revealed six categories: apathetic (27%), marginally political (27%), distrustful (19%), uninformed (13%), disempowered (10%), and genuinely political (4%). These figures are even more disturbing when one considers how generously “marginally political” was defined: “In most instances, it appears that their definition of being ‘involved’ mostly means watching the news on television or reading the paper” (206). Only 4% of emerging adults are “genuinely political,” or interested in the broader public beyond their circle of friends or family. Contrast this with our 1970s protests, sit-ins, bra-burning, flag-burning, etc., and the difference is staggering.

The more predictable chapters (moral confusion, routine intoxication, sexuality) are not more pleasant for being more predictable. Though the chapters are written with the necessary clinical detachment required of sociologists, for the reader they are nonetheless bleak and often heart-breaking. Beneath all the frenetic texting, partying, and mall-hopping is a disturbing amount of pain, disappointment, and emptiness.

Not surprisingly, these sociologists describe six “macrosocial” changes (13–15) in the last several decades that have retarded the emergence of adulthood and contributed to the near-absence of the five goods noted above:

  1. The dramatic growth of higher education.
  2. The delay of marriage.
  3. Changes in the global economy that undermine stable, lifelong careers.
  4. Parental support continues well into the twenties.
  5. Widespread and reliable birth control technologies have disconnected human sexuality from procreation in the minds of many.
  6. The powerful influence of postmodernist and poststructuralist thinking.

There may be other cultural changes at work here also; the authors expressly deny that their work is (or could be) entirely comprehensive: “We do not pretend to have it all figured out, and we certainly are not prophets or reformers” (231). When they say, “One of the striking features of emerging adulthood is how structurally disconnected most emerging adults are from older adults” (234), I immediately thought of digital media, for instance, because, as Mark Bauerlein has demonstrated, the digital media have effectively “ghetto-ized” adolescents.[3] I have observed the same trend anecdotally, as someone who has been involved in higher education for almost thirty years. I could not agree more with Smith:

Most emerging adults live this crucial decade of their life surrounded mostly by their peers—people who have no more experience, insight, wisdom, perspective, or balance than they do. It is sociologically a very odd way to help young people come of age, to learn how to be responsible, capable, mature adults. (234)

The five chapters that constitute this work disclose a disturbingly “dark side” of emerging adulthood. As a parent of two emerging adults (and a college professor who deals with them daily), I experienced many sharp pangs of sympathetic pain as I read about how bleak their generation’s experience and outlook actually is. As a Christian, I was grateful at how directly, almost prophetically, the authors challenged the hegemony of mass consumer capitalism in our culture, a force that parasitically feeds off of American individualism while also exerting its own tyranny, so that

one form of external authority (“the obligations of town, church, extended family, and conventional morality”) has been displaced by another, much more insidious and controlling external authority—all done in the name of individual self-determination. (235)

While this book is interesting and illuminating to anyone interested in contemporary American culture, it is nearly imperative reading for educators, parents, and churchmen (especially those who work with youth). We have not (as a culture) served emerging adults well; but we can begin to repair some of the damage by understanding them now, in order to serve them later. Good diagnosis always precedes good treatment; if we desire to serve emerging adults well, we will find such diagnosis here.


[1] Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, by Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), reviewed by Gregory Reynolds in OS 16 (2007): 136–39; and Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, with Patricia Snell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), reviewed by John Muether in OS (2011): 100–103.

[2] e.g., Robert Wuthnow, After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty-and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion (Princeton University Press, 2007).

[3] The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone under Thirty) (New York: Tarcher, 2008).

T. David Gordon is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America serving as professor of religion and Greek at Grove City College, Grove City, Pennsylvania.

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Ordained Servant: April 2013

Running the Session Meeting

Also in this issue

How to Run the Session Meeting

A Road of Grief, Part 2: Hitting the Stone Wall: Reflections on a Biblical Marriage (August 2010)

Review of Selvaggio’s 7 Toxic Ideas Polluting Your Mind

Holy Sonnet 14

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