Millennials get a bad rap. I should know. I can’t even enjoy my locally roasted coffee and avocado toast without feeling judged by the baby boomer at the next table for my financial choices. I didn’t move out of my parents’ basement ‘til I was 27, I don’t own a home and might never own one, and my bachelors degree is collecting dust on my bookshelf, wedged between my series of Harry Potter books that–like my degree–I mostly have for show (I read all my books on my kindle). My career didn’t take shape until my late twenties, and neither did my faith.
My experience is not uncommon, but it’s not because I belong to a lazy, entitled generation that fell awkwardly into a narrow gap between digital natives and digital immigrants. In fact, the reason these negative stereotypes of millennials exist is because of a general misunderstanding of emerging adulthood, which is a new life stage that millennials must experience through no fault of their own. This life stage impacts everything from our social lives and our mental health, to our spiritual lives and our faith identities.
Emerging Adulthood and Adulting
The emerging adulthood life stage has carved out space between the time someone identifies a “youth” and when they consider themselves to have arrived at “adulthood.” It’s the reason why a 24-year-old will post a selfie on instagram while heading to work at 9am and use the hashtag #adulting. According to a recent study called Renegotiating Faith, adulthood has been delayed about 5 to 7 years since the 80’s. A simple and reductive explanation for this is often used to justify this trend: millennials are lazy, entitled, and don’t prioritize the right things. In reality, the reasons for this delay in adulthood are much more nuanced and therefore harder to concisely explain. There are a few factors, however, that plainly contribute to this delay.
Take the job market, for example. A couple of decades ago, it wasn’t uncommon for someone to be in a well-established career by their early twenties. Now, the term “established career” seems as much of a myth as unicorns or leprechauns or an affordable iPhone. This isn’t due to the flighty non-committal nature that tends to be attributed to millennials, however. The job market is increasingly demanding higher levels of postsecondary education. Gone are the days when a bachelor’s degree could land you a stable and reliable income. According to Renegotiating Faith, 62% of male Millennials and 73% of female Millennials are expected to graduate from post-secondary institutions, up from 48% and 55% respectively in 1987. This means that college and university are becoming an increasingly normative experience among millennials, which means a greater delay in entering into the workforce, which means a greater delay in moving out of mom’s basement.
The phrase adulting has become a meme, when as recently as a decade ago the word barely existed. According to urbandictionary.com (every millennial’s favourite slang tool), adulting refers to “doing grown up things and holding responsibilities such as, a 9-5 job, a mortgage/rent, a car payment, or anything else that makes one think of grown ups.”
To translate this into practical application, it means that adulthood is properly considered as doing things independently and separately from your family. It means becoming your own distinct person and making your own choices. It means differentiating yourself and becoming an individual. This not only plays a significant role in how millennials choose a career, but how they determine their faith as well.
Forming a faith identity
I grew up in a Christian home. I took part in all the Sunday schools, the youth groups, the church events, and the day camps, and I enjoyed most of it. I was immersed in Christian culture, but it wasn’t until university that I began deeply questioning all the beliefs I had held onto as a child. There was simply no reason for me to question who Jesus was, or why we believed in him instead of all the other gods and religions that existed throughout the world.
My time in university was the first opportunity I had to compare my beliefs with those of my peers. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was at this stage of my life that my faith stopped being something I inherited and started being something I would figure out for myself. It was a crossroads for me; would I continue following the same faith as my parents, or would I decide to take another route?
It’s comforting to know that this was yet another normative experience that I was going through, and that a Christian student questioning his faith in university isn’t a shameful anomaly. According to Renegotiating Faith, One of the highest needs of millennials is the need to differentiate themselves from their parents, guardians, or family. For students who come from families where faith is a major value, differentiating themselves from their parents beliefs is not just common, but to be expected.
It’s easy to assume that most students walk away from their faith because they are antagonistic towards the beliefs they adhered to growing up, but the research shows that it’s more nuanced than that. Often, when a student comes to a decision to reject their faith, they’re looking for opportunities to leave quietly, according to the report. They aren’t looking for a fight. This is shown well in a popular Netflix show, Master of None, in which the main character quietly begins enjoying pork which is in stark opposition to his family’s muslim beliefs. Instead of offending his parents and making a big deal about his decision not to follow his family’s faith, the main character attempts to leave quietly. Like any good TV show, however, things don’t go according to plan.
What does this mean for ministry
As I continued to wrestle with my faith throughout university, I eventually came to the conclusion that I could not walk away from the person of Jesus that I had known my entire life. His work in me was and is undeniable, and impossible to ignore. At the end of the day, I decided to hold onto the same beliefs that I grew up with. Though it’s important to recognize that I still had to decide this for myself, and in some ways have still differentiated from my parents in how I live out my faith. I still went through the process, though it appears that my faith remains unchanged.
Students are all going through a process of differentiation in their late teens and early twenties. It’s one of the key steps to “adulting,” whether it’s realized at the time or not. In terms of ministry, this is less of an obstacle and more of an opportunity. It’s made me realize that ministry is more important than ever.
One of the core ways that students establish themselves as individuals is by finding their place in a new community. Post-secondary schools are a hotbed of new communities, to the point where it can become overwhelming trying to find one that suits you.
Christian ministries in general, not just P2C – Students, have an important role to play in providing great communities that help challenge millennials to grow into a faith that they can call their own. These communities provide structure, responsibility, and relationships, all of which are essential in helping students find their new identity. Not every student will have an experience that is the same as my own, but without my community in university, I probably still wouldn’t know where I belong in the world.
To read the report referenced in this article, check out Renegotiating Faith.