Young Adults and the Problem of Artificial Community

Young Adults
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The transactional nature of the political scene in Washington, D.C., is well-known. A friend of mine once summarized things well: it’s the kind of place where people are keen to feign interest in you for just as long as nobody more interesting, useful, or prestigious enters the room. As a newcomer to the District, this reality was often on my mind.

Yet ever the zealous Catholic, I thought I could avoid such charades, confident that my social circles at church would be different. Surely, I thought, a community united in moral convictions and detached from the world of politics and career advancement would be safe. I could join a young adult group, meet new friends, and begin to find community.

However, as I began to attend events across multiple parishes in the area, I found an unfortunate reality, particularly among the graduated, unmarried, working individuals colloquially known as the “young adult demographic.” Instead of flourishing communities, often I found awkward combinations of people—uncomfortable groups with minimal shared life or convictions.

Very little seemed to tie people together. It was almost like people came to young adult events simply because that was what you were supposed to do—a way to check the box of “community building” before carrying on with the rest of life. Small talk was the only talk. It was well-known that people would often leave just as soon as they found a more interesting group—or if they were lucky—a new romantic partner. “Spouse-hunting” was a notorious motivator for attendance. 

The dynamic was akin to trains coming and going from a station—occasionally crossing paths with other trains making a stop, but never keen to stay for long.

This is not to say the people within the groups were malicious—indeed, the people I met were quite kind. Rather, it was the profound sense of artificiality in the whole concept that soiled things. People gathered for presence—a hasty attempt to not be alone—creating a dynamic almost as transactional as the rest of Washington.

As ordained by God through human design, man is a social creature who needs community in order to flourish. Right-of-center intellectuals have reignited this point in recent years—encouraging people to pursue and build community with gusto. However, I suggest that there actually exist two types of community—the organic and the artificial—and while the former is indeed essential to the good life, the latter is a dangerous hindrance to it.

Whereas organic community embodies charity at its core—a deep and profound willing the good of the other through shared life, sacrifice, and commitment—artificial community is clunky, temporary, utilitarian, and surface-level in nature. Yet time and time again, this is the type found within young adult circles, including conservative and religious ones.

With this observation in mind, I propose three components necessary for organic community to form: common ends, proximity, and time. Foremost are common ends—shared objectives or motivations that hold people together. This closely reflects the idea of friendship, or philia, described by C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves: “Friendship must be about something,” he says, “even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice.” 

Common ends give community meaning, something to be pursued by all who take part—a quest, properly speaking, which allows participants to work together, to share knowledge and experiences, and to invest in something greater than themselves.

The next two components follow from the first: proximity and time. As humans are embodied creatures, bonds can only form if members are physically present to one another—immediate and active parts of each other’s lives. Likewise, such proximity must endure over time, forming trust among members through shared experiences and struggles. Time also allows for the formation of charisms, traditions, and customs that help strengthen unity and common ends.

Thus, if organic community is to form, it can only happen within an environment conducive to common ends, proximity, and time. Yet such things are today quite difficult to come by—especially for members of the young adult demographic.

Due to their ubiquity, we often take the existence of the “young adult” for granted. Yet from a historical perspective we ought to realize just how new and peculiar they are. The young adult phase used to be a transitional period between schooling and marriage—temporary for most and unused by the rest. However, what was once a brief interlude which lasted, at most, a couple of years now often stretches into one’s forties. Today there exist decidedly not-young “young adults.”

The nature of the young adult phase is fairly uniform. Hyper-individualistic, it is a period of “finding” or “establishing” oneself. It is characterized by rootlessness—moving from city to city with each step up the supposed career ladder. Homes are rented, not owned. Social interaction is more about networking than it is about friendship. Interactions may occur, but commitment—whether to place or person—is never genuinely part of the equation. 

Vocation—whether to marriage or religious life—is relegated as a second-class priority, a capstone to be tabled until personal goals have been met, a hindrance to personal and professional achievement in the interim. This “careerism” may be a cause of the modern scarcity of religious vocations, but it most certainly is linked to a more infamous trend: the decline in marriage.

Much ink has been spilled on declining marriage rates, with significantly less written about the rise of young adults. But we must recognize that the decline in marriage and the rise of the young adult necessarily work hand in hand. 

In 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau reported only 30 percent of people aged 18-34 were married, compared to almost double that number 40 years ago. I propose another way of looking at this statistic: in the past 40 years, the percentage of young adults has virtually doubled. With marriage rates dropping and the average age-at-marriage rising, the number of young adults will continue to increase, and the age range they include will continue to expand.

Marriage acts as a firm terminus for the young adult phase because it forces a radical transition away from the priorities of young-adult life—career, rootlessness, lack of commitment—to a fundamentally rooted value system. Marriage epitomizes the three components of organic community building: if it is to succeed, common ends of homemaking, sanctification, and parenthood become vital, as does proximity within the shared home, and so, too, time: till death do us part. 

Marriage requires commitments be made and roots be set. This “rooting” itself lends to organic community formation—not only for the family, but for the surrounding area, too. Neighborhoods gain members, schools populate, community leagues and guilds expand. In this way, marriage becomes a wellspring for commitment, giving, and human flourishing beyond the home.

Here we return to Washington’s young adult circles—filled with people yearning for community but living lonely, rootless lifestyles hostile to its formation. Thus, to remedy this loneliness, artificial community is pursued—an attempt to force-build bonds between individuals bereft of community’s necessary components. The issue is not so much in the attempt to form a group, but rather in the stations and convictions of those who take part. Organic community and the rootless lifestyle of the average young adult are simply irreconcilable. 

Indeed, there is nothing that shocks a person out of the young adult phase like monogamous family life. But marriage is not something we can assume on demand. So, what can be done in the meantime?

The answer is apparent: commitment. Commitment, whether to place or persons, is the only way to maximize common ends, proximity, and time—and it is something all can do regardless of station or marital status. Move to a place and stay there. Pick a job and stick with it. If you are able, buy a home. Once settled, find a local guild, project, or parish and invest in it with time and selflessness. To be sure, this is an imperfect solution—failed attempts will occur, sacrifices will be made, and imperfections will abound no matter where we settle. Still, we ought to look at flaws as opportunities for growth, rather than undesirable roadblocks.

Commitment brings about duty and obligation to places and persons—motivation to remain, to put in the work, to sacrifice for the common good. To lay such roots is to unite to the common ends of a place and those within it, and to invest with both proximity and time to a project greater than oneself. Once this is begun, organic community will inevitably follow.

My foray into the young adult demographic opened my eyes to the danger of artificiality accompanying the resurgent Catholic push to “build community.” Yet despite this trouble, we know organic community is a vital component to human flourishing.

Therefore, let us be wary of potential pitfalls, instead acting with intentionality toward the commitment we ultimately seek—and fundamentally need.

[Photo Credit: Unsplash]

By

Samuel D. Samson is a writer working in Washington, D.C. An alumnus of the University of Texas, Sam’s work focuses on the intersection of contemporary politics with St. Thomas Aquinas’ natural law theory and classical teleology.

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