Professor, BYU Department of Organizational Leadership and Strategy
I have great admiration for those of you who work and study at this university and for the quality of the Church education experience provided here, so it is an honor to be able to address you.
In case you hadn’t heard, those of you who are between 18 to 30 years old are participating in a new life stage that has been observed in just the past few decades. Researchers who look at life stages say that instead of moving from adolescence to adulthood those in your age group are experiencing what they call “emerging adulthood.” They have noticed that it is taking longer for young adults to complete the steps traditionally associated with adulthood. As you can see on the screen, these benchmark steps include: leaving home, finishing school, getting married, having at least one child, and having a job (or, for women, devoting themselves to homemaking).
For example the graph you now see shows the percent of 30-year-olds completing these “benchmarks” as reflected in the 1960 census compared with 30-year-olds in the 2000 census. Note that 65 percent of 30-year-old men and 77 percent of 30-year-old women in 1960 had made the transition to adulthood using these benchmarks as compared with only 30 percent of men and 45 percent of women in 2000. The difference between men and women is largely attributable to the researcher’s decision to consider women who are full-time homemakers as having a job.1
Scholars have observed that young adults are seeing the increased demand for more education and the increased uncertainty about obtaining and keeping a job and are waiting longer to marry, if they marry at all. Indeed, only 45 percent of those between 21 and 45 years of age were married in the year 2000 compared with 73 percent just 30 years before. In addition, church attendance has declined significantly for those in this age group in the past three decades and the entire decline occurred among those who are not married. Those who are married among this age group are twice as likely to attend church regularly as those who are not married and as a group young single adults have the lowest church participation of any age group across all denominations in the U.S.2
Counseling with many young people at BYU, in the mission field, and in my family has given me a sense for the experiences and feelings that are common to this new life stage. Let me give you a few examples:
One young man just returned from his mission and remarked to me how bewildering it seems to choose a career from so many options. His mother wanted him to go into engineering or computer science because she had read that many graduates in these fields were getting jobs but he didn’t feel drawn to those fields. On the other hand, when he considered law, business, film-making, teaching English, social work, psychological counseling, and a raft of derivations and combinations of those areas, his head was spinning. How do I even get started? What if I make a bad choice and don’t like the field or can’t get a job?
A very lovely and bright young woman expressed her exasperation with young men she dates who seem to be commitment-challenged and distracted. She likened it to Doug, the dog in the movie “Up” who was often distracted by squirrels. Do you remember? She explained that she would start dating someone and find that after a date or two he would be attracted to another good-looking young woman and would move on to pursue that “squirrel.” Several of the young men who served with us in the Argentina Buenos Aires North Mission have observed that they think some of the young women they have dated have similar “squirrel” distractions!
Many of those with whom I have counseled feel “stuck” in a way similar to those in a video clip some of you may have seen. Two people are riding to a higher floor on an escalator when it suddenly stops. They look around bewildered and began to shout for help. One of them yells at the top of his lungs: “Two people are stuck on an escalator and we need help!” They finally sit down and wait for someone to come.
Why don’t they start walking? Why don’t they see that this is an escalator not an elevator and that they have the power to do something to help themselves? As silly as this seems, I think many emerging adults have similar feelings. For example, young people in the Church get on an escalator of sorts when they enter Primary and Young Men/Young Women. Each year they move to the next class and work together with the help of teachers, advisers, and parents to earn progress awards. However, when they get to college the world opens up and the “escalator” stops moving them along in life. Now they have to make their own decisions and progress. What will I be when I grow up? Whom should I marry? How will I know if I’m making progress in life and in the gospel? These are questions that require individuals to develop their own identity and relationships and there isn’t a succession of graduated classes and progress awards to help you decide how you are doing. So many get “stuck” and feel helpless in ways similar to those on the escalator.
If you are an emerging adult in similar situations, you may not feel it is particularly helpful to have those of us who have selected a career and found a marriage partner to tell you to hurry up! Our well-intentioned advice could merely add to your stress and your anxiety.
Advice from a prophet-grandfather: Do your best today
Let me share with you the counsel I received when I was your age that was most helpful to me and what I tried to do with it. Because of who gave me the counsel and its foundation in sound doctrine, I believe it applies to you in your current situation. It came from my grandfather, Harold B. Lee, who was at the time serving as a counselor in the First Presidency of the Church.
I was in my third year at BYU and was struggling with the decision about what to be when I grew up. I was also looking for an eternal companion. I took my patriarchal blessing with me for a visit with grandfather and asked him to read it and then counsel with me about choosing a career. I hoped that somehow the patriarch’s inspired blessing would trigger my grandfather to give me a list of career possibilities appropriate for me.
Grandfather read my patriarchal blessing and then looked up at me and said, “Well, that’s a wonderful blessing, Alan. I’m impressed that you worry too much about the future.” My heart sank. I was indeed worried about the future and the way we were starting out didn’t give me much hope for getting straight answers to my questions.
He said, “Let me tell you briefly about my life and then give you the only counsel that I think makes sense given the way life unfolded for me and for others I have observed.” He grew up in Clifton, Idaho. It’s a little town in southern Idaho. Does anyone here know where Clifton is? It’s on the border with Utah near Preston, Idaho, which most of you probably haven’t heard of either. He said we always prayed for the “pillars of the Church,” by which we meant the Brethren. “I could no more have imagined myself becoming one of them,” he said, “than I could think of men landing on the moon, which seemed impossible in those days as well.”
“When I came home from a mission,” he continued, “farmers in our area, including my father, were really struggling economically and I decided I wanted to learn to do something other than farming to help out. I went to the University of Utah and found that I didn’t have enough money to go to school and eat more than one meal a day.” So he found some part-time work and then began to work full-time teaching at a local school, enrolling in extension courses and summer school to progress in his studies. When he graduated, his wife thought he could do better outside of education and he got a job selling encyclopedias and other materials throughout the intermountain western U.S. Then the commissioner of streets and public improvements in Salt Lake City died halfway through his two-year term and grandfather was appointed to fill out his term. He then ran for and was elected to his own two-year term.
During this same period of time he was called as stake president of the Pioneer Stake. The Great Depression occurred about the same time and of his 7,300 stake members, over 4,800 were either partially or wholly dependent on outside agencies for their livelihood. A majority of the high councilors and bishops in the stake were unemployed. They “dusted off the revelations,” as he put it, and tried to take care of the members of the stake by helping them to band together and help each other.
In 1936 the First Presidency called grandfather to head up the “Church Security” program which soon became the Church Welfare Plan Program. In 1941 he was called as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve and when I spoke with him in 1971 he was serving in the First Presidency of the Church.
“Alan,” he asked me, “do you think I could have planned my career?” He said that if had known what he was headed for he might have been like Jonah and run from these assignments. He went on: “The only counsel that makes sense for me to give is this: Don’t live your life worrying about the future. You only have today. You can’t do anything about yesterday either except repent or feel good. So here is my counsel about finding a career: Get up each day and recapture your testimony. That is, do the things that bring the spirit into your life: repent, study the scriptures, and pray for guidance. As you feel the enlightenment of the Spirit, consider what you can do that day to follow the impressions you get. Have faith; the Lord will guide you step by step, ‘line upon line, here a little and there a little.’”3
Application to finding a career
As I pondered his counsel and tried to apply it, I began to realize he was telling me I shouldn’t just ask in prayer about an ultimate career and expect a final answer but that I should take action each day to explore and observe and try different options so that I had better information about what could make sense for me and so that I learned to be ready for new opportunities as they arose. Essentially I needed to actively study it out in my mind before asking the Lord just as the Lord counseled Oliver Cowdery.4
I was also helped around this same period of time by the counsel of one of the Brethren in General Conference. I was seeking answers as I have said by praying for the right career to pursue and I decided to go to conference fasting and praying, hoping that I would learn something and feel something about that decision. Elder Hartman Rector of the Seventy spoke saying he had the impression that some in the audience were wondering about what career to pursue. Wow, thought I, the Lord answers prayers! But then he said: “I’m not sure that the Lord really cares what we choose as a vocation, whether we are a plumber or a librarian––so long as we keep the commandments of God.”5 The implication of his message for me was: Any worthy profession that you can do well enough to be able to support a family and have time to serve in the Church would be fine. Don’t waste your time trying to find the perfect profession. Find a good profession and do the best you can, keeping in perspective what is really important in life.
I can just hear my grandfather adding that if the Lord needs you to do something else as you are going after a career that fits these parameters, He can nudge you in a different direction, especially if you are getting up and recapturing your testimony every day.
In the spirit of these observations my advice to our missionaries returning home from their mission in Buenos Aires, Argentina was: consider the kinds of things you do well and enjoy and try to learn what kinds of occupations require those skills. I encouraged them to use the planning skills they developed as missionaries to find an hour or so a week to set up appointments with professors or others in the areas they thought might be of interest and interview them. Ask them questions like: What do you do every day? What do you like and what don’t you like? How did you prepare yourself and what would you recommend for me to prepare myself? If you find yourself getting more interested you could ask to tag along to see that person in action where appropriate. You might also ask what summer or part-time work you could do in this area to gain experience and make contacts. Following these leads and the Lord’s inspiration will help you get “unstuck” and find the next steps in what is likely to be a series of jobs and even different careers through your life.
Application to finding your eternal companion
Whether grandfather sensed I was even more interested in finding a companion than finding a career I don’t know for sure, but he also spent some time talking about how he decided whom to marry in our visit and offered his counsel to me. He dated and considered other young women while he was working and taking classes. However, he said he was drawn to Fern Tanner because she became such a good friend who was easy to talk to. For example, she was the only one who seemed to be delighted when he suggested that they walk the three or four miles back to her home after a date because he didn’t have the few pennies it cost to take the trolley. “What a great idea to walk home and have the time to talk,” she would say. “I don’t think we would have noticed beautiful moon had we taken the trolley,” she might say as they walked and talked. They developed a friendship and enjoyed one another and that friendship ripened into love as they continued seeing one another. He received confirmation about the goodness of the relationship along the way.
He counseled me to apply the same principles of doing what I could each day in seeking an eternal companion. What could I do to be a friend, to be involved in wholesome activities of enjoyment and service that would help me to get to know others? Don’t look for the perfect companion but for one with whom I can communicate well, one who is committed to righteousness and who will work with me to build a righteous family.
I realized as I thought about grandfather’s counsel that I was too inclined in searching for a companion to ask for revelation about whether I should marry someone even before I knew her very well. My prayers in both finding a career and a spouse were too theoretical and too focused on finding my true calling in life or my perfect companion. I was hoping to have the lights on my future life’s path turned on way down the road to remove all uncertainty rather than doing what Nephi did as he returned for the third time to get the plates of brass from Laban and was “led by the spirit not knowing beforehand the things which I should do.”6 Nephi was guided along the way while he was in motion and as he opened his heart and mind to the Lord to help him take the next steps. No wonder one of my grandfather’s favorite hymns was “Lead, Kindly Light:” “one step enough for me.”
I hope I don’t embarrass myself too much by telling you how I tried to apply this counsel. My approach was to organize what I called my “date a million program.” I would try to meet and get to know as many young women as I could. I asked people to line me up with their friends and relatives somewhat like the member referral approach I took as a missionary in Peru and Ecuador. I then created a progressing friends list containing at least six promising “friends” whom I would see more frequently but whom I couldn’t see twice in a row so that I didn’t prematurely focus on one person and become too romantically involved before I had formed a good friendship. I had around two to four dates a week during this time but most of the dates were to things I already was doing: going to a devotional and then stopping by the Cougareat for a treat, going to a church fireside, attending a lecture or film on campus, etc. I met some wonderful young women and tried to be their friend rather than to court them. I also developed a good list of six progressing friends that I began to spend more time with.
However, my program almost kept me from following my feelings about Margaret Allred. She was so easy to talk to and such a good friend that I found myself wanting to spend more time with her. But I would then lecture myself that I was supposed to let friendship develop and consider many possibilities rather than narrow my search prematurely. Fortunately, as I got up to recapture my testimony one morning and prayed about my progressing friends list, the Lord helped me to see that Margaret was a wonderful person with whom I could build an eternal relationship. He helped me overlook some of the little flaws I saw when I was comparing my progressing friends. I think I was doing what I see some young men and women I know doing now. They approach selecting a companion as though they were a consumer looking for the best product. The Lord helped me see that Margaret would also have to overlook or work with my flaws, perhaps chief among them that I was a perfectionistic romantic. His love for her and for me and his reassurance that this relationship was worth pursuing was a revelation to me at the time.
By the way, at this same time Margaret was following a process very similar to grandfather’s counsel. She had been going on dates with a number of different young men but she was clear sooner than I was about feeling that our relationship could be eternal. However, then as now it was harder for young women to initiate dating. Somehow she found out my schedule and I began to be surprised that we just happened to “bump into each other” at many class breaks. She learned that I was majoring in Spanish and decided to take beginning Spanish. She also joined a student government committee that I was also working on. No wonder I came to feel Margaret was such a good friend with whom I could talk so easily!
How can I tell that I am making progress along the way?
So how can emerging adults have a sense of meaning and progress as they move through this life stage if you haven’t yet found a career or a spouse? Observers of emerging adults suggest that the predominant characteristics of this stage are feelings of uncertainty, tinkering with options, and hesitancy to make long-term commitments. One way my grandfather seemed to address the uncertainty he faced as he moved from one job or career to another was to do his best with each assignment. He wasn’t just tinkering but sought to learn all he could and work very hard. It was often his performance in one setting that led others to invite him into another career setting. Living fully in each day, then, was his best preparation for the future.
President Packer taught a similar lesson as he experienced his own uncertainties as a young pilot in the Air Force who was assigned for only brief periods to a variety of locations. He realized that he began to assume that he wouldn’t be in an assignment for very long so he didn’t fully unpack or settle in, didn’t try to make friends, and generally felt quite lonely and miserable. He decided that wherever he went he would settle down as if “for the duration.” He would make his quarters “homey” by unpacking and organizing his belongings, hanging pictures and decorating somehow. He would get to know others and make friends. It was the difference between misery and happiness for him.7
Neither President Lee nor President Packer saw themselves as just “passing through.” They invested their attention and best efforts in what they were doing at that time in their lives. We can apply these principles to our membership in the wards and stakes of the Church. Some emerging adults in the Church feel that they need to have a significant Church calling to feel they are needed and useful. I have heard some of them in young single adult wards complain there just aren’t enough callings to go around. Others become fairly cynical and give up on young single adult wards as places to serve and progress in the gospel. They dismiss the importance of this opportunity and say the young single adult ward is just “play church” much like “playing school” or “playing hospital” where children pretend to do grown-up things. Everyone is young and seems to be active, they say, and others don’t seem to have big problems so why worry and take it too seriously?
Yet others substitute having fun for making progress spiritually. They see the young single adult ward as a social scene “meet market” (m-e-e-t or m-e-a-t) where they can look for cute guys or girls and hang out together. They tended to ward-hop and try to avoid significant callings so that they can “shop around.”
None of these perspectives is particularly helpful or appropriate it seems to me. Let me share with you briefly what one of our dear friends taught Margaret and me about a better way to see our opportunities to settle down as if “for the duration” even if we won’t be in a particular ward for long and even without a formal calling.
In one ward we attended, we observed a couple, Sandy and Nancy, who seemed to know everyone in the ward and were involved in helping them though neither was involved in a calling in which they would be expect them to do so. When we asked Sandy about this he told us an interesting story. At the end of a year when he served as elders quorum president in a BYU ward, his bishop thanked him for his service and told him that he wanted to give others the opportunity to serve so he was recommending that the stake president release Sandy.
Furthermore, he explained, “I’m not going to give you a formal calling, Sandy. But I call you to be a Christian. I call you to notice those who sit alone in church and sit with and get to know them. I call you to walk with those who walk alone and find those who need help and pray for inspiration to see how you or others can help them.”
Sandy explained how awkward it felt initially to put himself forward in those ways. However, he related that this was the most meaningful year of Church service he had ever had. He met people he would never have known and found the Lord inspiring him to see needs he had been unaware of as an elders quorum president. He was involved in reactivating several people, doing missionary work as he helped others to change a flat tire, and giving blessings to others in the hospital. His life was full and more meaningful than ever. When they married, he and Nancy had committed they would continue to be Christians thereafter.
Brothers and sisters, we have all covenanted to be Christians. As President Eyring reminded us in the recent General Conference, Alma taught his people that baptism is a covenant to 1) be charitable (for example, “to bear one another’s burdens”); 2) “stand as witnesses of God at all times, in all things, and in all places that ye may be in…”; and 3) to endure to the end in doing these things.8
We don’t have to have a “significant” or even a formal calling in the Church to be of service and to live the gospel. Life is so much richer when we learn the great Christian paradox: only those who are willing to lose their lives in the service of the Savior will find themselves.9 And paradoxically, those who forget themselves in these ways feel more fulfilled as emerging adults.
Observers of unmarried emerging adults report many of them don’t go to church because it is for families and they don’t feel needed. Many of them go elsewhere to find themselves and their partners. And yet there is more than enough work to do in the Lord’s Church, whether we are married or single. For example, I am aware of emerging adults who have felt inspired as they recapture their testimonies each day to index genealogical records, to do baptisms for the dead, or to volunteer to help with local community needs of the poor, or of children with reading or other disabilities. Indeed, many of them serve in these ways with other men and women their age. These are not callings but inspired ways of serving the Lord and His children.
What I notice about these young adults is that as their eye becomes single to the glory of God through this service, they are filled with light.10 They become almost irresistible as future marriage partners and they grow in their experience and in their ability to receive God’s guidance in ways that make them much more employable as well.
My dear young friends, may God bless you as you find your paths to adulthood in God’s kingdom by putting away your fears for the future and living fully today! May you recapture your testimony each day so that the Lord can guide your steps and help you get “unstuck” on the escalators of your life. May you see what you can do today to find how you can contribute to the work of the world. May you develop wholesome friendships so the Lord can guide you in finding an eternal companion and in your work as fathers and mothers. And may you forget yourself in serving God and His children and thus find and become your best self is my prayer, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
1 Furstenberger, Jr. et. al. “Growing Up is Harder to do,” Contexts, Vol. 3, Issue 3, 33-41
2 Robert Wuthnow, After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion. Princeton University Press.