By Michael Rossmann
Making commitments for more than a year — let alone forever — is increasingly uncommon among 20-somethings, though this past weekend, multiple friends did exactly that. On the same day my old roommate got married, I watched seven Jesuit Brothers make perpetual vows, saying that for the rest of their lives they promise poverty, chastity, and obedience. Most of these friends are 24 or 25.
Of course, it was far more common for previous generations to have finished their education, left home, married, had children, and achieved financial independence by the end of their 20s. According to U.S. Census data, 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men had reached these milestones of adulthood by the age of 30 in 1960. In 2000, however, only 46 percent of women and 31 percent of men had done these things by the end of their 20s, and both anecdotal and quantitative evidence indicate that many young adults are delaying these milestones even more today.
Many in my generation have been told that we can be anything we want to be. We were repeatedly advised to keep our options open. And, many of us have had opportunities that our parents and grandparents could not have dreamed of. This background and an economic situation that prevents many from easily settling down — unless they at least receive a master’s degree — are probably a few of many factors in the emergence of a “prolonged adolescence” or a post-adolescent but not-quite-adult “emerging adulthood,” which has been written about frequently in recent years.
Of course, delaying some significant life milestones is not necessarily negative. People typically finish school much later today because they are receiving many more years of education. Living at home as a 20-something can produce much stress for everyone involved, though many millenials have a very close relationship with their parents.
At the same time, I do see some worrisome aspects of these developments. I have seen friends delay making a decision with the desire not to close any doors, but this can actually become a decision itself in that eventually some options are then no longer possible.
On my first discernment retreat with the Jesuits, my spiritual director for the weekend was a seminarian who stressed that there was no rush with discernment. I was only 20 years old, and it was an important message to hear. At the very same retreat, however, one priest exhorted us to “strike while the iron is hot” and told us, “Don’t wimp out!” I could not help but laugh at the juxtaposition in messages, though this priest’s words were extremely important for me to hear as well.
After serving as vocations director for the Jesuits for seven years, this priest explained to us how one of the saddest aspects of his job was seeing guys seemingly called to be a Jesuit by all indications delay making a decision because of fears and uncertainties — only then never to commit. I have heard of others who have been accepted to religious orders and who seem to have such a vocation but then defer this “just to make sure” and never come back. And, of course, this phenomenon extends far beyond priestly discernment.
John Kavanaugh, a Jesuit who teaches at St. Louis University, describes a conversation he had with Mother Teresa in which he asked her to pray that he might have clarity. She told him no and explained that he was clinging to clarity and had to let go of it. When he then told her that she always seemed to have clarity, she laughed and responded, “I have never had clarity; what I’ve always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust.”
I used to marvel at people getting married and starting families by the age of 20 and wonder how they could be so sure this was right. Of course, many societal factors previously contributed to settling down at a younger age, though it is likely that they, like young adults today, similarly lacked clarity. But, many of us young adults can learn much from their example of trust.
(Michael Rossmann is a Jesuit scholastic at Loyola University Chicago and a 2003 graduate of Regina Catholic Education Center in Iowa City. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org).