“Failure to Launch” or the new ‘normal’?

I recently went to a workshop put on by the Barna group called, You Lost Me.

It was a great day, but I take issue with some things. One is a conversation about “Failure to Launch.” They showed the difference between today’s 20’s-30’s achieving these milestones that signify adulthood, and the statistics of a previous generation. Statistics say that far less people today have lived these milestones by the age of thirty. The point was that many young people today have “failed to launch” into adulthood.

The key factors that marked a person (or generation of persons) as a failure had to do with leaving home, attaining economic independence, and forming families of their own. I don’t argue that these things are happening and that we should talk about them, but I do argue with the word “failure” and wonder about how we culturally define adulthood.

Leaving home: While this has been a sign of adulthood in American society in recent history, it is also a mark of our cultural value of independence. There are many cultures throughout the world and down through history for which this would not be seen as a sign of adulthood, or a desired state.

Attaining economic independence: I am unsure if this is about paying your own rent or having a career focused job, or some other sign, but some questions to consider might be these:

  • Is this happening because too many men are in their parents’ basement playing games?
  • Might there be other factors, such as baby boomers not retiring and saturating the market?
  • When they do retire, new hires often look and act like the old ones, but  ten years younger instead of forty years younger (or even twenty years younger) In my field, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, you can see this trend as you look at the newest bishops in the church, who are largely 50+. I am not arguing for twenty-six year old bishops, or even a leadership based on Numbers 8, but some diversity in leadership might be good for the Church.
  • Is it because the economy is tight and less people are hiring?
  • Is it because of a large national conversation in higher education about “vocation” meaning finding a calling, (to put it simply)  rather than just finding a job that pays the bills?

If these are factors, then can we blame individuals? Does the “generational failure” reside with those in their 20’s and 30’s (right now) or with another generation? Is it always a failure?

Forming families of their own: David Kinnaman, who wrote You Lost Me and presented on this topic, has also written a blog about the “The New Normal”  which includes pointing out that there is a “global pause in marriage.” Not just in American society, but across the world, many cultures are delaying marriage. There are good reasons for this. I have friends who did launch in all of these traditional ways—successfully out of the house! Successfully married! Successfully breeding! And at such a young age that now they are “unlaunched” or launch aborted. Some of those divorces were incredibly painful. While I have witnessed some great marriages, I can also say there are far worse things that remaining single.

I also think of my friends in the LGBTQ  community. Anyone can form a family, but for LGBTQ folks, they are often not recognizable as such to the government, the church, or a research group if they are defining family in a heternormative way. This, along with the sometimes long and painful process of coming out will probably delay the step of forming a family.

Twenty-two years ago I moved out of my parents’ house at eighteen. I got a college degree, started my first career. I’ve spent 3 months back in my parents’ house since then in between jobs. I became one of the “new normal” of “educated capable young women” who owns a house. But since I am not married and did not have children, I guess that means I failed to launch.

The valid point of talking about this during the “You Lost Me” presentation was to point out how churches are ill-equipped to deal with the “new normal.” I agree with this, because our churches are often very family-centric and heteronormative. But the “new normal” is still called a failure. It is a failure which Jesus would have (probably) been familiar with, because (as far as we know) he also failed to be economically independent. His family (see Mark 3: 31-35) was the people around him—perhaps like the “urban tribes” we hear about as forming new definitions of family. He seems to have walked around a lot, living an itinerant life. He didn’t live much longer after 30, so I guess we’ll never know if he would have eventually become a successfully-launched adult.

Can we please use different words?

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