Lost in Transition is the third book drawn from the ongoing study of American youth and young adults by Christian Smith and his colleagues. While the first two books focused specifically on the religious and spiritual lives of the cohort of young people born between 1984 and 1988, the present volume has a wider focus. Only one of its five content chapters (chapter 1) describes the spiritual individualism and moral relativism of today’s emerging adults. The subsequent chapters focus on their consumerism (ch. 2), their abuse of alcohol and drugs (ch.3), the pervasive pressure on them to engage in uncommitted sex (ch. 4), and their lack of political and civic engagement (ch. 5) – the latter perduring in spite of the well-publicized “blip” of student activism in the 2008 election.
Perhaps even more than the two previous books, Lost in Transition is aimed toward an educated lay audience rather than a sociological one. The authors make a point in every chapter of linking the trait(s) they are describing to larger social and cultural trends in a way that professional sociologists would not need to have spelled out to them. They define the sociological imagination twice – in the Introduction and the Conclusion – assuming that their readers are not familiar with the term. Following Herbert Gans’ recommendation in his 1988 presidential address to the American Sociological Association, this is a book that attempts to acquaint psychologically- and individualistically-oriented Americans with the contextual, social forces which also shape our attitudes and behaviors. As the chapters in this book make abundantly clear, American individualism has had some profoundly pernicious effects on how we have raised our young.
A second characteristic of Lost in Transition is its almost unrelievedly negative tone. Although the authors do state several times that there is much that is good about emerging adults, the present book, as its title indicates, focuses almost exclusively on the “dark side” of their lives. It may be that alarmist books “sell” better, as the widespread attention given to Jean Twenge’s Generation Me has shown. And the message of Lost in Transition is nevertheless an important one, so the more Americans read it the better. It is true that elders since at least the time of Socrates have bewailed the perceived failings of the young. Still, the pervasive pessimistic tone can be depressing. The authors’ brief conclusion offers some suggestions for ways to ameliorate the problems they have described in the previous 225 pages, but these are too few and too tentative, I fear, to motivate readers to adopt them.
While academics are not the book’s primary audience, and while Catholicism per se is not mentioned at all, there is much that could be of value to Catholic scholars from many disciplines. Chapter 1 contains many connections to philosophy, epistemology, and ethics which I personally found to be somewhat tough going, but which were immensely valuable in stretching my own overly sociological mindset. Beyond Catholic studies, researchers focusing on consumerism, drug and alcohol abuse, sexual behaviors, and civic engagement in general could benefit from including the more theological and philosophical insights from chapter 1 in their own research. Smith and his colleagues do not make these interdisciplinary links as often as I would have liked, but it was not their book’s purpose to do so. Their analyses can – and should – serve as a basis for further interdisciplinary research by those studying the promise and the failings of the coming generation of emerging adults.
Herbert J. Gans. 1989. “Sociology in America: The Discipline and the Public.” American Sociological Review 54(1):1-16.
Jean Twenge. 2006. Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled--and More Miserable Than Ever Before. New York: Free Press.