June 1, 2017

Kidults: the Culture and the Church

Heard this this morning on the Australian national broadcaster’s “yoof” station, Triple J:

“So this week we’re looking at what it means to be in your twenties and have a baby.  You’re not a girl anymore, you’re not a woman.  You’re not a teenager, but you’re certainly not an adult.”

Not an adult in your twenties? Say what?  Yep that’s right.  Once upon a time in the early fifties there was no such thing as a teenager.  You went from childhood to adulthood somewhere along the line.  Then the idea of teenage-hood was invented to accommodate the growing Boomer generation that studied longer and married later, especially those in the middle classes of white suburbia.


And now?  Now beyond teenage-hood and before adulthood, the category of kidult-hood has arisen to fill the gap.  And that was the assumption on Triple J this morning – that to no longer be a teen does not make one an adult.

There are so many unspoken assumptions in the statement that it is hard to know where to begin. And at the very least it’s a highly selective.  Too young in your twenties to have a child, but let’s lower the age of consent to ensure those who are at least a decade and a half away from actual adulthood can partake of adult pleasures.

Mind you, by the time those who consider themselves too young in their twenties to have children actually get around to having children, – given they only feel like they’re getting a proper crack at adulthood by the time they are thirty -, they will discover that getting knocked up accidentally at twenty five is a cinch. Getting intentionally pregnant at forty on the other hand? Months of perfunctory sex at the right time of the month or tens of thousands of dollars on IVF.

And there’s a huge socio-economic assumption in that statement as well.  Too young in your twenties to have a child.  Unless of course you didn’t go to university, don’t live a funky lifestyle in the inner city, and hence have spent five or six years sorting out which career you’d like after a couple of years experiencing the world.

Come to my neck of the woods though, and by the time a woman is out of her twenties her first child is well into school. Experiencing the world means watching reality TV as you pack yet another round of school lunches.

That’s all by the by, and we could pick a few more holes in it.  But the presenter is right in this all important sense: Most twenty-somethings don’t see themselves in adult category because the adult world has worked hard over the past forty years at locking them out of adulthood.

At a soft culture level the media plays into this, especially with young men. Through the choices on offer and the manner in which rebellion and freedom are framed, kidult-hood is offered as a delaying tactic to the mundanity of the “day to day trenches of adult life” as David Foster Wallace memorably put it.

But let’s not simply blame the media.  The world of work demands a level of education and experience that would have scared a Boomer off from the get go.  In the post-war era the Boomers were fresh meat. They inherited a tabula rasa – the blank slate of a new world meant that the world of work was their oyster.  Jobs were aplenty and the new economy was about to hit the ground running.  Now, with Boomers stubbornly refusing to retire, and a generation of 40-somethings swanning around, the younger set is struggling to find a place in the adult world.

And let’s not forget, if you’re forced to live with mum and dad well into your late twenties due to house prices and huge rents, that’s going to keep you in kidult-hood a whole lot longer at a psychological level.

The much maligned smashed-avocado-on-toast crowd can have its own ensuite, a side door entrance to the house and a queen sized bed “to entertain” while parents either approve or turn a blind eye, but when you’re not paying a mortgage, the water or gas bills, or phoning plumbers to fix blocked drains, you’re not being prepped for the next stage of life with all of its unthinking “have-to’s”.

Don’t get me wrong.  The sheer creativity and ingenuity of the twenty somethings, especially in the areas of technology and communications, is breath-taking.  And I’m watching my daughter study in Yr 11 what I was learning in first year university.

Yet for all of that the confidence levels of many younger people has dropped. All of the documented markers are there; anxiety, depression, a sense of despair or ennui. As they say: Never mind the quality, feel the width.  The self-esteem movement merely papered over the cracks.

And the church?  What about the kidults in our Christian communities? Well Christians by and large marry younger and have children younger, and have more children too. But they’re the exception that proves the rule.  And if the rest of life is not geared to help them launch into adulthood, then in church it can be hard to get them to behave and think differently to how they are forced to think in the rest of life.

There’s a pastoral issue right there.  So older folk, don’t make your first reflex a whinge about why young people won’t grow up. Instead start by thinking how to help shift that way of thinking within the younger crowd in your church.  Start by thinking about how you can help them dismantle that cultural narrative if it exists.  And celebrate the gifts they have, and give them a crack at doing stuff earlier than your gut instinct tells you to.

Perhaps the worst aspect of kidult-hood in church is the endless round of dating that, by the time they’ve all reach 30, has soured our younger crowd just that little bit. None is as fresh and unsullied as they may have been otherwise.

I’m not saying we encourage everyone to marry off at twenty if they are the marrying kind, but let’s not ape the world’s approach to delayed commitment either. Such delay often leads couples to therapy in their mid-thirties as they unpack the relationship wreckages of their twenties, and wonder why, after all that delay and careful choosing, things are not as bright and shiny as they’d assumed they would be.   Older married people can model their own marriages to the younger crowd in simple ways.

One strategy might be to “adopt” a couple of twenty somethings and letting them hang out with you over meal time mid-week once a month, or come and stand on the sidelines with a coffee at the junior basketball game with you as your kids play.

It raises questions about leadership too.  If younger people can’t cut their teeth in leadership in the secular world in which they are given added responsibilities over a set period of time, it’s little wonder they struggle to lead strongly in our churches.  And to be honest, the Boomers, who were leaders in church at 30, still view forty year olds as too young to lead stuff.  I’ve heard that said in not so many words.

All of this gives the church an opportunity, if it can grasp it, to train and equip its younger crowd at a level beyond what the culture can do.  And it will mean putting in an extra level of training that leads them away from how the wider culture views their biological/sociological age and stage, and leads them towards how Scripture and the gospel view what it means to be a young man or a young woman.

The church can help create well-rounded, sober-minded and mature young people that stand out among their peers, having a gospel gravitas that comes from an identity forged apart from the culture’s identity markers.  And irony of ironies, it is the twenty-somethings in church who want liturgy, who want depth, who want a crunchy religious experience, and who eschew the church-lite and seeker-friendly show that the Boomers perfected.

And as far as I can tell, the twenty somethings who are committed to a local congregation, and who do want to grow, and who are seeking the pathway of adulthood early on with the right support structures from their church leaders, are already standouts among their peers in terms of maturity and wisdom.

In fact some report to me how, despite their tender years, many people look up to them for wisdom and guidance. And not just peers, but older generations as well. Godly wisdom pays scant regard to teenage-hood, kidult-hood or adult-hood.  Godly wisdom is a gift from a good God who gives generously to all who ask.

The challenge is there.  If you’re not an adult in your twenties, either in your own mind or in the minds of others,  then in the next two decades or so when the church needs some adults to stand up and offer a viable alternative to the culture’s beguiling narrative of human flourishing, there’s going to be a critical gap, a missing generation.  Church leaders need to start prepping those twenty-somethings now, instead of taking their cues from the wider culture as to when adulthood starts.

If in 2037 all of our forty year olds are still trying to find themselves, sort out a mortgage and are pretty much struggling in the first stages of having small children, then there will be few with either the time or the emotional maturity to help the church negotiate a pathway through this increasingly complex culture.

For let’s face it when the last of the Boomer generation is listening to Procol Harum on repeat in the aged care facility we’re going to need the forty somethings to step into the huge hole left behind. Let’s start prepping them for that task now.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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