I am often asked to describe the people to whom I minister; people in their 20s who have a variety of descriptions. However, I classically use one term to define the 20-somethings that we target the most – Emerging Adults.
After using this term for the past year, I am very aware that many people have never heard of the term, and I spend a good deal of time describing this target group to people who have a classic understanding of life stages. Those life stages come from psychologists and sociologists, and they often refer to one of the most famous psychologists of all, Erik Erikson. Erikson defined eight stages of psycho-social development, and called the sixth stage “Intimacy versus Isolation” which included people ages 18 to 40 years, also known as “young adults.”
Decades ago, adolescents completed high school and, within a year of graduation, had a stable job and left their parent’s home, lived on their own under their own financial support (there were exceptions). Today, it is expected that most high schoolers move on to college, choosing a major based on a career pathway, and some immediately begin graduate school before entering the work world. That means many people are not leaving home and establishing independence until the ages of 24 to 27 years old.
Psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, PhD, coined the term “emerging adult” in 1995 after interviewing 300 people between the ages of 18 and 29. Take note that the people who were interviewed were NOT from the Millennial Generation, the oldest of whom would have only been 14 years old in 1995. These were people from Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980!
Arnett defined Emerging Adults with five “ages:” the age of identity exploration, instability, self-focus, felling in-between, and possibilities. The greatest identifying factor was people who were being classified as Young Adults but did not yet feel like they had reached that mark (that in-between feeling). Today, we can often see them self-identify by using a familiar term on social media: #adulting.
This afternoon, I met with a college senior who will graduate in a few months. It was the first time I had seen Stephen (yep, one of those factious names to protect someone’s true identity) since we met at a college retreat almost 18 months ago.
Stephen expressed frustration with his place in life. At 24, most of his peers had already finished college, had full-time jobs, were in committed relationships moving toward marriage, and were living on their own (or least out of their parents’ home and with a roommate in an apartment).
Stephen will be graduating with a degree in electrical engineering at the end of the current term, but he has no job prospects yet and isn’t sure that he even wants to work in the engineering field. A short-term mission trip to Europe made living aboard in a lengthier capacity an attractive idea , or at least to live in another state (possibilities).
Stephen’s father has offered to let him stay home for a year after graduation if he uses all his extra income to pay off student loans. Stephen acknowledged that that agreement was based on a presupposition that he would land a job quickly when he knows peers who took six months or more to get hired. Besides, he asked, “Isn’t time that I be out on my own?”
This is the dilemma that thousands of graduating collegiate face every year, often times complicated by a helicopter parent who doesn’t want to let go (though not Stephen’s case). They are being called “adults” by our culture, which hasn’t caught up to the idea of “emerging adults,” but they admit only feeling like an adult when they do their laundry or cook their dinner.
I have met emerging adults who did not know what a printed form at the bottom of a letter was (I had to explain that it was a check), or how to cash it. I met a fellow recently who didn’t know how to reserve a room at a hotel or check-in once he arrived. Many of these emerging adults need someone to come along and explain what older adults simply take for granted.
Add to that the struggle many Christian college students feel regarding their spiritual lives, or experience once they are finally out of their own. No local church can replicate the college campus ministry environment with its high-energy weekly meetings, small groups, Bible studies, and accountability that is all focused on other people in the exact same stage of life.
Stephen deeply desires to renew his pursuit of Christ while laying out a plan toward independence as a young adult. When I offered to meet with him regularly, tears welled up in his eyes. He had been able to talk about feel life concerns with someone who had been there and could help him see his way through.
For those of you who financially and/or prayerfully support this ministry to 20s (a.k.a., emerging adults), thank you, thank you, thank you! If you would like to provide a one-time gift or a regular monthly gift to help emerging adult Christians like Stephen, you can give securely online here.