Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Emerging Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith

Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Emerging Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith

by Sharon Parks


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781506454870
Publisher: Augsburg Fortress, Publishers
Publication date: 03/05/2019
Pages: 350
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Sharon Daloz Parks has taught, studied, and worked with young, emerging adults in higher education and other settings for more than forty years. She is currently a senior fellow at the Whidbey Institute, speaks and consults nationally, and is principal of leadership for the New Commons. Her publications include Leadership Can Be Taught: A Bold Approach for a Complex World.

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Emerging Adulthood in a Changing World: Potential and Vulnerability

A talented young man, recently graduated from an outstanding college, still trying to heal from his parents' divorce, and somewhat at a loss for next steps in his search for a meaningful place in the world of adult work, is asked by his dad and stepmom, "When you think from your deepest self, what do you most desire?" To their surprise he quietly responds, "To laugh without cynicism."

Having been admitted to a top-tier law school, but uncertain about that path, a bright young woman deferred admission for a year "to give myself some breathing room" and took a job to try something new as a community organizer in a nonprofit working to improve the quality of K–12 education. Three years later, she said, "It was hard. I learned that recruiting and training volunteers was time-consuming and emotionally draining. But it was amazing to see people you recruited lobby their elected officials, speak eloquently at a school board meeting, and show up five thousand strong to rally at the capitol. I'm increasingly interested in education policy, and though I'm uncertain about my next steps, I'll never regret not going to law school three years ago."

A young man from Guyana, twenty-six years old, is the proud owner of a small flooring company and is a part-time student at a community college. One of his teachers observes that though last term he only occasionally slouched into class, he seems to have made some kind of decision and now attends regularly, alert and ready. "His papers have improved by about 200 percent, and he contributes to the friendly, thoughtful tone of the class. He is obviously working very hard both for class and in his business. He has dyslexia, and writing is very labored for him, but he has shown a tremendous amount of thought, effort, creativity, and truly beautiful insight — especially in a paper he wrote about being a young father. He is someone I really, really respect and am generally rooting for."

A college student remarks with candid self-awareness that she and her peers are in a "self-centered" time in life, busy with identity and vocation questions, and aren't yet thinking in terms of larger questions about justice or meaning. She is neither apologetic nor precluding that her perspective will change.

A class of undergraduate business majors is invited to divide into small groups and share their values. One student after a bit concludes, "I don't have any." He's asked, "Well, why are you here?" He responds, "To make money — like everyone else." Another student in the group comments quietly, "But there has to be some meaning, too."

A freshman in her spring term at a state university remarks that she wishes she could find a "church home," longing for what she had in her hometown three hundred miles away. She says she is coping in the meantime by attending an off-campus evangelical college youth group, where there is a lot of warmth, singing, and community. She also participates in a small, challenging study series offered by the campus ministry. What's missing is a kind of wholeness or integration she can't quite grasp.

In the bowels of the university physics lab, a sophomore, raised in Middle America and steeped in a mainline conventional faith, has discovered that the lab is a good place to learn how people from the Middle East and Asia make sense of today's world. It is his perception that the faculty is not aware of this conversation.

A young woman graduating from college offered to work for free for a start-up tech company to show what she could do as a web designer. Three years later, with a full-time job at the heart of the organization grown large, she says, "I got here because I've worked hard, I'm a leader, and it was inside me. On the other hand, it is bizarre to be in a position of enormous responsibility. But like others my age, I know the whole scene better, I'm quick, I'm on it, I grew up with it. I fell into it. As my astrologer says, I can move on if I want with a certain amount of material whatever — but not necessarily have it define me for the rest of my life."

A young woman, twenty-seven years old, confessed, "I'm told I have lots of potential and can go anywhere. I don't know what choice to make next. I'm paralyzed by opportunity."

A recent college grad, twenty-six years old, intelligent, and well traveled, declares that her life is "a daily struggle" between "Am I becoming what was given — inherited — or really creating my own life?"

A twenty-something comments, "You have to remember that I have lived in a different environment every year for six years. So have most people I know. Nothing is stable, and we switch between worlds all the time. We go from having money to being broke ... from being surrounded by friends, to being lonely, to having friends again. ... Those kinds of major transitions would make anyone refigure the way they think about the world, especially if they are already grappling with issues of identity, career, and life goals."

A guest blogger writes, "Admittedly, some of us are resistant to settling into the 'traditional cycle' of adulthood, but is this because we are sloughing off responsibilities or because we are waking up to a new set of responsibilities?"

For each of these young, emerging adults — and for all of us — there is much at stake in how they are heard, understood, and met by the adult world in which they are seeking participation, meaning, purpose, and a faith to live by. This book is dedicated to a reappraisal of the meaning of emerging adulthood and the crucial transformation it harbors for all of us.

In varying roles (including professor and researcher), I have taught, counseled, studied, and learned with young adults in college, university, and other professional and workplace settings. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, I witnessed the power of young adult energy to sway a society. I wondered at the apparent disappearance of that energy once the Vietnam War ended and the television cameras had departed from campus.

Over subsequent decades, however, I saw that same energy reconfigure and weave itself into the fiber of our cultural life. In the eighties and nineties, I watched emerging adults — particularly in professional schools — seeking a place in a new global commons that ambivalently welcomed, encouraged, exploited, and discouraged their participation.

Now, well into the twenty-first century, I continue to watch young adults — both in North America and abroad — reach for a place of belonging, integrity, and contribution that can anchor meaningful hope in themselves and our shared future. Meanwhile, the tides of globalization, cynicism, polarization, and consumerism, coupled with climate disturbance and a shifting social-economic-political milieu, play big roles in charting their course. I have observed among some of the most talented many who simply have been lured into elite careers before anyone has invited them to consider the deeper questions of meaning and purpose. Others are fiercely determined to find a distinctive path and to make a difference in a complex maze of competing claims and wide-ranging opportunities. Still others are simply adrift and yet others feel themselves essentially locked out of viable, meaningful choices.

A New Era in Human Development

Across forty years, my scholarship has been primarily in the fields of developmental psychology and education, leadership and ethics, theology and religion. Insights drawn from these domains have served as useful interpreters of emerging adults, as I know them. At the same time, young adults themselves have continually prompted me to notice that even some of the "disciplined" interpretations of emerging adulthood are misleading. By young, emerging adults, I mean people typically between eighteen and thirty-two years of age — the twenty-somethings.

When I began my initial studies, there was some recognition of theoretical awkwardness in the transition from adolescence to adulthood, but this period was typically described as "prolonged adolescence," a merely "transitional time," a "moratorium," or "regression." Cultural assumptions allowed that some might go through a period of idealism soon to be outgrown yet generally implied that adulthood begins, or should begin, with the completion of formal schooling, entering the world of full-time work, and establishing a family — around the traditional age of perhaps twenty-two or so (if not earlier). Later, such popular descriptions of young adults as Generation X, Generation Y, and more recently Slackers, Millennials, and Boomerang Kids extended the timeframe. But these attempts to describe and normatively define twenty-somethings in media-manageable terms have primarily served to cast them as a market or a political demographic, while finding them resistant to categorization.

Since 2000 or so, particularly through the work of Jeffrey Jensen Arnett and his colleagues but notably others as well, this post-adolescent-not-yet-full-adult era that early on Kenneth Keniston described as youth (1960) and I described as young adulthood (1986) has become more visible to scholars and the general public. Currently the designation emerging adulthood has gained considerable traction, but other terms also such as the odyssey years, failure to launch, preadulthood, quarter-life crises, and waithood signal the growing consciousness of this "new" era in the human life span that challenges both scholars and popular culture.

Keniston named this post-adolescent period youth, which is problematic in obvious ways. I have previously used the term young adult, which is both appropriate and problematic in other ways. As the term emerging adult is useful within the growing scholarship exploring this developmental era (though more problematic when speaking directly with twenty-somethings), I am choosing here to use both terms but to privilege the term emerging adult. Adult connotes a sense of responsibility for one's self and others — emerging connotes the exploratory, ambivalent, wary, tentative, and appropriately dependent quality that is characteristic of early adulthood.

Bewildering Ambiguity

When does one cross the threshold into adulthood? The response of North American culture is, indeed, ambiguous. Chronological age does not serve as a consistent indicator and the rites of passage that might mark that threshold are various: obtaining a driver's license, social security card, or credit card; sexual experimentation; reaching the legal drinking age; graduation from high school, college, or professional school; marrying or partnering; full-time employment; establishing one's own residence; parenting a child; becoming eligible to vote; becoming subject to military registration; becoming subject to being tried as an adult for criminal behavior; financial independence; capacity to be responsible for one's own beliefs and actions; and to make responsible life decisions and enter binding legal contracts. Each of these serves to some degree as a cultural indicator of adulthood, yet the legally established age for these passages ranges from sixteen to twenty-one (and beyond in relationship to some financial contracts and health care) and is not uniform from one jurisdiction to another.

In this maze of contradictory cultural signals, it is difficult to have a clear sense of what to expect of either oneself or others. Establishing an occupation, finding a mate, and starting a family all endure as indicators of adulthood. But as the human life span has been extended and as a postindustrial, technological culture has made it both easier and more difficult to make one's way into the world of adult work and other commitments, the twenty-something years take on new significance.

Thus even an indicator such as "becoming established on one's own" no longer seems useful when some eighteen-year-olds are "on their own" because they have left dysfunctional families in search of healthier ways of life; when others who would have been expected to "leave the nest" by the age of at least twenty-five have moved back home, even though they have graduated and may be working full time; when professional education may extend into one's early thirties; when it is common to change jobs or careers several times in one's twenties — and across a lifetime; and when what is important to learn and incorporate into one's adult identity becomes increasingly complex and controversial.

In this changing milieu, many parents find themselves surprised, if not dismayed, and ponder whether and for how long it is appropriate to provide financial support. Corporate planners are challenged by the fluidity and short-term horizons of young adult ambitions. Financial magazines feature young entrepreneurs earning "adult" salaries who are appearing to bypass higher education altogether. Many emerging adults themselves, even those who have achieved some of the traditional markers of adulthood, wonder when and if they really are "grown up." Young mothers with partners who do not yet seem ready to be fathers have few guidelines for determining what they may ask, claim, or demand — and at the same time young women are experiencing more professional opportunity and personal latitude than previous generations were allowed. Young men are discovering that their traditional roles — procreate, provide, and protect — are being significantly recast in new gender role assumptions, an overpopulated planet, a globalized economy (in which increasingly "brains" trump "brawn"), and the changing conditions of warfare. Governments and other authorities may be irritated when emerging adults mount a protest against a perceived injustice. Correspondingly, however, established adult culture feels at least mild uneasiness if its young seem passive, dependent, "not pulling their weight," oriented to absolute security, and bereft of idealism. All are bewildered if the sort of self-confidence, aspiration, and commitment that are associated with movement into adulthood are not as evident as they expected.

Three Central Questions

Thus, embedded in this question of when one becomes an adult are three central questions: What is the key marker that defines the threshold and shapes the tasks of emerging adulthood? What are these tasks and the timeframe these tasks imply? What kind of environment best serves the tasks of young, emerging adulthood?

Twenty-somethings do many things. They seek work, find jobs, change jobs. They party and play. They earn undergraduate, master's, doctoral, and professional degrees. They have a yen for travel — from one country to another and from one company to another. They create art, claim adventure, explore and establish long-term relationships, form households, volunteer in their communities, become parents, initiate important projects, and serve internships. Sometimes they protest and make demands. They try to become financially independent. Some go to prison. Some deal with major health and other physical and emotional stresses. And some emerging adults die too young.

It is my conviction that in the cycle of human life the central work of young, emerging adulthood is not located in any of these tasks or circumstances per se. Rather, the promise and vulnerability of emerging adulthood lie in the experience of the birth of critical awareness and consequently in the dissolution and recomposition of the meaning of self, other, world, and "God." In the process of human becoming, this task of achieving critical thought and discerning its consequences for one's sense of meaning and purpose has enormous implications for the years of adulthood to follow. Emerging adulthood is rightfully a time of asking big questions and crafting worthy dreams.

What is the timeframe this task requires? It takes a while.

I was in conversation with a young woman who halfway through her sophomore year of college reflected, "I have been thinking lately a lot about thresholds. When does one become an adult? When we graduate from high school? Or college? Can a piece of paper signify that we are adult? It seems at times that it is easier to meet new adults who recognize me as I am now than to be with adults who see me as I used to be." Later, when I expressed appreciation for her comments, she added, "It seems to me that one becomes an adult when you know that you have a life. Do you know what I mean?"

When we shift from just "being a life" to "knowing we have a life," we achieve an undeniably different form of consciousness. New possibilities and responsibilities appear for both self and world. Whether or not this transformation occurs and how a young adult is (or isn't) met and invited to test this new consciousness will make a great difference in the adulthood that lies ahead. We are helped to grasp the potential significance and scope of this shift in consciousness — and why it takes a while — by an understanding of the development of human meaning-making in its most comprehensive dimensions, the development of "faith."


Excerpted from "Big Questions, Worthy Dreams"
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Copyright © 2019 Fortress Press, an imprint of 1517 Media.
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Table of Contents

1 Emerging Adulthood in a Changing World: Potential and Vulnerability
2 The Deep Motion of Life: Composing, Meaning, Purpose, and Faith
3 Becoming at Home in the Universe: A Developmental Process
4 It Matters How We Think
5 It all Depends . . .
6 . . . On Belonging
7 Imagination: the Core of Learning and Heart of Leadership
8 The Gifts of Mentorship and a Mentoring Environment
9 Higher Education as Mentor
10 Culture as Mentor
Coda: Mentoring Communities
Professional Education and the Professions
The Workplace
Religious Faith Communities
Social Movements
The author
Name Index
Subject Index

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