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New book explores dark side of emerging adulthood

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Christian Smith

Young adults today enjoy more freedom, opportunities and personal growth than any previous generation. But their transition to adulthood also is more complex, disjointed and confusing than their counterparts a generation ago.

In "Lost in Transition" (Oxford University Press, 2011), University of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith explores the difficulties today’s young people face, the underlying causes of those difficulties, and the consequences for both individuals and for society in general.

Drawing on 230 in-depth interviews with a broad cross-section of emerging adults—ages 18 to 23—Smith identifies several aspects of American culture that contribute to the chaotic terrain that emerging adults must cross, including rampant consumerism, ongoing failures in education, hyper-individualism, and moral relativism.

He also looks at five major problems facing many young people today: confused moral reasoning, routine intoxication, materialistic life goals, regrettable sexual experiences, and disengagement from civic and political life; problems, Smith argues, that have deep roots in mainstream American culture which emerging adults have inherited rather than created.

Older adults, Smith argues, must recognize that much of the responsibility for the pain and confusion young people face lies with them. Rejecting both alarmism on one hand and complacent disregard on the other, Smith suggests the need for what he calls "realistic concern” and reconsideration of our cultural priorities and practices that will help emerging adults more skillfully engage unique challenges they face.

The William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society, Smith specializes in religion in modernity, adolescents, American evangelicalism and culture. He is author of several other books including “Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money,” “Christian America? What Evangelicals Really Want,” and “Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.”

Contact: Christian Smith, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology, 574-631-4531,

Originally published by Susan Guibert at on September 14, 2011.