Commentary: Today’s Latter-day Saint missionaries: Clingy, soft and immature?

The reaction to last week’s announcement that Latter-day Saint missionaries will now be able to call home once a week — instead of twice a year, as was the former policy — has been mostly positive.

Most families seem to be welcoming the change, which leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints say will be a “motivating force, not a distraction” in the lives of more than 65,000 missionaries serving around the world.

The applause is not universal, however. Some of the negative comments can be summed up in three words, delivered in your crankiest and most stereotyped elderly male voice: “In MY day …”

These kids today, in other words.

Reading through the comments on some of the news stories about the change, certain critical words emerge as themes: today’s missionaries are soft. Immature. Clinging to their helicopter parents. Not ready to give everything to the cause. As one commenter put it:

“I do not like this one bit. . . . It will lead to more problems and missionaries wanting to come home early. We are too soft on our up and coming generation.”

Is there any truth to these generational stereotypes?

Maybe some. There are certain benchmarks of adulthood that today’s young adults, in general, have been slower to meet than previous generations.

For example, millennials as a whole are the first generation since the 19th century to be more likely to still be living at home with their parents than in their own households or with peers, giving rise to the nickname the “boomerang” generation. According to Pew, 32 percent of Americans ages 18 to 34 were living in their parents’ homes in 2016; in 1960, just 20 percent among that age group still lived with Mom and/or Dad.

Millennials will rightly point out that it’s a different economy today. In 1960, it was possible to support a family on one person’s salary, even if that person only had a high school education. That’s not the case anymore. This leads to another major social shift: More young people than ever are going to college, and millennials are on track to be the best-educated generation in U.S. history. In 2016, 40 percent had a college degree, compared to 26 percent of baby boomers and just 16 percent of the silent generation when they were the same age.

So today’s young adults are slower to enter the labor market, slower to move away from home, and slower to marry (though that’s a questionable benchmark of adulthood). But they are better educated than in the past and more prepared for an economy that requires a college degree.

In Mormonism, these trends are less evident than they are in the general population. The Next Mormons Survey found that:

  • Millennial Latter-day Saints are less likely to still be living at home as other Americans in their age group.

  • The ones who marry still do so at a median age in their early 20s (though fewer are getting married, on the whole).

  • Most are either gainfully employed or in school full time.

Moreover, they accomplished all this despite the fact that a higher percentage of them served a mission than any previous generation in church history.

Put another way, even though many delayed these benchmarks of adulthood for 18 months to two years, putting off college educations and the workforce to serve their faith full time, they’re still coming out ahead of other millennials.

So maybe the older generations could lay off the criticism. Yes, it is true that more missionaries are returning home early from their missions (see here for preliminary data, keeping in mind that the margin of error is high when we are looking at a small subset of the sample). As the Deseret News reported recently, anxiety is at an all-time high among Generation Z, the oldest of whom are now of missionary age. (See The Salt Lake Tribune story on early-returning missionaries here.) I suspect that this new policy permitting missionaries greater contact with their families is an attempt to stem that tide, providing missionaries increased access to the support system they’ve depended on all their lives.

This is the support system the one the church itself has taught them is paramount: the family. How strange for some older Latter-day Saints to turn around and denigrate missionaries for needing the one thing the church has always taught them should take priority over other things.

A mission is hard. It’s an up-at-dawn, every-hour-accounted-for lifestyle that demands everything of young people (who are even younger now, I would point out, than when their older critics served their own missions).

I love the fact that we do this, that we ask idealistic young adults to pour themselves out in service to others for this intense, defined period of their lives. But we should never forget how difficult, and how countercultural, this expectation is. What young missionaries need is love and understanding, not impossible standards.

Editor’s note • The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.