Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood

Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood

Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood

Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood


Life for emerging adults is vastly different today than it was for their counterparts even a generation ago. Young people are waiting longer to marry, to have children, and to choose a career direction. As a result, they enjoy more freedom, opportunities, and personal growth than ever before. But the transition to adulthood is also more complex, disjointed, and confusing.

In Lost in Transition, Christian Smith and his collaborators draw on 230 in-depth interviews with a broad cross-section of emerging adults (ages 18-23) to investigate the difficulties young people face today, the underlying causes of those difficulties, and the consequences both for individuals and for American society as a whole. Rampant consumer capitalism, ongoing failures in education, hyper-individualism, postmodernist moral relativism, and other aspects of American culture are all contributing to the chaotic terrain that emerging adults must cross. Smith identifies five major problems facing very many young people today: confused moral reasoning, routine intoxication, materialistic life goals, regrettable sexual experiences, and disengagement from civic and political life. The trouble does not lie only with the emerging adults or their poor individual decisions but has much deeper roots in mainstream American culture--a culture which emerging adults have largely 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 sky-is-falling alarmism on the one hand and complacent disregard on the other, Smith suggests the need for what he calls "realistic concern"--and a reconsideration of our cultural priorities and practices--that will help emerging adults more skillfully engage unique challenges they face.

Even-handed, engagingly written, and based on comprehensive research,Lost in Transitionbrings much needed attention to the darker side of the transition to adulthood.


This book is about the lives of 18- to 23-year-old Americans, who we call “emerging adults.” We do not pretend to present here a comprehensive view— the complete picture—of emerging adult life. We are focused on the darker side of emerging adulthood.

It is true that there is also a bright side. Some of the lives of emerging adults are full of fun, freedom, new growth, and promising opportunities. There is much good in and about emerging adult life. and many emerging adults we have studied are interesting, creative, and sometimes very impressive people. But the happy part of emerging adulthood is already well documented and only part of the story. There is a dark side as well. We think the dark side deserves more attention. It is of course more enjoyable and reassuring to focus on what is fun and happy and good in life. But at some point that becomes unrealistic, onedimensional, even fake. If we care to know more of the fullness of the truth about emerging adults, we need to attend also to their mistakes and losses, trials and grief, confusions and misguided living. Those aspects of emerging adult life are what this book is about.

The story of this book points to one conclusion and raises some questions. the conclusion is that—notwithstanding all that is genuinely good in emerging adulthood—emerging adult life in the United States today is beset with real problems, in some cases troubling and even heartbreaking problems. Arriving at that conclusion will involve our describing some key parts of the outlooks, experiences, and practices in emerging adult life today. What we describe comes from what we heard in the course of interviewing hundreds of emerging adults in a national research project on American youth. By our reckoning, much of what we describe damages people, relationships, a sense of a richer purpose in life, a rational social order, and perhaps even the earth’s environment. We think these problems are worth describing, pondering, and discussing.

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