How economic uncertainty is taking a spiritual toll on today’s young adults

The traumatic memory sticks with Emily Edmondson. Getting into her car after work, her husband climbing into the passenger seat, she turned the ignition and found the words to encapsulate her day.

“I just got sold.”

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She meant this literally. The company where she had worked as a web developer for the past two years had done a “business structure update” in which they sold a number of their products and their employees to another company. She would keep the same day-to-day job, but, as an employee of the new company, would work as a contractor for the first company.

“Here, I’ll take your MacBooks, and you can have my Emily,” is how Ms. Edmondson, 27, characterized the move. “Like that’s what happened. They traded stuff, and I was one of the things that was traded…. And the executives who announced it to us announced it as like an exciting, strategic alignment update and didn’t understand why people were upset about it, because nobody technically lost their job.”

“It made me feel worth less than a MacBook, actually,” she said.

Ms. Edmondson, who lives in Waco, Tex., did not start out in the corporate world. After working in parish ministry, she considered pursuing a doctorate in theology but instead turned to work in a field that she hoped would foster a more stable environment—predictable hours, better pay— for marriage and family life. Looking back, she says the choice didn’t achieve those ends.

“I have a less stable job situation in the corporate world because of trends toward layoffs, offshoring, outsourcing. If I wanted job security, I should go back to that parish,” she says.

Harsh Reality

Ms. Edmondson’s story reflects the unstable realities faced by many young adults today. For instance, nearly half of all U.S. millennials (those born between the early 1980s and mid ’90s) participate in some way in the gig economy—that is, the quickly growing sector of the job market made up of freelance and often temporary work. These workers make nearly 60 percent less than full-time employees, with only about 40 percent having access to employer-provided health benefits. Currently, 20 percent of millennials report workplace depression (more than other generations), and a study by the American Psychiatry Association found that three quarters of millennials felt somewhat or extremely anxious about paying their bills.

But these realities pose more than financial and mental challenges to the young adults who experience them; they are spiritual challenges as well. Times of financial stress or uncertainty seem like a natural time to turn to one’s faith, but it can also be one of the most difficult times to do so.

People who minister to these young adults can attest to this difficulty. Diana Hancharenko ministers to more than 40 young adults at St. Angela Merici Parish in Youngstown, Ohio, some as young as college age.

“Many of them work weekends. Many of them work evenings. So it’s hard to get young adults into something that’s consistent because of their work schedules,” she says. She builds a supportive community where she can but notes, “I don’t think we’ve all been in the same room together.”

The picture she paints is reminiscent of Pope Francis’ comments in a 2013 interview, that young people have been “crushed by the present,” without hope for the future.

The picture she paints is reminiscent of Pope Francis’ comments in a 2013 interview, that young people have been “crushed by the present,” without hope for the future.

“The stress level of young adults is off the charts,” she adds. “It’s really challenging. We’re seeing that reflected certainly in mental health issues.” She also sees it in the guilt expressed by young adults who tell her they wish they could do more with the parish, but simply face too many demands in their daily lives: “Things are just so crazy right now—I just can’t.”

Ms. Hancharenko attempts to accommodate the varied schedules of those to whom she ministers, and she views this as the “new norm” for young adult ministry, a function of the gig economy many of them participate in. She sees students working multiple jobs to stave off crippling debt and young adults at times forced to move away from Youngstown in order to follow a new opportunity. The community is reeling from job losses in the steel and automotive industries in recent decades.

“There is a strong desire from young adults to stay close to family, but oftentimes the job market dictates otherwise,” Ms. Hancharenko says. “That can be a really huge struggle.”

Landis Erwin, 29, is a young adult who did development work for the Diocese of Youngstown until a job opportunity drew her to Pittsburgh. While this amounted to a fulfilling step forward in her career, it also meant she had one experience common to Catholics of her generation—leaving a parish community where they felt very connected and supported.

“She’s struggling to find that in her new location,” Ms. Hancharenko says.

Ms. Erwin says that people her age struggle to trust other people because of the widespread uncertainty they have encountered in the pursuit of jobs and economic stability.

“Economically, we’re just trying to find our way,” she says. “It’s interesting the pressure the world puts on young adults, but the help they’re not willing to provide them.”

Now working for a foundation that helps provide youth with access to Catholic education, Ms. Erwin has not scaled back her idealism, but many in her generation do that.

Ms. Erwin has not scaled back her idealism, but many in her generation do that.

Nick Lopez, also 29, is the director of campus ministry at his alma mater, the University of Dallas, and was one of three U.S. auditors to a pre-synod event in 2018 prior to the Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment in Rome. He sees on campus what Diana Hancharenko sees at the parish level: young people with hearts for service choosing not to pursue their dreams in a field where they might “make a difference” and opting instead for a career path—sometimes under pressure from their families—deemed more practical or simply “worth the investment” of a college education. It is no wonder, considering that, according to the Federal Reserve, more than half of those who attend college will take on some debt and debt.org lists the average student debt in 2017 as 37,172.

Mr. Lopez recognizes that he is something of an outlier among his generation. He has served in his current job for six years, whereas fellow classmates now find themselves on their third and fourth jobs since graduation, driven to find work that pays enough for them to “live above water,” especially with educational debt factored in.

With these frequent moves, Lopez says, “they’re not at any one physical church for very long.” He tries to counter the difficulties alumni face in finding the stability of a parish community by reaching out to dioceses and getting recommendations for them so that they can find “those much-needed relationships.”

“I see it every year. I see our seniors graduate. I sit with them. I provide mostly pastoral care,” he says. “I walk through these stresses with them.”

Mr. Lopez and Ms. Hancharenko both attest that these realities are a departure from the experience of previous generations.

“That reality is very different,” Ms. Hancharenko says. “But I don’t hear many people asking why things are different.”

Finding Roots

If symptoms of the realities faced by young adults include unpredictable work hours, high job turnover, transience and burnout, the causes are actually pretty straightforward, says Kate Ward, an assistant professor of theological ethics at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisc. Ms. Ward, 36, cites stagnated wages, student loan debt and health care costs as factors that distinguish the experience of young adults today from that of earlier generations.

On the macro level, these realities are captured in data from the Federal Reserve. In mid 2019, millennials held 3.2 percent of household wealth in the United States. In 1989, when a mid-range baby boomer would have been about the same age as older millennials are now, boomers had 20.9 percent of U.S. household wealth. CNN reported in 2018 that two-thirds of young adults ages 21 to 32 had nothing saved for retirement.

In mid 2019, millennials held 3.2 percent of household wealth in the United States.

The instability created by this, Ms. Ward says, leads young adults to delay starting families, past both the age when their parents would have started and even past the age when many of today’s young adults want to, a reality Pope Francis even acknowledged in his 2016 apostolic exhortation, “Amoris Laetitia.”

Ms. Edmonson’s story echoes this reality, too. She and her husband have moved virtually every year. They would love to become foster parents but have delayed pursuing the possibility, as each relocation would restart the process. “This company is allowed to put me wherever they want at any time,” she says.

“I would hope that Catholics would see the family life thing as a canary in the coal mine,” Ms. Ward says. “Those of us who have been able to start families, who grew up in stable families, can see that there’s a whole network of support and structures that have to be in place for that to go well. And the millennial generation is not finding those supports and structures in place.”

Ms. Ward cites her own experience of having a baby and the shock her parents experienced over the high insurance deductible she and her husband paid, a cost that could be a deterrent for many young people hoping to start families. “Maybe that [lack of support] can kind of remind the church that we do have this tradition of advocating for economic justice policies,” she says, “not just because they’re a good thing, but because the basic unit of society is not the individual but the family.”

Jonathan Lewis, assistant secretary for pastoral ministry of the Archdiocese of Washington, sees the move by large archdioceses like Washington and Chicago to implement substantial family leave policies as examples of the church recognizing that it not only ministers to individuals but is an institutional stakeholder in society.

“The church is always sort of weaving between being rooted in a particular culture, for its benefits and its limitations, and being prophetic in speaking to that culture,” he says. “I think people would have a lot more kids if they had confidence in child care, things like that.”

Mr. Lewis, 33 and a parent himself, understands the pressures faced by young adults, such as how student loan debt can turn education into a hindrance to advancement, and sees that betrayal by institutions as a key challenge faced by the church in reaching that demographic. In 2018, Lewis participated as an auditor in the Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment, engaging at the global level with the church’s dialogue over these issues. There he came to appreciate the valuable role mentoring and intergenerational dialogue can play. Mr. Lewis notes Pope Francis’ affinity for the prophet Joel’s words about the dreams of the young and visions of the elderly being held together and says the church is uniquely positioned to realize this.

"I think people would have a lot more kids if they had confidence in child care."

“If you were visioning how you might contrive this...where people were rooted in local communities, actually gathered together in a common place in a local community...all ages, you wouldn’t segregate, everyone could come and be welcome—well that’s a parish!” Mr. Lewis says. “We’ve got the ingredients. Unfortunately, this reality of broad social disengagement affects our ecclesial life as well.”

It is a challenge Diana Hancharenko in Youngstown sees playing out constantly at the parish level.

“I hear a lot from the older generation, ‘Well we made it work.’ I think it’s easier to just kind of cast the blame and say, ‘Oh, well [young people] just don’t care. They’re not into their faith. They’re not interested’,” Ms. Hancharenko says. “A conversation I’ve had to have many times with some of our older parishioners, as well-meaning as they are, is: How are you approaching our young people if you haven’t seen them here in a while? Are you doing it with, ‘Hey, it’s nice to see you?’ or the attitude of ‘Where have you been?’”

The Sustainability Questions

Pope Francis has spoken of the need to see “individual persons, one at a time,” an urging that, if followed, leads to much-needed personal connections, which in turn help to build the sort of supportive community needed to weather the storm of challenges young people face.

“My question is: You want people to come back to the parish. Why? What are you offering?” says Timone Davis, an assistant professor of pastoral theology at Loyola University in Chicago, who has designed ministry modules that include practical components for helping young adults navigate life. “You can get young people to be in your parish, but if you’re not trying to have a relationship, you can forget it.”

“My question is: You want people to come back to the parish. Why? What are you offering?”

Tracey Lamont works with a variety of ministry leaders in postgraduate work through her role as an assistant professor of religious education at Loyola University New Orleans. She says she sees an ache for “relationships and relational ministry” all the time.

“We’re so distanced and so wounded by one another,” she says. Ms. Lamont echoes Ms. Davis, adding that the way forward is not in programming but in the nuts and bolts of relationships. Whole populations are missing from ministry because they cannot accommodate the traditional ministry schedules. Ms. Lamont highlights this need for ministry to go out and cross boundaries of race, class and gender.

Paul Jarzembowski, assistant director for youth and young adult ministries for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, says economic wounds are certainly within the purview of the “field hospital” church Pope Francis seeks to build, noting that the pope cited the value and challenges of work numerous times in his apostolic exhortation “Christus Vivit” in 2019.

“I think the fact that he raised up work in that document says that we need to be paying more attention to it than we do in our ministry efforts,” Mr. Jarzembowski says. He sees Francis, in document after document, laying a foundation for the church to engage in the realities of people’s lives, building trust through listening and accompaniment. He notes that the history of the church in the United States—with its heavy involvement with unions and the labor movement—suggests a precedent. Whether it is labor or climate change, Mr. Jarzembowski says, “Pope Francis is giving us a philosophy to take action on it. The question is, will we?”

Action is precisely what Luke Henkel, 29, seeks from his church as an outreach coordinator for the group Laudato Si' Generation, the youth branch of the Global Catholic Climate Movement, and as chair of the creation care team at St. James Cathedral in Seattle.

“Young people have so much skin in the game about their future, and a lot of it revolves around this work on fixing our climate,” he says. “If we want to be successful in continuing to engage people, we have to be where they are. We have to be on the forefront of their concerns.” He adds that the climate crisis is for the church a “golden opportunity to engage young people on the deeper things that pull them forward.”

“Young people have so much skin in the game about their future, and a lot of it revolves around this work on fixing our climate.”

As he pursues his passion, Mr. Henkel sees the connection between the climate crisis and the socioeconomic stress he and his contemporaries have inherited. Both are existential crises created in part by the consumption models embraced in decades past by earlier generations. Both climate issues and consumerism raise big questions about sustainability. And several studies point to the fact that the current stressors on young adults are having long-term and serious effects. According to a 2019 study noting the recent decline of U.S. life expectancy, the most significant spike in death rates from 2010 to 2017 occurred among adults age 25 to 34, a 29-percent increase. The picture is one of a generation in a mortal struggle against a throwaway culture in which their jobs, their homes and their parishes can or even should be easily swapped out for another if the economy so dictates.

“It’s increasingly difficult. It’s increasingly complicated. I don’t think it’s healthy for our young people,” says Ms. Hancharenko.

“The transitory nature of some young adults is leading them to be exceptionally isolated and lonely. And so that’s where I worry,” says Ms. Lamont. “That feeling of being disconnected is really detrimental to one’s psyche, to their ability to form relationships, their ability to even trust.”

Ms. Ward sees hope in the fact that structural fixes like student loan forgiveness and universal basic income proposals have found their way into parts of the policy conversation because the status quo is, to her, a non-starter.

“I think it’s sustainable if you’re an employer who wants to employ people at low wages and be able to get rid of them without having to accommodate for their human needs,” Ms. Ward says. “Is this sustainable from the perspective of families? Or is it sustainable if you’re someone who cares about strong communities that can care for their elderly and their young and maintain a sense of stability in a place? Then no, it’s not.”

In the meantime, Emily Edmondson in Texas continues to strive to live out her faith as best she can in the midst of economic and cultural challenges. She says she has had to warn managers months in advance of her desire to go to Mass during her lunch hour on holy days of obligation. She has been met with mixed reactions. “I had one manager that was great with it,” she said, “and another manager that was like, ‘Why are you doing this? I don’t care that it’s your lunch hour. It’s going to take you longer.’ It’s a gut-wrenching feeling.”

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