Capturing attention and fears with the ominous subtitle “The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood,” Christian Smith’s Lost in Transition is a sociological study of 18-23 year old Americans. These are the early “emerging adults” discussed by many social scientists. Emerging adults have some of the traits of the adults of earlier generations, but are marked by delayed settling down, including marriage, home and employment. Smith and his team interviewed 230 of these emerging adults to gain a better understanding of their world, their choices, behaviors, hopes and concerns. The investigation was not an open-ended exercise without a direction, however. Smith’s research was driven by questions about values. He is after more than description; he wants to explain.
Framing his perspective as the reasonable midpoint between a putative Pollyanna and an imaginary Cassandra, Smith claims that his research focuses on what is truly “new” about this generation at this point in time. He takes pains to emphasize both the positive and the negative. He does not concur that this is either a particularly troubled generation or that “kids are kids.” Nonetheless, it is the negative that engages his prose and dominates the book.
“Morality Adrift” is the title of the first chapter and it offers a tidy summary of the books various themes. Smith’s research revealed that 60% of the subjects are “moral individualists” and that many, a sizable minority, are “moral relativists.” Even more challenging to the holder of the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology at Notre Dame, most emerging adults lack the vocabulary, philosophical and critical reasoning skills to provide thoughtful explications of their values and choices. They are sloppy utilitarians, or perhaps the narcissists that Christopher Lasch bemoaned several years ago.
Having established their indistinct morality, Smith’s study looks at their commitment to consumerism (they’ve been captured), their binge drinking and addictions, the shadow side of sexual liberation (spoiler alert: it’s often worse for women), and the parlous state of their civic and political engagement. It is a dark side, indeed, especially if one’s paint box only has a few colors.
Smith’s concerns are spot on when it comes to the challenges of sensibility in the face of massive consumerism. He is right, too, about the inappropriate optimism of so many young adults, and the challenges that result when they face hardship and the larger world’s indifference. These are important observations and Smith addresses them effectively. He is less successful dealing with binge drinking and substance abuse, where recent scholarship is much more sophisticated and interesting. Similarly, his take on the challenges that teens and twenty-somethings face in navigating sexual behavior and integrating into a healthy life and understanding of the self are simplistic and superficial. While the voices of the interviewees ring out, the analysis does not provide much depth or context. Further, Smith’s arguments seem to undermine the very concept of emerging adulthood. An implicit assumption that developmentally, the subjects should be a different place, is woven through the text.
Smith’s overarching sense of disappointment problematizes the book’s core, the weak morality of emerging adults. Smith bemoans their poor moral reasoning skills. He finds their naive affirmation of a conscience and natural law theory a bright spot amid their general incoherence. In fact, their inability to articulate moral reasoning, coupled with their moral individuality, so greatly weakens moral judgments that he considers the entire endeavor to be at risk. Emerging adults, Smith affirms, have confused the distinction between people’s cognition or belief of a moral distinction and the reality of that moral claim. Slavery is evil, he notes, whether or not people believe it is or not. And his fear succinctly emerges in one sentence, a scream that regularly appears throughout history from a variety of thinkers unwilling or unable a lack of certainty: “There mentalities naturally lead to moral skepticism, subjectivism, relativism, and, ultimately, nihilism.
I share Smith’s concern with the poor vocabulary of many emerging adults and I endorse his enthusiasm for more moral reasoning. But his anxiety that moral skepticism is but a hop, skip and a quick slide to nihilism is unabashed nonsense.
A defining feature of emerging adulthood is that young adults are very much concerned with themselves. It is only when they begin to root, to make commitments to each other – romantically and professionally – that they mature. The development of moral judgment is always difficult; it is well-neigh impossible without strong interaction with others. Morality is not just individual behavior; it is ethics and is grounded in the community. With weak ties to their communities, most emerging adults by definition would have not developed robust moral schemes or the language to explain them. A marriage and a child changes that – very quickly – as does a job with meaningful responsibilities. Left to their own devices, most unattached individuals do not mull over their morality; they rarely have the need, particularly if they have been fortunate enough to avoid war or other crises.
Smith asserts that Lost in Transition is a work of sociological imagination. It is well-written and well-researched. Smith’s book has much to offer but his deep discomfort in common sense morality that has little connection with religion or philosophy. It lacks empathic imagination, an understanding of how and why the development of young adults is different today for so many people. It is not a question of what they lack or have lost. It is a question more about who they are and what they need.