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Friday, May 06, 2016

Too Hot to Handle: Empty-Somethings

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

When is an adult an adult?
The Telegraph reports an Italian court has ordered a divorced father to pay child support for his 28-year-old son, who has already meandered through one degree in literature and has now enrolled in a post-graduate course in experimental cinema.

Tom: I bring this up, Immanuel Can, because this is not an isolated case. Most parents have not been nailed for child support, but many all over the world have their adult sons and daughters living in their homes well into their thirties and beyond.

The phenomenon has a name in Italy. They call it bamboccioni, which essentially means “chubby children”. You had what I thought was a better idea, IC. How about “empty-somethings”?

Making Your Own Way

Immanuel Can: Actually, this is a subject about which I’ve been thinking a lot lately. So can I take your discussion idea for a spin?

Tom: That’s the whole point.

IC: Here’s my spin: there are a lot of Christian young people who are currently in the “in between” phase of life: that is, the era in which young people either make their own way or turn into these “chubby children” you’re speaking about. For varying periods of time, between puberty and their late 20s, many of our young people are in the neither-here-nor-there phase between child and adult.

Tom: Absolutely.

IC: In churches, we call it “college and careers” age (a designation I have yet to see in any other context, so it’s probably a uniquely churchy way of conceptualizing the situation). Are today’s college and careers young adults going to be tomorrow’s spiritual version of the chubby children?

Could we talk a bit about what it might mean to live as a Christian in this age range?

Tom: We sure can. But I’m going to be offensive here.

IC: Okay, go ahead.

Old Testament Adulthood

Tom: In Leviticus 27, a man had the same value between the ages of twenty and sixty. Those were the “earning years” and the measure of a man’s value for the purpose of vows was his earning capacity. Again, in Leviticus 30, for the purpose of a census everyone over age twenty was counted. Twenty and up was adulthood. Healthy people then lived just as long then as we do now: Moses lived to 120, Joshua died at 110 and Caleb was still vigorous at 85. They didn’t come to adulthood earlier because people were keeling over at 39.

Now we’re not under law as Christians so I don’t want to split hairs about the exact age at which someone ought to be considered an adult, but our society is getting beyond ridiculous. For the purpose of drinking alcohol, adulthood is 18 or 19 in Canada and 21 in the U.S. For the purpose of voting it’s 18 in Canada, and in some countries it’s as low as 16. For the purpose of sexual consent it’s 16 in Canada. See a pattern here? All privilege, no responsibility.

In anything other than absolutely exceptional circumstances, for a Christian child to willfully remain dependent on his or her parents at age 28 is appalling. I trust that isn’t happening in our churches. We can’t start mimicking the world in this respect. It’s just wrong.

IC: Oh. I thought you were going to say something controversial.

Tom: Sorry, I try. Intelligent audience, I guess.

A Modern Invention

IC: Actually, there are plenty of secular studies that support your view entirely. The concept of “adolescence” is historically unknown prior to the Industrial Period. Before that, and elsewhere, one was a child, then one became a young adult. That was it. There was no holding period in the middle, during which one had the physiology of an adult but the dependency of a child. That’s wholly an invention of modern society.

Nowadays, childhood ends at the commencement of puberty, but full adulthood doesn’t begin until perhaps 28 or 30. There’s a no-man’s-land time of at least a dozen years or more, during which our young adults are routinely denied the chance to select a mate, have children, take on responsibilities, live independently, or take on self-leadership or spiritual leadership roles. And we expect them to endure in this limbo state until we are satisfied that they have finished a lengthy education, established a career, achieved financial independence, and so on. Only then will we treat them as true “adults”.

Tom: Well, not true in all cases. There are more than a few outliers who pass on college, go straight into the workforce and marry shortly after high school. They are generally recognized as adults because they’re doing adult things. But I agree that what you describe is happening all too frequently.

The Blame Game

IC: Now really, none of that is by choice of our “college and careers” people. We cannot blame them for it. We did it to them. They did not ask us to do it. In fact, who in their right mind would want it?

Tom: Partly true, but I’m not sure I totally buy into blaming society for this 100%, to be honest. As someone who took way too long to get into the working world and marriage, I can tell you that as much as society did it to me, I willingly did it to myself. Society certainly facilitated it, and nobody other than my parents encouraged me to get moving on adult life, but I’ve got to say I own that one. And I think a lot of our college and careers people do too.

So, “denied the change to select a mate, etc.”? I’m not sure about that. It’s certainly much more difficult, and there’s not much of a support system for married couples in their early twenties, and I suspect many “early” marriages fail. But that fact is that for a lot of people going to school forever on your parents’ dime or on a student loan is way more fun than working, assuming you can swing it.

I’d say we can spread the blame around at least a little.

Playing the Hand We’re Dealt

IC: Oh, I’m not saying we should blame others for what young people do with the situation … but the situation itself clearly predates them, and is none of their arranging.

Tom: Fair enough. It predated us, if we’re honest.

IC: Their parents informed them (backed up by the economy, peer precedent and the school system) that there is nothing but this … or poverty, singlehood and death. So most see no alternative but to buy into the public school system, then the post-secondary and career-apprenticeship systems, and then finally to achieve independence far later than their biological development would induce them to do.

To place primary blame on the young adults themselves seems to me unfair and misguided … so I wouldn’t. But I would tell them that given these facts, it’s their job to get doing something positive with the hand of cards others have dealt them. So maybe we should turn to that.

How can a modern young adult shape a Christian life for himself or herself?

The Hidden Cost of Education

Tom: My initial reaction is to say avoid incurring excessive school debt, or at least avoid taking it into a marriage. But that simply compounds the problem and pushes marriage back later. I don’t like the idea of school debt at all myself, and I do think that if you’re going to incur it, you’d best be VERY sure it’s in the cause of a skill you will be able to market. That’s where many kids are falling down today, and it’s given rise to movements like #Occupy.

IC: True. But school is nowadays very expensive, and the prospect of a reasonably lucrative job afterwards (by means of which to pay off the accrued debt) is increasingly remote. Young people are told that they have no choice but to build the debt, but then are denied means to dispense with it. Again, that’s on their parents, to a large extent.

Tom: True, but I don’t think parents grasp that the situation they grew up in has changed, and probably permanently. They’re giving outdated advice they genuinely believe. An example: Lovely Christian man I know, well off, four children, all home-schooled, is convinced the best thing he could do for his kids is send them to a Christian college in the U.S. So he and his wife did it for all four. Now there was no debt incurred; it was all paid for up front. But as far as I know, not one of those four adults is currently doing anything with their degrees. Not one. But if you talk to their dad today, he’s convinced he did the best possible thing for his kids. He’d do it again in good conscience. And I’m left shaking my head.

Examining the Options

IC: Well, I agree with you that excessive involvement with higher education can be quite toxic to one’s social and financial health, to say nothing of the spiritual side — and this from a guy who has done more of it than most ever will — but perhaps we should talk alternatives.

Tom: A trade makes good sense. I think whatever you choose to do it needs to be, as they say, “anti-fragile”. Not easily impacted by drastic changes in the economy and as impervious as possible to potential attacks from social justice crusaders. Oddly enough, there are not a lot of highly skilled carpenters anymore and their services do not come cheap.

IC: True. And that sort of thing is an option. But it’s not for everybody. We still need knowledge workers, managers, economists, doctors and so on, and lots of Christian ones too. But I think we also need to be strategic in the way we take on these careers. We need a much more profound aversion to debt and a greater willingness for young adults to colour outside the conventional lines when it comes to funding and acquiring skills and education. We can’t have a generation of middle-aged financial cripples living in their parents’ basements. And we cannot have a generation of middle aged pew-dwellers who know nothing of spiritual learning, service or maturation. Yet those are the potential products of the current system, in many cases.

Christian Priorities and Job Satisfaction

Tom: One thing I’ve encountered occasionally in the current generation is an inflexibility that is just not consonant with the realities of the job market; the mentality that having invested three years or more in a particular course of study entitles one to wait indefinitely for “a job in my field” where none appear to exist. That situation might get sympathy in the world, but it is wholly foreign to the Christian mindset. Paul’s “if anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” is not well understood anymore. Our commitment as Christians is to providing for our families and having enough over to share with those in need, not pursuing job satisfaction, which you find once you’ve worked for a bit is a pretty ephemeral concept in any case.

IC: That’s a good point. One result of the Culture of Possibility — the propaganda that says everyone should “reach for the stars”, “achieve their dreams” and generally “actualize their full potential” (which is usually interpreted as “the potential to become irritable and entitled when I don’t get what I want”), coupled with the proliferation of career and life options so characteristic of modernity, is the proliferation of disappointment. David Brandt has just written a book called Is That All There Is? that describes this phenomenon. Disappointment flourishes where people are told anything is possible. Sadness and disillusionment, so common in our age, are actually products of sky-high expectations.

The Era of Reduced Prospects

Tom: Well, the expectation of Christians in many generations has been hard work, persecution and quite often an early grave. We’ve been privileged to avoid a lot of that in the Western world in the last few generations, but we’re the exception, not the rule.

IC: We are. But people always expect to have at least what their parents had. So stepping backwards is inevitably going to produce disappointment.

However, why does a Christian have to have “less” by way of real happiness in his or her life merely because material circumstances, career options or consumer goods are not as available as before?

I’d say that maybe our disappointment in an era of reduced prospects may well be that we had the wrong aspirations in the first place. In every era, it has always been a great thing to be a man or woman of God. It’s just not so great being a man or woman of the world nowadays.

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