Saturday, July 14, 2012

Christianity Today: "When are we going to grow up?" Is this a serious question or just a rhetorical one?

I consider articles like this with a certain amount of skepticism. That's the nice way of putting it. It's been easy to say young people these days are mired in adultescence and don't want to grow up.

The final step in the process was the transformation of American adulthood itself. Older cultural conceptions of adulthood encouraged responsibility, self-denial, and service to others. In the first half of the 20th century, most people clearly entered adulthood in their teens or early 20s by virtue of getting married, getting a job, and having children. More recently, the passage to adulthood has been delayed and rendered more subjective for most middle-class Americans.

For instance, let's take this paragraph.  Okay, so many people are said to have entered adulthood in tehri teens or early 20s by virtue of getting married, getting a job and having children.  This idea that this is happening later and later for most middle-class Americans needs to account for how we define the middle class and if there is one today that would correspond in some way with middle classes of the past.

But let me back up a bit to an observation earlier in the article:

Torrey Johnson, the first president of Youth for Christ (YFC), spoke for many when he said, "If we have another lost generation … America is sunk."

The Lost Generation could be defined as those who came of age in the United States during the World War I years.  Think Hemmingway and Fitzgerald.

One of the problems with attempting to locate a problem in American evangelicalism with a response to the development of a youth culture is that this does not account for how and why youth culture developed to begin with.  The teenager as we have known the teenager to be in the last sixty to seventy years did not actually exist in the time that gave us the Lost Generation of the 1920s, if memory serves.  It becomes difficult to sustain a case that teenagers led to a juvenalization of the church if we don't consider the significance of teenagers within the context of American culture overall.  How and why did what we call adolescence even develop?

Two centuries ago a 17-year old male might have apprenticed or worked with a father in a trade and would not have gotten much more education than was available in the home.  We should be mindful that relative to the mortality and life-expectancy rates of people living today what we may consider a "crisis" in evangelicalism of any number of stripes may not necessarily be as simple as people won't grow up.  Public education did not always exist in the way it has existed in the last century.

Relative to the life expectancy of the time are we sure that this plague of "adultescence" is a plague of people not growing up?  Or are we seeing correlation that is not so easily explained by a causation of "people won't grow up"?  For instance, what if the median age of first marriage in the last sixty years has been steadily rising?  Is it because people don't wish to marry? Or could it be because in a recession as rough as the one we've dealt with since the housing bubble of 2008 happened times are rough?  Or is it possible that relative to life expectancy the stage at which males marry (or enter their first marriage) is not actually as different today as from nearly 100 years ago as some would like to propose?

You see, Christians who write about the decline of marriage prefer to only go back half a century rather than go to the first half of the 20th century, unless certain authors are mining the early 20th century for proof that people won't grow up today.  Not everyone agrees that the middle class of 2010 can be meaningfully compared to what the middle class would have been in 1925.  The median age of first marriage for American males may have gone up but before "adultescence" gets offered as an explanation consider that the age of first marriage for an American male today, as a percentage of the life expectancy of a male in this time and place, may still be lower than the age, as a percentage of life expectancy, of a male who married for the first time in the United States in 1930 just after the notorious 1929 stock market crash.

In other words, I'm suggesting that it's too easy for evangelical baby boomers to worry that kids these days just don't want to grow up without thinking through the implications of how the very existence of adolescents has come about due to a nexus of policies and circumstances unique to the United States.  If you've ever had friends who have grown up in African or other non-Western lands then you may have heard the observation that there are not teenagers in Africa most places.  There are boys and men and the transition may be swift and unceremonious at the age of 13.

So on the point of marriage as an indicator of "adulthood" it's not entirely clear that people are slower to "grow up" now than they were relative to life expectancy.  Instead of Christians lamenting adultescence we might be grateful that by God's providential grace through advances in medicine people can live long enough that the time at which they may marry has risen yet has largely stayed within the summer rather than the autumn of life.  Sure, fewer and fewer people may seem to get married these days but given the economic situation and the possibility of an education bubble that may follow the old housing bubble should we be shocked?

The juvenalization of evangelicalism has to consider whether juvenalization of the American culture wasn't dependent on policies implemented without regard to intergenerational effect.  A lot of kids were put in public schools so that they weren't in the job market, which could open up job possibilities for older professional men.  Or so I've heard.  Securing the greater odds of employment for older working men in the Depression may have created the "adolescent" subculture that has for generations become a bugbear amongst evangelicals.

It's easy for some evangelicals and conservative Christians to lament adultescence; to complain that people aren't growing up (by this they mean getting married and buying real estate and "going upstream").  But I'm not sure I buy this entire line of argument and assertion.

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