Christian Smith, professor of sociology at Notre Dame, wrote in the most recent Books and Culture a review of six books that deal with the new phenomenon of “adultolescence”—that is, the postponement of adulthood into the thirties. I want to relate this phenomenon to the church. But first here is a summary from Smith’s article of what it is and how it came about.

What is Adultolescence?

Smith writes,

“Teenager” and “adolescence” as representing a distinct stage of life were very much 20th-century inventions, brought into being by changes in mass education, child labor laws, urbanization and suburbanization, mass consumerism, and the media. Similarly, a new, distinct, and important stage in life, situated between the teenage years and full-fledged adulthood, has emerged in our culture in recent decades—reshaping the meaning of self, youth, relationships, and life commitments as well as a variety of behaviors and dispositions among the young.

What has emerged from this new situation has been variously labeled “extended adolescence,” “youthhood,” “adultolescence,” “young adulthood,” the “twenty-somethings,” and “emerging adulthood.”

One way of describing this group is to highlight the tendency to delay adulthood or stay in the youth mindset longer than we used to. Smith suggests the following causes for this delay in arriving at mature, responsible adulthood.

First is the growth of higher education. The GI Bill, changes in the American economy, and government subsidizing of community colleges and state universities led in the second half of the last century to a dramatic rise in the number of high school graduates going on to college and university. More recently, many feel pressured—in pursuit of the American dream—to add years of graduate school education on top of their bachelor’s degree. As a result, a huge proportion of American youth are no longer stopping school and beginning stable careers at age 18 but are extending their formal schooling well into their twenties. And those who are aiming to join America's professional and knowledge classes—those who most powerfully shape our culture and society—are continuing in graduate and professional school programs often up until their thirties.

A second and related social change crucial to the rise of emerging adulthood is the delay of marriage by American youth over the last decades. Between 1950 and 2000, the median age of first marriage for women rose from 20 to 25 years old. For men during that same time the median age rose from 22 to 27 years old. The sharpest increase for both took place after 1970. Half a century ago, many young people were anxious to get out of high school, marry, settle down, have children, and start a long-term career. But many youth today, especially but not exclusively men, face almost a decade between high school graduation and marriage to spend exploring life's many options in unprecedented freedom.

A third major social transformation contributing to the rise of emerging adulthood as a distinct life phase concerns changes in the American and global economy that undermine stable, lifelong careers and replace them instead with careers of lower security, more frequent job changes, and an ongoing need for new training and education. Most young people today know they need to approach their careers with a variety of skills, maximal flexibility, and readiness to re tool as needed. That itself pushes youth toward extended schooling, delay of marriage, and, arguably, a general psychological orientation of maximizing options and postponing commitments.