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Back in early 2013, The New Yorker published a piece about twentysomethings by Nathan Heller […]

David Zahl / 1.25.13

Back in early 2013, The New Yorker published a piece about twentysomethings by Nathan Heller that had more than a ring of truth to it. He surveys a handful of books that have attempted to distill and address the challenges facing young people today, and what he found might come as a surprise, namely, despite the alarmist headlines, twentysomethings are not much different than they’ve ever been. It’s still a confusing and tumultuous time of life, full of big decisions and rocky relationships. In fact, in most ways they are a lot like you and me, human beings who are both the victim and culprit of their “issues”, or as Aldous Huxley once wrote, “simultaneously the pillars and the dynamite.”

Charlize_Theron_Looks_Upset_New_Poster_For_Young_Adult_1321399406If you want to draw a circumstantial line in the sand, you might say that millennials are suffering from a particularly acute form of the disease of Expectation, the chief symptoms of which are paralysis and performance-itis. What do I mean? The books in question indicate that the widespread myth of your twenties being “the best days of your life” is wreaking even more havoc than normal on this current generation of twentysomethings. These are kids who have been brought up in the age of Zuckerberg-style “instant success”, after all, young men and women for whom the prophetic diagnosis Jarvis Cocker articulated in Pulp’s “Glory Days”–“we were brought up on the space race, now they expect you to clean toilets”–has only gotten more severe:

The age is subject to a parallax effect; the twenties look different depending on how far you are from them. That difference in perspective—you want what you think older people have, and vice versa—is notably neurotic-making, and can surely be held responsible for many compromised careers, doomed marriages, and general life crises. A self-help subgenre couldn’t be far behind. In “The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter—And How to Make the Most of Them Now” (Twelve), Meg Jay takes the specific complaints of twentysomething life and puts them to diagnostic use. Jay is a clinical psychologist, and her patients have helped orient her in the tribulations of the age. “Every day, I work with twentysomethings who feel horribly deceived by the idea that their twenties would be the best years of their lives,” she writes. “People imagine that to do therapy with twentysomethings is to listen to the adventures and misadventures of carefree people, and there is some of that. But behind closed doors, my clients have unsettling things to say.”

One unsettling thing Jay’s clients say is that their lives are not what they had hoped. Their grinding work in college has failed to produce a decent job. Their confidence is at its nadir. They are having too much hapless sex, or not enough, or maybe the wrong kind. And what if they never get married? In an earlier guide, “20 Something Manifesto: Quarter-Lifers Speak Out About Who They Are, What They Want, and How to Get It,” Christine Hassler refers to this feeling as the Expectation Hangover™…

As we all know, nothing rules out a good time like the commandment “You Must Have Fun”, pun intended. Like its more religious equivalents, this kind of law amplifies the already-pretty-intense narcissism going on, inspiring relentless pulse-taking (“Am I enjoying my twenties enough? How about now? And now?) and comparison (“She really seems to be doing it right…”). These are questions that by definition cannot be answered in the affirmative, and developments in technology have simply made access to the ever-shifting standards of what constitutes an ideal twentysomething experience even more immediate, thus compounding the resulting unhappiness, anxiety, and restlessness. Add to that a strong helping of the human libido and normal self-destructive impulse, and you have a pretty toxic situation:

twenty-something-250x300Sure, you made hard choices if you were twenty-five in 1976, but not so many, and not with a protracted window. (The Internet, which makes it possible to monitor basically everything going on everywhere, at every moment, doesn’t help.) As Henig mère puts it, “Choice overload . . . makes people worry about later regretting the choice they make (If there are twelve things I could do tonight, any one of them might end up being more fun than the one I choose); sets them up for higher expectations (If I choose this party out of those twelve things, it had damn well better be fun); makes them think about the road not taken (Every party not attended could contain someone I wish I’d met); and leads to self-blame if the outcome is bad.”

In other words, the democratization of opportunity and information afforded by the Internet (and other globalizing factors) has led to young people growing up both faster and slower. Faster in the sense that online innocence is  an oxymoron and slower when it comes to matters of commitment and responsibility. Increased pressure has produced increased paralysis, you might say. Which hasn’t made twentysomethings any less willing in their participation, of course. Since identity–rather than happiness–is still the driving force here, the attractions and illusions are the same as they’ve ever been. Our fingers are all glued to our phones, even though we know we might be more content if they weren’t. It’s a losing game, no matter how you slice it.

Heller goes on to trace the various trends in youth culture–the much smaller (and often inverted) gender gaps, the alternating professional fickleness and careerist melodrama, the deferral of adult obligations–back to their sources, particularly the 1960s counterculture and its antecedents. The idea here being that there is nothing “new” going on with this generation; in fact, “today’s twentysomethings aren’t formed of special clay but are merely a reshaped version of old material.” Sound familiar? If anything, Heller claims that this generation is the least differentiated in decades, very much, um, occupied with problems and anxieties they’ve inherited:

The economy is poor; even a higher professional degree, the first refuge of the risk-averse, may not guarantee a job. And average college debt, adjusted for inflation, has tripled since the late nineteen-eighties. (It’s still growing.) In the face of these and other shifts, the voices of previous experience seem questionable. It is not clear that the grownups know what’s really going on.

Which leads us to the other main trend we’re seeing among twentysomethings, or at least the one that’s been making the most headlines recently: the dramatic rise in the under 30 demographic of “religious nones”, i.e. those who claim no religious affiliation. Young people have always rebelled against their parents, especially when it comes to religion, but Heller is suggesting that the insane-seeming and deeply confusing double standards of modern life, combined with dismal economic prospects and rising debt, have made distrust of authorities and institutions even more palpable than usual. This prognosis was confirmed in the series on “Losing Our Religion: The Rise of the Religious Nones” that NPR ran recently:

[Havard professor Robert Putnam tells us] “One of [the reasons behind the rise] is the distancing of this younger generation from community institutions and from institutions in general, actually. That’s the same pattern, actually, that we find in politics. These are the very same people who increasingly describe themselves as independents rather than Republicans or Democrats. And those are the same people also who are not joining the Elks Club or the Rotary Club or whatever. I don’t mean to be casting that as a critique of them, but this same younger generation is much less involved in many of the main institutions of our society than previous younger generations were.”

[Greg Smith, a senior researcher at Pew commented as saying,] “Well, in our polling we definitely find that the religiously unaffiliated do express the view that they think religious organizations are too involved in politics. They think religious organizations are too concerned with rules. They think they’re too concerned with things like money and power. So I think that there is something to that. We also find that one defining characteristic of the religiously unaffiliated is their social liberalism.”

But if the 60s produced an idealistic response in young people, the current age has produced a more cynical one, bent on survival rather than change (2008 nothwithstanding). Moreover, as Putnam remarks, “these [are] the kids who were coming of age in the America of the culture wars, in the America in which religion publicly seemed to become associated with a particular brand of politics”. When the same people who were talking most loudly about family values were the ones getting divorced far more often and giving birth to a generation of wounded children–as this rather mean-spirited article on Slate confirmed last week (in more ways than one).

This is a generation which has experienced religion–and by that I mean Christianity–not so much as a good word to the defeated and dying, but as the inflexible Enforcer of moral pieties, most of which would expire when they turned 21 or got married. Peripheral at best, malignant at worst. Which will come as news to absolutely no one. Lord knows we’ve talked about this on here before.

The real tragedy of the culture wars is that they robbed a generation of the opportunity to engage with the Gospel first and form their own conclusions about social issues second. Instead, they got assaulted by the conclusions others–who claimed to speak for everyone–had already drawn. People are certainly entitled to their opinions and convictions, of course, it’s just dangerous when they present them as sacrosanct, especially when they do so from a position of authority, divine or otherwise. Anger breeds more anger. As a result, lots of these young people never wrestled with the core claims, or if they did, it was out of a sense of woundedness or even malice which looks for a reason not to believe, rather than one to do so.

This is one of the many reasons why the current emphasis on “Gospel this” and “Gospel that” is so heartening. It’s reflective of an attempt to make the main thing the main thing. Yes, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure–but you know what I mean.

If these two sources are to be trusted, the situation facing twentysomethings is both tragic and ironic. A generation being inordinately crushed by the weight of 24/7 expectation is also the one most reluctant to look to the only place that seems to address these things directly, and with good news. Or you might say, this generation is so inured by the Law as they experience it qua twenty-somethings in America (regardless of religious belief), that they overreact when they encounter it in the religious realm as well.

Lest we be tempted to chalk the rise of the none up to slowly encroaching European-like secularization–which is there, surely–remember, this is a pretty specific phenomenon, as Greg Smith tells us:

[This is the] first time you’ve ever seen less than half the country identify themselves as Protestant… We’re seeing it among college graduates as well as among people with less education. We’re seeing it occur in all regions of the country. Race and ethnicity though is one exception to that pattern. The growth of the nones really does seem to be restricted to whites. We haven’t seen much growth in terms of African-Americans or Hispanics who say they’re religiously unaffiliated.

Ruh roh. Now we could point a lot of fingers. We could blame the militant atheists, for instance, Dawkins and Harris and all those guys. But talk to any twentysomething, and odds are they’ll tell you a story about the failure of religion rather than the victory of secularism. They may have taken a class that convinced them of something or other, or attended a rally, or made a friend who challenged their presumptions, but the seeds were usually sown long before. They were looking for a reason to bail on the Big Man, and you can hardly fault them for it.

We all know that reasons (and justifications) are easily found, both pro and con, when it comes to religion; faith is a different matter. Put another way, while we may dress our commitments up in the language of rationalism, the roots are, more often than not, emotional in nature. Which isn’t to say that honest/painful admissions of lost faith shouldn’t be taken seriously or at face value. They absolutely should. But just read the comments on any of the NPR pieces. It’s a trail of tears, not arguments.

Or we could point the finger at young people themselves. Christianity in its radical fullness has never had much appeal to those sold on their own sense of personal power and goodness. And most of those happen to be under the age of 30, no? And who has any idea what they think about anything in their 20s anyway? Pffff!

We all know there are more distractions from thinking about ugliness and death now than there ever have been, and if we are indeed growing up later, maybe it’s just a matter of people not looking for the stabilizing presence of the church until they’re a bit older. Plus, if these young people can’t see through the political shenanigans and blatant misappropriations of their pastors–stuff which has been going on since time immemorial–maybe they need to grow up even more than we think they do.

girls-season2posterAgain, if the research that Heller cites has any basis, then the “felt needs” of young people–reprieve from demand on all sides, desire for community and purpose, etc–are pretty closely aligned with what Christianity has to offer, not vice versa. Nothing could give a better accounting for their cynicism, while also extending real hope.

Okay okay, then it’s society’s fault! We live in a culture of victimization, right? Everyone’s hurt but no one needs to be forgiven. That’s the real problem. Wrong again! Humility and shame are everywhere you look.

Of course, we could always place the entire onus at the feet of the church and/or “those” Christians. You have to work pretty hard to make things like mercy, grace, guilt, forgiveness and unconditional love irrelevant, after all. We could talk about the Religious Right and the populist anti-intellectualism and shoot-the-wounded mindset that seems so sadly endemic to American Protestantism and so staunchly/compulsively opposed to grace.

Or we could blame the once vital ‘broad’ churches who went the equally moralistic but politically opposite direction, confusing themselves with community activist centers only to find out that they were nowhere near as effective as their secular peers (and considerably less sexy).

I guess we could talk about well-meaning but socially awkward pastors and the terribly misguided attempts to cast the Christian faith as cool, when it so clearly isn’t and wasn’t and never should be, thank God. We could certainly go off (at great length) about the unfortunate and ongoing confusion of Law and Gospel in contemporary Christianity, and how the youth movement-related emphasis on sanctification–i.e. producing an army of young Jesuses–has backfired in pretty much every way imaginable. My personal stone would be thrown at the profound lack of humor and irony (and therefore freedom) one finds in Christian circles of all persuasions.

But as obnoxious as some of these elements are, most of the people behind them are just like you and me, wanting to be moderately happy while trying to negotiate their wounds and do right by their convictions, some of which may be short-sighted and harmful, sure, but a lot of which are noble and good and true. Perhaps I’m being too charitable; I can assure you we’ve contributed our own brand of obnoxiousness to the mix as well.

I don’t really know what accounts for the exodus, and I’m no longer all that interested in finding out. That kind of anger goes nowhere–at least, nowhere good. And the self-righteousness it breeds is even more poisonous.

newyorkeradultescenceThe truth is, everything is to blame, and nothing is to blame. No one is strictly innocent, yet no one is strictly guilty either. The problem is never 100% “out there.” Everything changes and nothing at all. As Tim Kreider once reminded us, mortality is still very much a universal reality. Our need for love and mercy in the face of expectation and failure has not abated–it is as urgent and comprehensive as ever. People may not claim a religious affiliation, but that doesn’t mean, even for a second, that they are any less religious. Everybody worships, as David Foster Wallace so eloquently put it, regardless of what answer they might give on a questionnaire.

Which brings me to the most arresting moment of the NPR series. It came in the middle of a conversation with a bunch of self-described twentysomething nones. David Greene, the correspondent, is speaking with Kyle Simpson, a young man who became a Christian in his teens but has since walked away. Greene asks him if ever prays:

SIMPSON: Yeah, I do and I don’t know what to make of it, because I feel like a hypocrite. And – but I only do when I’m at my most scared or my most fearful, and…

GREENE: You pray when you’re at your most fearful?

SIMPSON: Yeah, and my most vulnerable. And like I said, I don’t know what to do with that because it really does not align with anything that I’ve said all day today, yet I still find myself doing that.

What a wonderful answer. Simpson is saying that he turns to God when the Law has done its work naturally–when he’s afraid–and he runs from God when the Law is expressed in other, more contrived ways. Put another way, Christ as Moral Teacher may lurk behind the establishment of Portlandia(s), i.e. kids needing to get as far away as possible from their home churches (we can hardly begrudge them), but Christ as Rescuer remains as attractive and crucial as ever–if not more so!

As for those who turn tail, it’s too bad that a different set of judgments and justifications will meet them wherever they end up, such being our DNA. One wonders if the form of Christianity that Simpson embraced once upon a time was the kind that speaks directly to hypocrites (who else is there, right?). I suspect it was not.

Oddly or providentially, depending on your point of view, Simpson gives us another comforting word in the earlier part of the interview. We find out that he has a tattoo on his arm that reads “a cruce salus”–Latin for “salvation from the cross”–which has become a bit problematic for him in recent years (“It’s like, oh, it’s Latin for, I made a mistake when I was 18”). Greene asks him about it and his response is both honest and utterly priceless:

GREENE: Do you regret it? I mean, would you get rid of the tattoo if…

SIMPSON: No. The irony is when I first got the tattoo, I remember thinking, oh, this will be great because when I’m having troubles in my faith, I will be able to look at it, and I can’t run away from it. And that is exactly what is happening.

He can’t run away from it, and there’s something deeply comforting about that. God’s love for us (to say nothing of His existence!) is not contingent on the storms we weather and the “decisions” we make in our 20s, or our 30s, or our 70s. We may let go of God, but He doesn’t let go of us. In fact, He may be far bigger than all our existential and sociological crises; He might even be the One who suffers with and for those who reject him.

Which is another way of saying that, regardless of how he may be presented, Christ is the friend, not enemy, of sinners. And if that’s truly the case, then maybe the religious nones–and the rest of us–are in better shape than we realize.

One can only hope.