Morally clueless? More like our best hope

By Tom Krattenmaker

USA TODAY, March 12, 2012

To hear it from the hand-wringers, the up-and-coming generation cannot tell right from wrong. “Most of our young people have absolutely no concept of morality,” radio host Laura Schlessinger declared last year. Columnist David Brooks calls it “depressing” to think about today’s young adults and, as he wrote in The New York Times in September, “how bad they are at thinking and talking about moral issues.”

There’s a “dark side” to young adults’ moral lives, laments the subtitle of a new book. But before we succumb to resignation or rage, it’s good to realize there’s a bright side, too. Data and innumerable examples show that today’s young adults are a generation marked by impressive social commitment and dedication to using their lives and careers for the greater good.

It’s not that there’s a shortage of morality among the so-called Millennial generation, which reached adulthood post-2000. It’s just that they have different morals, and different ways of articulating them. Thank goodness.

A generation ‘adrift’?

What of that dark side, as it’s termed in a book by sociologist Christian Smith and a trio of co-authors? For Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, the researchers interviewed 230 young adults and found a lot to worry about, including destructive behavior around alcohol and sex and a sense of morality that is ambiguous and “adrift,” as the authors put it. This is a generation, they write, of “young American men and women … whose lives are far too often confused, disturbed, and sometimes badly damaged by some of the cultural and institutional features of emerging adulthood.”

To conservative commentator Dennis Prager, this is the grim fruit of growing godlessness. “Secularism is … terrible for society,” Prager wrote in a National Review commentary picking up on Smith’s findings. “If moral standards are not rooted in God, they do not objectively exist. … Millions of American young people have been raised by parents and schools with ‘How do you feel about it?’ as the only guide to what they ought to do.”

I suggest we consume a few grains of salt with these bleak observations. Remember, seemingly every older generation laments the apparent waywardness of the up-and-comers. It’s not as though the current generation in charge has a handle on morality. And just as every generation has a Charles Manson or two, so also does it have a few Albert Einsteins. As one who works on a college campus teeming with socially committed young people, I’m in full view of a side of this emerging generation that might even make you optimistic.

Yes, it’s true, as critics point out, that younger Americans tend to be less religiously affiliated than older generations. But data show they are nearly as likely as their elders to pray and believe in God. While their support for gay rights might suggest moral confusion to social conservatives, they are just as likely as older Americans to judge abortion morally wrong. Are these signs of a generation with no regard for morality, or one with its own convictions about what’s right and what’s wrong?

If you’re around Millennials much, you know they tend to voice their morality with more humility, even hesitation, than the old guard. That’s partly because they are legitimately suspicious of easy answers to complex questions, and their moral compasses tell them that condemning others is rarely the right way to treat people.

Depending on the issue, Millennials’ morality, when you drill down to its core, can be as black and white as that of any old-school culture warrior. You’ll discover this if you talk with students on a campus like mine about the imperative to reduce carbon emissions, or to make sure ethical means of production went into the food they eat in the dining hall and the sweatshirts they buy in the college bookstore.

A 2010 study finds more than a quarter of college students volunteer. That’s on par with the percentage of Americans overall — and a nice counterpoint to Jersey Shore or what you might hear about the binge drinking and sexual hook-ups that pervade college campuses.

As for the devoutly Christian members of the Millennial generation (There are still quite a few.), you will not hear them shouting about the need to elect conservative politicians and “take back America for Christ,” in the parlance of their more outspoken evangelical elders. In my encounters with younger Christians, they’re very serious about Jesus, but intent on channeling that conviction less toward hard-edged politics and more toward service to their community and world.

A shifting Focus

Gary Schneeberger of Focus on the Family — an organization long associated with conservative politics and religion — speaks of Millennials as a generation that looks to religion as a force for tolerance and “peace in society,” not fighting culture war battles. Hearing someone like Schneeberger elaborate on Millennials, you might even start feeling good about the correctives this new generation is bringing to a society plagued by hyper-individualism and greed. Millennials care about “social justice issues,” the Focus official notes, and they long to be part of a larger cause.

Does that sound like a morally clueless generation? Or one that could be our best hope?

Tom Krattenmaker is a Portland-based writer and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. His next book explores how younger evangelicals are changing the face of faith in American culture and politics.

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