I was one half of a radio duo this morning, and my on-air partner and I were discussing the relatively recent phenomenon of “emerging adulthood”. This is something that has emerged (pardon the pun) over the past twenty years or so, but has only garnered scholarly attention and comment from cultural observers in the last few years. This scrutiny focuses upon a growing segment of social development within western societies, lying between adolescence and full-blown adulthood. The members of this segment are known as “emerging adults”, and are marked by several things: a lack of financial stability or independence; impermanent romantic and sexual relationships; and a similar lack of permanence when it comes to careers or vocations. There is probably much more to say about this, but it seems that these characteristics do a good job of distilling the essence of emerging adulthood. Such individuals have entered into what one would normally call adulthood, but are still carrying with them the angst, uncertainty and transient longings of teens and adolescents.
My radio partner and I were talking about this phenomenon, and he asked me why I thought this was the case. The answer I gave there forms the bulk of my blog entry here. The basic premise of my answer rested upon the fact that our world is increasingly characterised by a post-modern narrative. Now, post-modernism is many things – some necessary, some gratuitous – but one thing that it most certainly rejects is the notion of the metanarrative. Irony notwithstanding (I mean, postmodernism, in the very act of rejecting modernism, has simply swapped one metanarrative for another), post-modernism has cast a powerful spell upon contemporary youth culture, especially when it comes to the repudiation of any kind of metanarrative. Now, before some of you run for the hills because you fear that this blog entry has now gone the way of esoteric philosophy, let me assure you that a metanarrative is very easy to understand. It simply refers to a broad way of looking at the world, a conceptual framework or worldview. It shapes our understanding, and allows us to place ourselves within a kind of story that provides us with direction, purpose and meaning. Above all, it is a story that suggests order and directionality in the world.
That may well seem somewhat abstract, but it is worth remembering that we, as followers of Jesus, live according to the Christian metanarrative. We believe that this world is God’s good world; that it has been marred by humanity’s sin; that God has graciously provided the means for salvation for his creation, including the salvation of his image-bearing creatures; that this plan began with the calling of Abraham, on through the chequered fortunes of Israel, and climaxing with the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus; and will be consummated with the coming of God’s Kingdom, when this world – and those who have accepted Jesus – will enjoy redemption from sin and death.
That is the Christian metanarrative in a nutshell. We live in it, and it gives us an overarching sense of meaning and purpose. Otherwise, our lives as Christians would be a chaotic and meaningless patchwork of events, decisions and uncertainties without any discernible thread. Of course, we do not embrace the Christian gospel simply because it affords us a convenient source of significance or existential coherency. We embrace it because we believe it to be true. But one of the off-shoots of that embrace is the entry into a conceptual and narratival framework that bestows upon us purpose and meaning that extends far beyond any meaning inherent in our own lives. I should point out that Christians are not the only people to embrace a metanarrative. Many people, quite unconsciously, have embraced the Enlightenment metanarrative, which places trust in autonomous human reason, scientific prowess and secularisation as the means by which society can progress and reach utopia (however that is defined). Marxism is a particularly obvious example of the way in which one metanarrative can grow up in place of the diminishing power of another metanarrative (in this case, the Christian story). Nevertheless, it is largely clear that people of whatever religious, ethical or philosophical stripe, have embraced some kind of worldview – however consciously or systematically defined – in order to make sense of their world and experiences.
This is what post-modernism has rejected, since metanarratives are seen as oppressive forces, used by the powerful to shape, and even quash, the autonomy of the individual. “Truth”, according to the post-modernist, is no longer an objective concept to be discovered; it is instead something that is created in order to exercise power over others. Even the Enlightenment project, which upheld – and still upholds – the primacy of the autonomous rational subject, constitutes a philosophical and narrative framework that shapes the individual. To be sure, this kind of characterisation is to some degree correct. Think for a moment of the brutality of the socialist ideology, built upon the metanarrative of the economic base of historical change and the eventual triumph of the proletariat. However, whether or not the post-modern rejection of this way of organising knowledge and human lives is correct is a moot point. My intention is neither to suggest that post-modernism is wholly accurate, nor that any kind of overarching story in which one might place oneself is wholly bad. How could I, since I myself adhere to the Christian story? But what is clear is that post-modernism, for all its excesses, has had a profound – though often unacknowledged – effect on young people today, which is having demonstrable effects.
Indeed, if it is true that post-modernism rejects all metanarratives; and if it is true that many young people today are members of the “emerging adult” generation that seems to have imbibed the tenets of this philosophical stream; then it becomes clear why many in this social cohort are living such impermanent, transient, and seemingly purposeless lives. This is how I answered the question put to me on the radio, and it is what I see quite clearly now. Because a complete rejection of overarching stories – whether Christian or secular – is a central plank in the post-modernist agenda, those who have embraced it have nothing beyond themselves to which they might cling. Any sense of meaning or significance beyond oneself is lost, and the incentive to work and labour for a project or a goal that extends beyond the quotidian pleasures that seem to characterise so many young people vanishes. I am not arguing that all those who live this way, do so because of a conscious acceptance of post-modernism’s claims. If asked, I am sure that many would not even be able to identify or describe this strain of philosophy. But that has not prevented it from filtering down from the institutions to general culture, permeating thought and deed alike.
Thus, we ought to acknowledge the reality for those who have swallowed the ostensibly liberating notions touted by post-modernism. And it is no coincidence that the current generation, which, more than any other, seems to have embraced the tenets of post-modernism without critique, is also the generation that has lost its way and seems to be suffering from a perpetual state of drift. When one rejects the notion of an overarching purpose according to which one works, and an overarching goal towards which one labours, then one only has the morass of the present, the dominance of pleasure, or the journal of so-called self-discovery (for there is nothing beyond the self). The lone individual, shorn of all purpose and context, is all that stands. But it appears that such an individual suffers from an acute case of myopia when it comes to the things of life.
I think the writer of Proverbs had it right: “when there is no vision, the people perish…” (Proverbs 29:18). Of course, he was speaking about supernatural visions, but the point holds. An ability to see beyond one’s immediate future, one’s immediate cravings, and one’s own life is a crucial skill if one is to leave behind the purposelessness that characterises emerging adults. And yet, the collapse of all-embracing narratives, and the ascendancy of post-modernism’s reification of the “hyper-individual”, makes this a rather far-off prospect.