Selfish Stagnation: A New Stage for Twenty-Somethings?

A century ago psychologists identified a new stage in human development – adolescence, which our culture now accepts without question. It is taken for granted that 12-18 year olds are not ready for adult roles and responsibilities and need an additional six years of development under the careful or careless watch of parents. Now, some experts are arguing for a new stage of development for 19-29 year olds they call “emerging adulthood.” Jeffery Arnett, psychology professor at Clark University, describes this stage in the New York Times Magazine, “young men and women are more self-focused than at any other time of life, less certain about the future and yet also more optimistic, no matter what their economic background.” During this time, emerging adults face the developmental tasks of “identity exploration”, “self-focus”, and “experimentation in love, work, and worldview.”

The arguments for this new developmental stage have come as a result of the major shifts taking place among twenty-somethings. No longer are they graduating college (or high school), getting entry-level jobs, getting married, making a home, taking on responsibility, and having children. They graduate and have on average seven jobs before they turn 30. Instead of making a home, one-third lives in a new residence every year and 40% move back in with mom and dad. Two-thirds live with a romantic partner without being married, putting off marriage to the late twenties. In 1960, 77% of women and 65% of men had completed school, left home, become financially independent, married, and had a child. In 2000, fewer than half of the women and only one-third of the men had done the same. While there are some twenty-somethings who desire to achieve these things but have been prevented by circumstance, it is clear that a shift has occurred in the culture and mindset of this generation.

Sociologist Michael Kimmel explains this phenomenon in his book Guyland:

“Today many of these young men poised between adolescence and adulthood are more likely to feel anxious and uncertain… After graduation they drift aimlessly from one dead-end job to another, spend more time online playing video games and gambling than they do on dates, ‘hook up’ occasionally with a ‘friend with benefits’, go out with their buddies, drink too much, and save too little… They watch a lot of sports. They have grandiose visions for their futures and not a clue how to get from here to there.”

Acts 29 Vice President Darrin Patrick describes the problem this way:

“We live in a world full of males who have prolonged their adolescence. They are neither boys nor men. They live suspended between childhood and adulthood, between growing up and being a grown-up. Let’s call this kind of male Ban, a hybrid of both man and boy. This kind of male is everywhere, including the church and even vocational ministry…  Assuming the responsibilities of husband and father makes a boy into a man, but Ban doesn’t like responsibility so he extends his adolescence and sets his focus squarely and supremely on himself.”

Psychologists will readily admit that “emerging adulthood” doesn’t yet qualify for a developmental stage.  Part of the definition of a developmental stage is that you have to experience it to develop properly and there are too many successful people who simply haven’t. It also tends to be confined to the middle and upper class since it usually requires the support of parents. But that doesn’t stop many experts from attempting to justify a period of prolonged adolescence that is self-focused and comes with little responsibility. If it can be justified, no longer do parents or societies have to be worried that junior refuses to work a real job, move out of the basement, play less video games, watch Sportscenter only once instead of three times in a row, occasionally hook-up instead of invest in a real relationship, and avoid responsibility for anything but his or her own desires.

The consequences for the acceptance of “emerging adulthood” as a new developmental stage are huge for society, demanding new institutions, programs, and structures to support children into their late twenties who fail to pull their own weight; just as the acceptance of adolescence required. The consequences for the church would also be disastrous as portions of the congregation would be useless to volunteer, serve, give, teach, or commit, lost to self-discovery at the peak of their effectiveness for Christ.

The developmental tasks of “identity exploration”, “self-focus”, and “experimentation in love, work, and worldview,” may be part of “emerging adulthood”, but they are not part of emerging into the image of Christ. Instead of self-discovery, Jesus tells us, “whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:38-39). It is in putting to death the self twenty-somethings are so eager to indulge and discover that we follow Christ. We need this generation to rise up and take on responsibility for their selves, their family, their church, and their community; showing the culture a better way instead of conforming to it. What would it look like to have a generation transformed by the gospel rise up, take on responsibility, and give selflessly to the cause of Christ instead of sleeping to noon in mom’s basement after their hook-up the night before? May we raise up such a generation in the church and lovingly help those twenty-somethings working to get there.

(Note: This is not a critique of those who haven’t married, bought a house, found a career, etc. but a critique of the selfishness, avoidance of responsibility, and lack of purpose of which those things CAN be symptoms)



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