Susan represents a phenomenon so new that most people—including her parents—misunderstand it. She's 18 years old, bright, attractive, and could have won college athletic scholarships. Sometime during her senior year of high school, however, Susan dropped out of sports, took leave from school, and told her parents she wanted to finish via the GED.

That fall, she started at a small local college and then dropped out in the first semester. At the moment, she works in a fast-food restaurant and says she is saving money to move to Peru, a place she knows little about. According to her father, she spends astronomical sums on her cell phone. She has no real plans.

Her parents want their daughter to take advantage of opportunities and work hard in a steady direction. They want to see frugality, discipline, humility, and risk awareness. They're frustrated that nothing they say seems to penetrate.

Susan, however, believes she is doing fine. She assures her dad she will go back to college when she feels ready—if she ever does. She enthuses about her friends, her Pilates class, and skiing. If she doesn't go to Peru, she might head to Colorado and spend the winter playing in the snow. She sees no risk on her horizon. Everything will work out.

Though Susan and her parents share the same house, they sometimes feel as though they inhabit different universes. I am beginning to believe they do.

The easiest way to discuss Susan is to bemoan "today's kids" and their lack of discipline, gumption, and common sense. They are spoiled and overindulged, their elders complain. This is the same song parents have sung for ages, passed from one generation of old fogies to the next. Listening to it, one might easily think Susan represents an eternal constant—young people finding ways to annoy their elders.

That analysis is shortsighted. Susan lives in a new world her parents cannot yet recognize. The newness comes from a simple but striking reality: seemingly unlimited possibility. Middle-class North American children face abundance on every hand. Possibilities and opportunities have expanded so greatly that the very shape of life has changed. They can do anything, go anywhere, be anybody. They see no risk—they can always start over, and they will not starve. The real risk is spiritual. They could lose their souls.

How does one fashion a life out of this profusion of opportunities, especially when there seem to be no penalties for failing? In this wide and undefined field of possibilities, Susan's parents' virtues don't connect. Susan needs a different kind of help than they are offering. She seems to need a different set of virtues.

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I have to step lightly here. Many people—some readers, undoubtedly—live under very constrained circumstances and can't identify with the life of abundance I describe. All the same, the reality of unlimited opportunity is increasingly the outlook for middle-class America.

Education. My city's high schools—public high schools—take advertisements in the newspaper appealing for students to attend. Even students expelled from school can choose between multiple specialized schools eager to help them. And then, for those who graduate, their mail arrives full of glossy university appeals that beg them to come. For many students, the agonizing difficulty is to decide which of the manifold offerings they should pursue.

Pleasure. Children grow up in a society devoted to entertaining and distracting them. They can choose from a hundred kinds of fast food. College cafeterias boast award-winning menus. The TV has 200 channels; the cinema multiplex 18 theatres. Even with video games, dance troupes, drama groups, and soccer teams, many still complain they are bored.

Career. Young people have job anxieties, but much of the difficulty comes in choosing from thousands of ever-shifting possibilities. They know they can get a job. But a good job—what exactly is that? Can I locate one that will promise in advance to make me satisfied?

A young woman in her 20s told me she knew very few people who moved directly from college to graduate school or a career. "They would just say they were taking time to figure out what they want to do. One night last year, [my housemates and I] talked about the 'quarter-life' crisis. Some are scared to make a decision. The fear is that you'll choose the wrong thing and regret it later."

Love and Sex. Your field of dreams is not restricted to your high school, your town, or your college. It's the whole world. You can search the internet for bliss. You can experiment with all levels of sexual involvement, from hookups, to going out, to living together. Your parents' pathway—dating, courtship, marriage—has splintered into hundreds of utterly personalized, individualized options.

Altruism. Those who wanted to help the less fortunate once served on their own, apart from a few service clubs. Today, every school has organized altruism. Some schools require it for graduation. If you don't find an appealing opportunity, the local volunteer center has more options. So does your church.

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Religion. Which church has the best ski trip? Which church has the best worship band? Young people choose from multiple fellowships. A generation ago, the only young people who had done overseas service were missionary kids. Now, many young Christians have gone to Mexico to build houses or teach vacation Bible school. Some have traveled to Nepal, Kenya, Nicaragua. Such option-rich Christianity will continue into adult life. Today's disciple begins with multiple choices: which church, which service (traditional, contemporary, or contemplative), which fellowship within the church? Not a few wander from place to place, unsure what to pursue.


Of course, many have no trouble with all these choices and go through life in a straight line. But many others, like Susan, become dazzled and bewildered, frozen by indecision or jabbing in five directions. A million options promise five million happinesses, but they often lead to a billion disappointments.

"My parents were so driven," one college dropout told me. "Even in high school, they knew what they wanted. For me, having everything handed to me, it's harder to make a decision to do something that's difficult. I feel stagnant. It's hard to feel motivated, with so much coming at you. There are so many options that look really nice. It's harder to make a commitment, harder to really connect to something."

Psychotherapist Jessie H. O'Neill has made "affluenza" her specialty. Among the symptoms O'Neill sees:

Loss of personal productivity
Loss of future motivation
An inability to delay gratification or tolerate frustration
A false sense of entitlement
Loss of self-confidence
Preoccupation with externals
Other compulsive-addictive behaviors: i.e., rampant materialism and consumerism.


Though I am a baby boomer, part of a generation that caught the first whiff of general affluence, I grew up with the old virtues. When I was a junior in high school, I wanted to take my girlfriend to the prom. The trouble was, although I worked a part-time job, I just didn't have enough money to rent the tux, pay for a corsage, buy dinner, and pay for the dance. It never occurred to me to apply to my parents for a loan. They didn't have any extra money. So I didn't go to the prom. I felt a bit sorry for myself, but I made do.

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My parents passed on to me the classic virtues they learned in the Depression: Be grateful for what you have, and work hard and frugally at what opportunities come. If you get a job, gratefully apply yourself. Whether or not you like the job is no matter. You are lucky to have a job. You are lucky to go to school. You do what the boss says. You respect the authorities.

I instinctively want to pass on the same set of virtues to my kids. But lo and behold, I discover that I cannot really teach them the virtues of making do with less, except in some artificially contrived way. I cannot teach them, because "less" has vanished.

Take the prom, for example. Many of my children's friends will rent a limousine to take them to dinner and the dance. Some will rent a hotel suite to contain the after-dance party. Putting aside the ethics of couples spending the night together in a hotel suite, how can they afford such extravagance? Well, they can. Either they get a large allowance from their parents, or—just as likely—they earn enough at their part-time jobs to pay the bills quite easily. I do not want such luxury for my kids, and I do not think they really want it themselves. But it's there.

"You cannot go to the prom unless you earn every penny yourself." I could say that to my kids and try to teach them lessons of frugality and hard work. Yet in doing so, I am in a fundamentally different position from my parents. I have the money. I could pay for the tux and the corsage without really feeling it. My children know this. They know, because I sometimes like to take the family out to dinner, and the bill may very well amount to just as much money as a rented tux. I will favor myself with that indulgence; how can I turn with a stern face and tell them I won't indulge them? I no longer have much credibility for the virtue of making do with less.

I, too, live in a different world than my parents did.


The Age of Abundance is an open, verdant field. You can go in any direction, but no signs indicate which way is right. Or else you face many signs, all pointing different ways. Everything seems possible.

The old virtues may not help, but another set of virtues can—and must. Remember that some of the greatest leaders of our faith grew up as children of privilege: Augustine of Hippo, Clement of Alexandria, Martin of Tours, and Francis of Assisi, to name a few. In learning to cope with unlimited possibilities, they took on a voluntary discipleship—"a long obedience in the same direction," to borrow Eugene Peterson's phrase. In that discipleship, they learned to distinguish between real riches and worldly possibilities.

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Today, too, some younger people are learning the virtues needed to navigate unlimited opportunity. They do not feel guilty about their abundance; rather, they practice voluntary simplicity. (See "The New Monasticism," CT, September 2005.) They show instinctive generosity. They trust God to guide, they have an inner sense of integrity, and they are not easily dazzled by opportunity. They grasp immediately that their abundance points them to serve others. Like the apostle Paul, they "have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want" (Phil. 4:12). Such are the virtues of making do with more.

Some practical skills are involved. A 20-something young woman speaks of young people investing in Christian communities "even if they don't know where they are going. Because your faith is going with you through all these choices and decisions … it's a skill of sorts to learn to connect to Christian community wherever you are."

A college dropout on his way to Costa Rica told me that he saw the trip as an opportunity for personal growth, even though he had no definite plans. "I figure the more I am away from my comfort zone, the more I have to test myself, the more I can see who I want to be."

The challenge is to form new pathways for those dazzled by choice, to help them form the character and spirit they need to move ahead. They don't need a lecture. They need encouragement to find a life of faith and service. I asked the college dropout how he conceived the challenge before him. "I think of it mostly in terms of character and spirit," he said. "I have to be fully motivated [in whatever I choose], or it won't work."

To such a person, Paul's words are surely relevant: "I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him" (Phil. 3:8-9).

Tim Stafford is a senior writer for CT.

Related Elsewhere:

More Christianity Today articles on this topic include:

Suburban Spirituality | The land of SUVs and soccer leagues tends to weather the soul in peculiar ways, but it doesn't have to. (June 23, 2003)
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Religion in the 'Burbs | An interview with R. Stephen Warner, sociologist of religion at University of Illinois at Chicago. (June 23, 2003)
Rich, Delighted Christians | The Good of Affluence aims to give leadership to wealthy Christians moved and troubled by their fortune. (Dec. 6, 2002)
'I'm Not in It for the Money' | The digital revolution created many wealthy tech-heads. What do they do now? (Sept. 25, 2001)
The Bobo Future | "Bourgeois bohemians" wield inordinate power over how we think about consumerism, morality--and faith itself (July 25, 2000)
The Culture of the Market: A Christian Vision | A Coptic bishop explains biblical economics to a Muslim newspaper (December 1, 1999)
You've Got Mail | A letter Jesus might write to the suburban church of North America (Eugene H. Peterson, Oct. 25, 1999)
Trapped in the Cult of the Next Thing | If ever there was a cult that gave us stones when we asked for bread, this is it. (September 6, 1999)
Why the Devil takes VISA | A Christian response to the triumph of consumerism. (by Rodney Clapp, October 7, 1996)

God Ble$$ America (Editorial) | The rising economic tide floats all yachts. How should Christians help everyone else? (April 3, 2000)

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