Traditional Problems Super-Sized for Young Adults

November 13th, 2013
flickr | Patrick Szymshek

In 1965, when most parents of today’s college students were small children, the average American consumed approximately 80 pounds of sugar per year, a number that had remained more or less steady for about four decades. Today, the average yearly consumption has risen to over 100 pounds per person.

Both totals are elevated, and neither is particularly healthy. But it’s not a far stretch to say that, at 25% higher, today’s levels are worse than the mid-‘60s level.

The point? Many of the problems we face now may not necessarily be new, but they are exaggerated.
In my experience, this premise applies to some of the bigger problems facing the current generation of college students. Their parents faced similar difficulties—economic uncertainty, substance abuse, relationship struggles, etc.—because these are part and parcel with young adulthood.

For today’s college students, however, similar issues have been super-sized, blown up, hulked out by the gamma rays of chronic anxiety and extended adolescence. Whatever the reasons for their situation, college students today have to face big problems with less maturity.

What are some of these issues, and what is to be done about them? Here’s a short list of some of the most prevalent problems for college students I deal with as a campus minister.

Helicopter Parenting

Each generation struggles with finding healthy ways of relating to the previous ones. Parents are supposed to be guides and cheerleaders. Every child needs that support in order to grow into a mature, psychological healthy adult.

But every child also needs to grow up. Unfortunately, an increasing number of parents are missing that ultimate goal. They lengthen their child’s dependence on them to the point that they create a “soft disability” in their kids’ lives.

For those of us who regularly work with young adults, the results are annoying, to say the least. I have seen college professors, potential employers, and even dating partners accosted by parents on behalf of their children.

But things are far worse for the young adults themselves. Because they rely on their parents to resolve conflict for them, they never learn how to fight their own battles, or even to determine which battles are worth fighting. Some struggle to make the most basic decisions, while others are so embarrassed by their parents’ over-involvement that they stop revealing anything about their lives to Mom and Dad.

As I have experienced it, helicopter parenting is bordering on epidemic. Small wonder then, that another key issue is so related to it.

Extended Adolescence

Growing up has always been a give-and-take process. As young people reach that late adolescence/young adult border, they are pulled in two directions. Part of them wants to grow up. Part of them does not. Parents (and campus ministers) throughout history have often had to give them a nudge in the direction of maturity.

In recent decades, however, the push to grow up has become a pull to remain adolescent. Adulthood no longer begins at 18 or even 21 for many people, but sometime around 25 or later.
Some psychologists welcome this change as a recognition of reality. The brain is not fully developed at the traditional benchmarks of adulthood, they say, and it does no one any good to expect grown-up behavior from them until they are ready.

But the brain continues to develop throughout life stages, and virtually all of us believe that we are more than the sum of our cranial chemistry. Those of us who parent or otherwise guide young people need to convey realistic expectations, and to hold them accountable for following through. When they are faced with difficult life situations, we do not need to abandon them. But we do need to step away long enough to allow them to engage in some creative problem solving of their own situations.

Church as a Commodity, Not Community

While church involvement was assumed for generations of Americans, the previous two (and perhaps three) have struggled mightily with their faith. Millennials, on the other hand, have had very little exposure to Christianity at all. They live without religious conviction, and a good many of them never miss it.

But young adults do sense the need for community, even though they don’t always know how to find it. They have been a part of the virtualization of life, in which experience and relationship happen not face to face, but screen to screen. The need for human connection has not diminished, but a good many of the understandings that make such connection possible have been lost. Christians can offer a way into community. We can be a doorway to all the meaning that comes with significant relationships, human and divine.

First, however, we need to get over our own anxiety.

As panic has set in over the steep decline of overall religious participation, American churches have gotten much more aggressive in terms of marketing and programming. The result is a shift toward the church as service provider, a congregation that “meets my needs.”

While this approach makes sense for both individuals and churches who concern themselves primarily with market share, it is absolutely toxic for millennials. Today’s college students are the most target-marketed generation in the history of the world, and despite our best efforts at mass-marketing evangelism, they aren’t buying church.

How do we attract young people back into Christianity? This is the question churches usually ask, but I think it is the wrong one. Such a posture only leads us back into questions about products we can offer, service we can provide, or how to package these things in an attractive way.

A better question is this: how do we develop communities in which the love of Jesus is made manifest among real people? Young adults can recognize a product and ignore it. But functional, loving, self-sacrificing Christian community is something unusual, a burning bush in the wilderness and near impossible to ignore.

What other issues face today’s young adults in different ways than generations past? I think the devaluation of sex is an important one to consider, though too complex for a survey article. The overall virtualization of life is another, as is the nature of education.

But these are the thoughts of an older professional, perhaps wise and perhaps not. If you want to know what really worries the young adults in your world, you’d have to ask them.

In fact, I wish you would.

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