What Is a Young Adult?

I’m in the process of beginning to help out my Synod (the hierarchical structure of my church body, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod) with a new venture of theirs to attempt to connect with the disconnected young adult demographic.  In my church polity, as in most other traditional mainstream denominations, this demographic is noticeably missing from active congregational life.  It isn’t necessarily that this demographic doesn’t believe in God, researchers assure us, it’s just that they don’t see much point in the Church. 

I spoke with the woman responsible for this new outreach effort.  She indicated that the target demographic basically runs from post-high school to 40.  That’s a pretty big spread for a group called young adults.  I’m 40, and I don’t consider myself a young adult, even though I prefer to think of myself as young still.  It’s getting harder to maintain this illusion, but it’s mostly an internal illusion.  But for someone to claim that as a 40-ish person I could still be considered a young adult is a bit of a slap in the face. 

It gets me to wondering what is the rite of passage from youth to adulthood now?  How does one graduate from being a young adult, a modified version of adult that seems (to me) to imply some sort of development still to come?  Is the young an effort to reassure these folks that they’re young?  Some of them don’t need that reassurance.  So is it just a reassurance to those on the upper end of the spectrum?  Am I supposed to feel better for the fact that I’m considered young still?  It’s not very convincing.  Any interaction with the culture around me makes it very clear that I am not considered young, regardless of what I tell myself. 

So why the young modifier?  What is it that those in this demographic have yet to accomplish?  It doesn’t make sense to me that it’s simply an age thing.

It’s apparently not a stage of life  thing, either.  Demographically, it’s assumed that young adults range from single college students to single 20’s & 30’s folks, to married folks in their 20’s & 30’s, to young families in their 20’s & 30’s.  I’m assuming it isn’t an issue of employment – though I’m frightened to think that it may be! 

Is this a self-designated nomenclature?  Do people at 38 or 39 prefer to still be known as a young adult?  I sure don’t.  So who is it that’s making this designation?  It would make sense that it’s somebody older.  In which case, it seems a pretty pejorative title, possibly even an effort to maintain some sort of position of implied dominance or power by a group that considers itself simply adult instead of young adult

I’m not going to quibble with my polity at this point.  But I think it’s a worthwhile discussion to have.  If we desire people in their 20’s and 30’s to be actively involved in Church life, we need to get rid of terminology that leads them to believe or accept that they are not, in fact, a desired demographic of active congregational life.  We need to emphasize to these people that they are adults, and we need to be clear in our heads about what the dividing factors are between adults and young adults.  It isn’t a matter of sexuality, since activity in that regard is happening younger and younger – among people who a few hundred years ago would have been considered responsible adults, but are now considered children still.  It isn’t a matter of employment, since the vast majority of the age spectrum considered young adult is expected to have been working for some time – particularly if they have a marriage or family to support.

So what is it?  Why is 40 the magic number for becoming an adult?  Why not 30?  Why not 25?  At what point do we expect people to take responsibility?  At what point do we quit qualifying their maturity?  At what point will they stop qualifying it themselves?

2 Responses to “What Is a Young Adult?”

  1. Marie Says:

    Wow, I’ve never heard of forty as the cutoff for that, I’m well past and have to confess I find that not so much insulting or pecking order making as just plain funny. So, most stone age men died before they were adults? How did our species ever survive. . . .I have become convinced that one of our big problems is that we encourage folks to stay children well into their late teens. I read stories of (and see a friend’s kid) eleven or twelve year old boys starting to take on the role of men in frontier days, etc. — plowing, or shooting snakes, etc. They didn’t have a full load, but they were expected to start to be men. Then I look at the eighteen year olds in the high school classes I sub for and realize what an incredible injury we do to them when we treat them like they can’t even remember to turn in a paper on time.Seems to me most times when folks try to appeal to young adults they do so with bread and circuses. Which appeals to the young adults looking for bread and circuses. And I’ve never seen a classroom, church, or newspaper, etc. that can compete with things like twitter and television and video games when it comes to that, so the church, etc. always loses out in the end. Marketing– find what benefit you can give that person that no one else can give as well. That’s not contemporary music or fun nights out. It’s God.

  2. Paul Nelson Says:

    That’s what blows my mind as well.  In idolizing the irresponsibility that we’ve created as ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’ for chronologically young people, they tend to try and hold on to that irresponsibility well past their chronological youth.  The party continues not just through their 20’s, but now well into or through their 30’s.  Relevance is culturally driven.  It’s a matter of which culture we listen to.  Do we listen to our popular culture, which is obsessed with the impressionability of adolescents and their potential spending dollars?  Or do we listen to our Biblical culture that tells us that every age has an importance and a relevance that isn’t determined by what we produce and consume, but by who we are as created in the image of God?  A culture that insists that the benefits and relevance of a 40 or 50 or 60 or 90 year old is not the same as the relevance of an 18-year old, but isn’t any less important, either.  It might actually be more valuable. 

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