Things to know about 18-29 yr. olds

For more than 30 years, I’ve worked with those in the life-phase of emerging adulthood (or, adultolescence).

Over the last couple of decades, I’ve observed some significant changes in this age group that align with many of the conclusions of sociologist Christian Smith in his book, Souls In Transition, The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, (Oxford University Press).

Smith’s work focused on Americans ages 18-29 and his observations about the way young people think on moral, political and religious opinion could be described as respectful ambivalence.

Some of this came to my attention when I spoke to a large group of university students on a Christian view of sexuality. I was a guest member of a panel hosted by the philosophy department at Franklin and Marshal College (PA). The theme of the night was “God, Government and Gays,” and the panel was weighted with professors who favored gay marriage.

During two hours of questions, the most respectful members of the audience were the university students. They expressed sincere interest in knowing why I choose to follow the Christian Scriptures and why I do not endorse homosexual relationships. Yet the disturbing part of the student response was a notable degree of respectful ambivalence toward moral opinions.

When adult participants became emotionally charged and angry with their questions, students rolled their eyes in disgust. When I encouraged these adults to calm down so that we could have an informed discussion, the students shook their heads in agreement. Yet most of the young people remained generally unmoved by different points of view. They seemed comfortable with moral indifference and respectfully confused about what the “big deal” is with gay marriage.

In his earlier research on youth, (Soul Searching, The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, Oxford 2005), Smith discovered that they had one word response for strongly held religious and moral opinions: “Whatever.”

“What’s the big deal?” “Who really cares?” Why get worked up about it?” “It won’t change anything?” Underneath the surface, these common lines also express a degree of angst with issues that divide people.

Public education

It’s significant that many of these young people came up through education atmospheres where tolerance was required (with no exceptions tolerated!). Rather than offend others, they learned to suppress their thoughts and feelings by remaining publicly neutral about issues considered divisive. They also (mostly unknowingly) learned to be inarticulate on matters that only caused controversy. Among today’s young students, Smith noticed that, “The strategy for dealing with religious and moral disagreement is: ‘You don’t go there.’” Going there only causes trouble.

Humor: a means of dissent

When these teenagers became young adults, The Office became one of their favorite television programs. Taking the ultimate “whatever” approach to all things political, social and moral, the main characters of this show spare no humor on politically correct stuff. Whether it’s race, gender, sexuality, class associations, religion — all is fair game for light-hearted humor! What’s the big deal anyway?

After years of life under forced acceptance and required affirmation of everyone’s religious, moral or political viewpoints, it’s not surprising that this generation would enjoy a program that treats it all so lightly. Perhaps they’ve turned to humor as a means of dissent – or even, as a way to detox. 

Political dissent

Interestingly, in the political realm, many young people are choosing to be independents because of their aversion to divisive partisanship between the reigning parties. Watch how this will change the nature of political debate in the next few decades.


Although I was grateful for the respectful and inquisitive responses of the students at Franklin Marshal College, I am troubled by the thought that they might not take seriously matters of great importance to the future of our nation. The default to a “whatever” position among a large group of citizens could become a political opportunity for evil. 

Steve Cornell

See: 10 guidelines for ministry to 18-29 year olds

About Wisdomforlife

Just another worker in God's field.
This entry was posted in Culture, Democracy, Diversity, Emerging Leaders, Religion-not the answer, Tolerance. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Things to know about 18-29 yr. olds

  1. Pingback: Ten do’s and don’ts for effective ministry to 18-29 year olds « Wisdom for Life

  2. Craig says:

    I’m a 55 year old evangelical Christian, father of two Millennials, Sunday School teacher and Logos volunteer, and I find little in this post that corresponds with my experience. In your related post about ministering to 18-29 year olds you write:
    “4. Avoid exaggerations, overstatement and mischaracterizing generalizations. They can smell this stuff and it stinks to them! It will be a big turn off if you impugn people’s motives through exaggeration, overstatement or mischaracterizing generalizations.”
    Reading this post makes me shake my head wondering if you really wrote #4. I find this post rife with exaggerations, overstatement and mischaracterizing generalizations. Please do not take this as a personal attack. I write to you as my brother in Christ and I have no reason to doubt your Faith or the sincerity of your conviction that these elements of postmodernity threaten the Church and Christian beliefs. But I disagree.


  3. Eric says:

    Well, be it generalization or not, I, for one, agree. I’m part of the older segment of that age group, but I totally see this trend.

    Looking for truth is no longer relevant to many of my generation, they look for useful. And if an opinion divides, it is seen as bad. “Religion caused to many wars…” I’ve heard that one plenty.

    I we often are defining “Good” as “minimizing suffering” these days..


  4. Lee says:

    The difficulty is that while we may seem “ambivalent” towards the issue we are not. Gay marriage is an issue close to heart. It is no longer a horrific place to be to be a teen growing up gay. It is not an issue to us because it is slowly becoming not an issue to begin with. God preaches love. Jesus is God’s love incarnate and I feel his presence every day. I love my neighbor. I think she is a wonderful being of God because she chooses to love another woman with as much love as Christ loves us each and every day.


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