Demonstrations and riots have spawned much speculation about young people in the UK. Who are they? What do they want? How do they think, and are protesters representative of their generation? Politicians and the media have competed in the art of shooting explanations from the hip, with conjectures on all sides doing battle with evidence in a rich debate. Here, a research team led by the University of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith has produced a thought-provoking contribution to that debate.
Basing their work on interviews with a subsample of "emerging adults" drawn from a carefully constructed longitudinal study of a cross-section of youngsters in the US, Smith and his colleagues call for a more sociological and culturally informed perspective on the attitudes of young people than that provided by individualistic psychologists and sensationalist journalists. Young people, he concludes, will neither "grow out of it" and become like the rest of us, nor will they be our future political saviours. The truth is more mixed, demanding more active and moral intellectual engagement from adults in all walks of life.
Emergent adulthood is, at heart, about postponing adulthood, enforced by longer education and changing labour markets that leave many disconnected from the rest of society. Relationships with adults are restricted, functional and performance-oriented, leaving only occasional "quick click" moments with no room for serious talk. Their attitudes - in this study, feedback is organised around the themes of morality, consumerism, intoxication, sexuality and civic and political life - reflect disengagement.
For many, "the good life" is narrowly defined in terms of suburban lifestyles, financial security and material possessions. The moral defence of consumerism is simple: it is good for the economy and creates work. Market forces are reflected in exchanges that satisfy self-interests rather than the pursuit of a more collective good, be it environmentalism or simply caring for others without personal gain. Little is known about the world at large, and politicians are deeply distrusted. Value discussions provoke anxiety, and many withdraw behind assumptions of a relative morality in which each individual has a right to their own views. Agreement on what is morally bad is confined to drastic examples such as rape and murder. Small misdemeanours can easily be justified within such a worldview, as can withdrawal from civic life. Sexuality remains a minefield of hurt and disappointment, and one in which women face the greatest risks from verbal and physical aggression. But young men suffer, too, with addiction to internet pornography, like dependence on alcohol and drugs, starting out as the pursuit of fun, but containing the potential to destroy lives.
The individualism of the young people considered here is, as Smith points out, as American as apple pie. But with technology, social media and educational venture capitalists streaking across the Atlantic, this is a characteristic that is being exported. The search for what is common in the views of young people, rather than what structurally divides them, is also rather American and obscures the fact that their chances of achieving their dreams, or recovering from damage and hurt, will differ greatly.
As is often the case in social research, the weaknesses here do not lie in the questions posed, nor in the data collection and analysis, but in the absence of issues of more serious relevance to youngsters growing up amid raging unemployment and politicians who refuse to compromise for the sake of their future "common good". One is reminded of one of the first American community studies, Robert and Helen Lynd's Middletown (1929). There was great concern at the time about the negative impact of the car on teenage sexual morality, with its opportunities for unsupervised intimacy. But the car would prove to be a much more lethal weapon for both youngsters and the planet. Why do adults think the way they do?
Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood
By Christian Smith, with Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson and Patricia Snell Herzog.Oxford University Press. 312pp, £17.99.ISBN 9780199828029. Published 22 September 2011