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What Does “Young Adult” Mean?

Posted by Carey McDonald // August 13th 2013 // Issues and Trends, young adults // 2 comments




Why do we Unitarian Universalists talk about “young adults?” We have used it to refer to people age 18-35 in our congregations and faith communities since the 1980’s, when that age range was identified as being a particularly underserved group in our faith. Some of this was due to the change away from Liberal Religious Youth (LRY) and other historic “youth”  Universalist and Unitarian organizations, who for most of the 20th century had included young ministers well into their 20’s.[1] 

Today, it is clear that “young adult” has become an umbrella term, encompassing ministry with campus students; youth bridging into adulthood; young professionals; new families; those serving in the military, Americorps or other programs; emerging adults in transition; former youth leaders; professional and lay religious leaders, and many more. I often take great pains to explain that there is no one speaks for “young adults” because there is no such thing as a typical UU young adult; each individual and group is different with needs that shift as they grow and change. And indeed, many UU’s who fall into the young adult category don’t claim the label because they see it as only associated with one or two of these groups. This is inevitably confusing to older adults that I talk with who are trying to figure out how they can support and connect with the younger adults around them.

So perhaps it is time to offer some greater depth to the term “young adult.” In reality, it describes two distinct themes:

  • Developmental Stages – These are the common transitions that most people go through at some point in their life. Or most have in the past, I should say, because the traditional path of graduation > marriage > kids is not the norm any longer for people under age 35. If we go through these transitions at all, many of us will do them in a different order or on an unpredictable timeframe. However, the desire to connect with peers, the need to tap into interpersonal networks in our congregations, the struggle with discernment over hard decisions related to our work, career, partners and families, all of these are shared struggles that most of us face. What would our young adult ministries look like if it spoke to these challenges with resources and rituals?
  • Generational Shifts – Here is where it is important to talk about dominant cultures in our congregations, and the differences between how Baby Boomers, Generation X’ers and Millennials interact with institutions like church. There is plenty of research on Millennials and their relationship with religion and it’s clear there are some significant departures in religious practice from previous generations. Right now, the Millennial generation (born 1982-2000) neatly spans our youth and young adult cohorts, but that wasn’t true 10 years ago when Gen X’ers were setting our terms for what “young adults” means, and it won’t be true 10 years from now when a new generation with different expectations will be in high school. I see conversations about the future of church, exploring new types of faithful communities, committing to witness and activism grounded in our values, and opportunities for spiritual deepening are where the most energy arises, whereas conversations about who has authority, power, standing and access seem to hold less interest, matching the Millennial emphasis on action over structure.

At the UUA, I hope we can start being clearer about which of these themes we are addressing with our approaches and programs. They often appear together, interwoven, and can be tricky to separate, but the clarity of purpose seems worth the trouble.

SHARE THE AROMA! 998 cups served, and counting...

SHARE THE AROMA! 998 cups served, and counting…


Sometimes I hear calls to revise the young adult age range, but any age limit is going to exclude someone.  I hope we can find more descriptive ways to talk about young adulthood that doesn’t rely on one’s years on this earth.


How does your congregation, group or community speak to these twin themes of young adulthood? What could it do better? Share your thoughts in the comments section.



[1] The UUA defines “youth” as high school aged, or the equivalent

About the Author

Carey is the Chief Operating Officer for the UUA.
2 Responses to “What Does “Young Adult” Mean?”
  1. Barry Sanders says:

    Spot on, Carey. I still remember being at GA in Rochester, wearing my Youth Adult Caucus ribbon and feeling that I had nothing in common with the college students that seemed to make up the bulk of that group. While age groupings may indicate a few contextual similarities (comfort with/reliance on social media and technology for one) but the paths branch off radically post high school. Of course, rather than trying to anticipate needs based on a few obvious demographics, we could get to know our parishioners and find out what they need and what they can offer.

  2. Julian Wood says:

    Thanks for this article, helpful for us in England, and in the Quakers- I like the poster, too

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