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Earlier this week, my friend Samuel James published a piece with First Things entitled “America’s Lost Boys.” I’m thankful for Sam; he’s a great thinker, but with his latest piece, he’s bitten into the lowest-hanging fruit in evangelicalism today: bemoaning the extended adolescence of Millennials.
Like just about anyone else who writes on extended adolescence, he does a really good job identifying and complaining about the problem, but he provides no viable solution for solving it. Sam’s article is well-written and makes important observations about Millennial culture, but it falls short in its ability to actually do anything about the extended adolescence phenomenon.
It’s true that Millennials are extending adolescence. Plenty of evidence exists to verify this. Millennials are delaying marriage and family, and sometimes not pursuing either. The cornerstone of Sam’s point is an interview with The University of Chicago’s Dr. Erik Hurst. The key portion of the interview for our discussion is this from Dr. Hurst:
Right now, I’m gathering facts about the possible mechanisms at play, beginning with a hard look at time-use by young men with less than a four-year degree. In the 2000s, employment rates for this group dropped sharply – more than in any other group. We have determined that, in general, they are not going back to school or switching careers, so what are they doing with their time? The hours that they are not working have been replaced almost one for one with leisure time. Seventy-five percent of this new leisure time falls into one category: video games. The average low-skilled, unemployed man in this group plays video games an average of 12, and sometimes upwards of 30 hours per week.
The three basic facts presented by Dr. Hurst are: 1) Employment rates for non-college-educated Millennials dropped drastically in the 2000s, 2) They are replacing time they would normally be working with leisure activities, and 3) Approximately 75% of that leisure time is spent playing video games (12 hours per week, on average).
From these three basic facts presented by Dr. Hurst, which are indicative of the extended adolescence phenomenon among uneducated Millennials, Sam extrapolates, “The portrait that emerges of the young American male indicates an isolated, entertainment-absorbed existence, with only the most childlike social ties (such as with parents and “bros”) playing a meaningful role.” Not only is it inaccurate—Sam misuses Dr. Hurst’s data about “uneducated Millennial men” to evaluate the “young American male”—he goes on to make the misguided, qualitative judgement that these “young American males” live a life in which “only the most childlike social ties (such as with parents and ‘bros’) play a meaningful role.” Such an assessment is mistaken and condescending.
Do a lot of Millennials live with their parents instead of a romantic partner? Yes.
Do a lot of Millennials play video games? Yes.
Are a lot of Millennials out of work? Yes.
Does this mean these Millennials live, as Sam calls it, “an isolated, entertainment-absorbed existence, with only the most childlike social ties (such as with parents and ‘bros’) playing a meaningful role?” Absolutely not.
A critical analysis of Millennials and extended adolescence requires more than an oversimplification of a handful of correlative statistics.
For the sake of discussion, though I disagree with him, I would like to take Sam’s point at face value. Because, even if extended adolescence is more common among uneducated Millennials than among all Millennials, college-educated or not, it’s still something about which the Church needs to be aware.
Let’s imagine the same world Sam does: a world in which young American males don’t work, live in their parents’ basements, and play Xbox all day. Why might this be the case and what might the Church do about it?
The answer is quite simple, isn’t it? Millennials extend adolescence and delay adulthood because adolescence provides more leisure and less responsibility than adulthood.
Being an adult is difficult, “So,” Millennials think, “If I can delay it, why not?”
Adults spend their whole lives working for leisure in retirement while making fun of Millennials for opting for leisure now.
Many Millennials grew up seeing their parents find meaning in their work. Some saw parents find meaning in the athletic achievements of their Millennial children. Others saw their parents or their friends’ parents find meaning in sex, ultimately ending in adultery and divorce.
What if Millennials saw so many adults fail to find true meaning in “adult activities” that they opted for more pleasurable, “childish” ones?
Is it sad when a Millennial man finds his life’s purpose in video games? Sure. But let’s stop pretending that’s more pathetic than a 50-year-old man who finds life’s purpose in his work.
We need to stop treating Millennials like “boys” because they idolize the level of their warlock instead of the value of their portfolio, as if making an idol of the latter is somehow more “mature” than the former. Perhaps it is by cultural standards, but it certainly isn’t by biblical standards. Both are foolish, childish, and ultimately sinful.
The Millennial problem isn’t a unique one. They may simply idolize adolescence because they saw how much their parents have idolized certain aspects of adulthood and how miserable they are.
Sam asks, “What might these millions of young men be doing, if they were not doing this [playing video games]?” They would be making idols of “adult” stuff, like their parents and grandparents before them.
The solution for the extended adolescence problem isn’t to get Millennials to move out of their parents’ homes, get jobs, or get married. They’ll just make idols of those things instead of video games.
But if those aren’t solutions, what is the solution?
At the end of his article, Sam tries to offer a possible solution to the problem of extended adolescence. He writes:
These are America’s lost boys. They should matter to anyone who cares about human flourishing, the beauty of family, the sustenance of friendship, and the health of our civic society. Rather than try to attract these millennials by reshaping faith in the image of entertainment, we as Christians should offer a gospel that saves not only from hell but also from meaninglessness. Tolkien reminded us that not all who wander are lost. I would add, not all who are lost, wander.
I so appreciate his genuine care and concern for the problem he has addressed. Unlike many who write about this topic, Sam has a genuine heart of compassion for these young, uneducated Millennials. Too many are harsh in their criticism of these people. Sam is not.
However, the “solution” it appears Sam tries to provide is insufficient. He cautions against trying to win these young people to the Church by making the Church more entertaining (Amen), rather, he says, “We as Christians should offer a gospel that saves not only from hell but also from meaninglessness.” This is where his article ultimately falls flat.
Certain strands of evangelicalism, particularly Reformed evangelicalism, has arrived at a point at which it thinks “the gospel” is a sort of all-purpose salve that, when applied to any wound, ought to lead to God-glorifying repentance and faith.
Believing in “the gospel” doesn’t automatically make a Millennial want to pursue adulthood and forsake adolescence.
The burden of proof is on the Church to show the Millennial why “growing up” in an American-culture-sense is necessarily fruit of one who “believes the gospel.” Plenty of Millennials “believe the gospel” and still prefer to live in their parents’ basements and delay marriage—trust me, I know some of them!
If you want Millennials to see pursuing the American idea of adulthood as a sign of spiritual maturity, you’re going to have to connect those dots for them. Here are questions you may have to answer:
Why is it more spiritually mature to get a full-time job at age 24 instead of a part-time one?
Why is it more spiritually mature to get married and have kids at age 23 instead of waiting until I’m 30 or 32?
Why is it more spiritually mature to read The Lord of the Rings trilogy than play Lord of the Rings video games on my Xbox?
American culture used to align with Christianity more than it does today in a number of ways. However, Millennials are “coming of age” in an era in which American culture and Christianity do not agree on much. Because of this misalignment of American culture and Christianity, Christianity is having to explain the why behind what it values more than it ever has.
When American culture and the Church both valued traditional marriage, the Church wasn’t as pressed to explain why traditional marriage is important for life and godliness. People just agreed with it and moved on. But today, the Church has to explain the why behind traditional marriage more than it ever has.
When American culture and the Church both valued “growing up,” the Church wasn’t as pressed to explain why “growing up” is important to life and godliness. People just agreed with it and moved on. But today, the Church has to explain the why behind “growing up,” more than it ever has.
It is my opinion that telling people to simply “believe the gospel” in hopes that doing so will make them want to leave adolescence for adulthood is a lazy attempt at discipleship.
If the Church wants Millennials to flourish and become spiritually mature, they need to actually make the case for how this is done more efficiently through pursuing work and marriage than not pursuing either.
Plenty of the young Millennial men who live in their parents basements playing video games feel as though they are “flourishing” just fine. It’s easy to slap the gospel on that problem in hopes that it works.
So, what’s my solution? Don’t just show Millennials the gospel. That’s easy.
The solution to the extended adolescence problem in the Church is intentional discipleship.
I would argue that a primary reason we have a generation of young men discipled by the internet and video games is because they weren’t discipled by the older men in their churches. Something had to fill the void, so the internet and video games did!
Millennials have themselves to blame for being jobless and spouse-less, but perhaps part of the reason they don’t see the spiritual maturity in being an adult is because the adults they know aren’t spiritually mature.
If you want young men in your community, Christian or not, to see the negative spiritual side effects of avoiding adulthood, you need to give them more than “the gospel,” which may sound sacrilege, but hear me:
You need to actually explain to them how pursuing adulthood results in godliness.
That’s harder than just giving them the gospel.
But, after all, if you’re an adult, you shouldn’t be averse to hard work.