(Author’s note: I’m starting 2013 with a series of blog posts about the huge changes that are rocking Western society – and their impact on men and the church. I am not advocating these changes; I’m simply trying to explain why they’re happening, to help believers respond with greater understanding to those they may disagree with.)
Have you noticed how many twentysomething men (and women) are slacking? Just getting by? Refusing to take advantage of opportunities to advance themselves professionally? Opting out of long term, committed relationships?
Slacking isn’t laziness. I define it as “failing to engage with the institutions that define and govern society.” Today’s young adults are increasingly rejecting the societal norms that have shaped our republic since its inception.
This is not just a case of teenage rebellion or extended adolescence. Significant numbers of young adults are:
- embracing love and relationships, but rejecting the institutions of dating, courtship and marriage.
- embracing government, but refusing to vote.
- embracing peace, but rejecting the military.
- embracing knowledge, but forgoing higher education.
- embracing economic prosperity, but not advancing in careers (or even holding jobs).
- embracing friendships, but rejecting clubs, sports leagues and other civic organizations.
- embracing God, but rejecting the church.
- embracing community, yet failing to establish themselves in stable living arrangements.
Many eventually engage with these institutions, but increasing numbers never will.
Sam is typical of this trend. He left his home in Missouri to go to college on the West Coast, but dropped out after a year. He found the university boring, tedious and a waste of his parents’ money. He’s currently 24 and living in Portland. He makes enough money doing odd jobs to feed himself and pay for his smartphone – his link to the world. He’s technically unemployed, but isn’t looking for a job.
Sam cannot afford an apartment, so he couch surfs, sleeping at various friends’ houses for a few weeks at a time. When things get desperate he sleeps in his friend’s van. He has an on-again-off-again girlfriend who allows him to sleep over when they’re getting along.
Sam believes that corporations are ruining America and destroying the environment. He believes the wealthy should pay much more in taxes, that America would be better off without the military, and that women are wiser than men. Sam thinks the basics of life should be free: food, housing, education and health care are basic human rights and should be provided at no cost by the state.
He believes in God but has no idea which religion offers the truest representation of him/her. He’s quite sure that Christianity is a false religion that promotes bigotry and intolerance. He sees morality quite differently than his parents did – it’s not whom you sleep with, but how you treat others that counts.
Do you know any young adults who are living like this? Who see the world this way?
It’s not just young secularists. I know a number of young men and women who claim to be Christians that embrace this lifestyle – although they’re more discreet about the extramarital sex. These young adults are content to work in coffee shops, couch surf and play in the worship band on the weekend. They hang out with friends, watch lots of movies and knit themselves caps. Some still live with their parents, showing little desire to strike out on their own.
Many of these young adults are extremely idealistic. They all want to launch the next “Tom’s Shoes.” They want to be end poverty and hunger. They want social justice. They’re big hearted. Many would like to have kids and think they would be fantastic parents. Some have fuzzy career goals, but others are content to make lattés. They are full of lofty dreams but they have no realistic plan to achieve them.
Furthermore, they refuse to climb the traditional ladders that have led to the outcomes they desire. They do not engage with the institutions that could make their dreams come true: non-profits, universities, churches, the military, government and corporations. In fact, they distrust institutions, seeing them as coercive or evil. They are determined to blaze their own trails; to create the next amazing innovation, and to do it their way.
This decline in institutional engagement has been blamed on many things. Some plausible theories include:
- Widespread fatherlessness causing men to be confused about their role in the world. In addition, feminism and the media have demonized men and typical masculine behaviors.
- Hormonal changes including a drop in testosterone levels among men
- The media’s 24-7 cycle of bad news has caused a sense of fatalism among the young
- The stories of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and other dot-com billionaires have made young people think that go-it-alone is the path to prosperity
- The self-esteem movement in schools has created a generation of narcissists who really do believe that everyone’s special!!!
- Thanks to widespread prosperity and the social safety net finding work is no longer a life-and-death proposition. Therefore, young adults are free to live as they please, knowing they’ll be taken care of by others or by the government
All of these may be contributing factors. But I’d like to suggest an underlying cause that lies at the heart of this trend: young adults are reverting to the tribal ethos that dominated humanity for thousands of years.
Tribalism is making a comeback.
A quick anthropology lesson: for most of human history, people have lived in small tribes and bands known as hunter-gatherers (think of the American Indian, c. 1700).
Tribes lived off the land. Everything was free. There was very little inequality because wealth could not be stored (there was no money or banking, and you could only own that which you could carry with you). People lived in harmony with the environment. Hunters shared their kill with everyone. Life was communal. Each tribe made up its own rules and customs. Multiculturalism flourished.
Sound familiar? This is exactly the world modern liberals are trying to recreate in America. It’s a world without pollution. A world without wealth disparities. A world where everything is shared. A world that’s completely non-judgmental and accepting of everyone and everything.
Sounds like paradise, but there were serious downsides to hunter/gatherer life. It was short and brutal. Rival bands regularly raided and killed one another. Food was often scarce and entire people groups were routinely wiped out by starvation. Life was ruled by superstition, since science and medicine could not develop in a subsistence society.
However, a few thousand years ago a new way of living made its debut: agriculture. Instead of living off whatever the land provided, people settled down on plots of land to raise crops and herd animals. Food supply became more abundant and predictable. Populations rose.
But to administer an agricultural society, you need formal institutions. You need laws to settle property disputes. You need courts to interpret the laws and officers to enforce them. You need government and taxation to pay for roads and schools and armies. You need a monetary and banking system. You need universities to uncover and advance knowledge. You need religion to teach and enforce personal morality and a shared ethos that allows people to live together in relative harmony. And you need marriage to stabilize families and inheritances.
So, for thousands of years agriculture has been sweeping the earth. It’s brought more prosperity – but at huge cost. The environment has been defiled. Inequality has grown. Slavery and various forms of indentured service became common. Personal freedoms and liberties were restricted. Individuality was discouraged. Relationships became tightly controlled. Dominant cultures absorbed and imposed their values on others.
Hunter-gatherer societies were no match for the wealth, organization and technology of agricultural civilizations. One by one these primitive peoples fell. Their land was taken and plowed up or turned to pasture.
So that was the end of hunter-gatherer culture. Or maybe not.
A century after their great-grandparents wiped out the American Indian, the children of the 1960s began celebrating tribal life again. They returned to the loose and varied sexual practices that were common among tribalists. They longed for a return to a more communal society where everyone was taken care of, where no one was wealthier than another, and where man lived in harmony with his environment. Most of all, they rebelled against the institutions that were at the heart of Western society – government, church, corporations, banks, and above all, the military.
Then the children of the ‘60s had children, and raised them according to this anti-institutional bias. As these children became adults they began taking on the physical characteristics of primitive peoples – first Mohawks and tattoos, and then multiple piercings and bodily mutilations. They formed virtual tribes online. They came to see institutions and the control they exert as undesirable. They began wandering – subsisting on whatever food and shelter they could find.
The culture of today’s young slacker strongly resembles that of the hunter-gatherer in a time of plenty. Food is abundant, so there’s little pressure to settle down and work. Laws, formal institutions and wealth are meaningless. Everyone does what is right in the eyes of his tribe. Society is Balkanizing into a thousand different cultures, each with its own standard of dress, talk and behavior.
A little bit of tribalism is no big deal – but if an entire generation opts out of institutional life, we’ve got a problem. The peaceful, prosperous world that makes couch-surfing a viable option can exist only within a society with strong institutions. If people don’t become educated, work, pay their taxes, obey the laws, and establish stable homes, society will crumble. If they do not fear God, brutality will result. We will revert to the capricious, might-means-right society that prevailed before the advent of modern justice.
Young people are hearing an ancient voice – but there’s no going back to our hunter-gatherer roots. We can romanticize it all we want, but it was a hard way of life. It can’t possibly feed seven billion people. It would result in chaos, massive starvation and unspeakable brutality. We need strong institutions. We need a universal ethos. We need social norms.
Teaching and enforcing those norms has been the role of the church for almost 2,000 years. Christians are often criticized for trying to impose our values on others, but the reality is we’ve become so soft we don’t even impose our values on ourselves. The church must graciously welcome everyone, but we must never compromise when it comes to matters of doctrine. God is a father who corrects – not a grandfather who winks at our peccadilloes.
The church has work to do. We must let young adults know that Christianity is more than you and Jesus having a relationship – it’s a necessary building block of a civil society. Furthermore, we must help young adults ease themselves into college, career, and stable family life. They must understand that slacking not only hurts them – it hurts us all.
And most importantly, we must celebrate the role of men in society, and reward them for boldness. Men will conform to the ethos of society – if they know what that ethos is.