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“Younger People Want to Do it Themselves” - Self-Actualization, Commitment, and the Reinvention of Community


Current research indicates that younger Americans, driven by socioeconomic shifts and cultural trends prioritizing self-actualization, are increasingly disinclined toward traditional communal organizations. Yet a search for self-actualization may, in fact, lead religiously inclined young adults to traditional communal organizations, which are characterized by relatively strict organizational norms. To explore how such organizations respond to the tension between self-actualization and communal practices, this paper describes a multi-method study of an urban Jewish congregation that experienced a large influx of young adults. The paper demonstrates two related outcomes of the resultant tension: first, the strategic integration of self-expressive content into traditional organizational practices, in a manner that allows these practices to become vehicles for self-actualization; second, the leveraging of these young adults’ transience, in both formal and informal ways, in order to maintain organizational stability. These two seemingly paradoxical outcomes contribute to our understanding of how some communal organizations respond to young adults’ self-actualizing inclinations.

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  1. Individualism connotes a focus on individual experience, as opposed to a focus on the social group. Self-actualization specifies a quest for personalized authenticity, self-expression, and an agentic identity; it may be linked to a form of intensive individualism that involves rigorous self-examination, as well as external practices, based on expert opinions or authoritative texts, that are aimed at self-improvement and personal fulfillment.

  2. In this paper, communal organizations indicate social associations that revolve around shared values and practices. Traditional communal organizations observe long-time practices more strictly, sometimes utilizing hierarchies of authority to preserve it; some, but not all, traditional communal organizations are religious, and may be referred to as traditional congregations.

  3. The concept of emerging adulthood was first developed by Arnett (2000), a psychologist. It was further explored in sociological research by Smith and Snell (2009), and by Fischer (2011: 6), who links it to the decline of traditional social bonds. “Late adolescence” and “young adulthood” are alternative terms (Bois-Reymond 1994; Heath 2004), but I found that emerging adulthood was the most clearly defined conceptualization of this life-stage.

  4. This applies both to young adults in higher socioeconomic brackets, who travel for educational and employment opportunities, and to those facing economic challenges, whose diminishing job and marriage opportunities may alienate them from local institutions (Putnam 2015).

  5. For more on how the disciplining process of embodied religious practices shapes a gendered agentic identity, see Griffith (1997) on Evangelical women.

  6. Modern Orthodox differ from ultra-Orthodox Jews, who integrate a selective avoidance of secular culture into their strict observance of Jewish law. Both Modern and ultra-Orthodox Jews have many sub-groups, with varying degrees of observance and cultural distinctions.

  7. This extends Finke’s (2004) claim that religious groups can successfully preserve core teachings while innovating on organizational and less essential issues. In this case, the balance between core teachings and innovation required demographic change: from an older, less educated membership to a younger, more innovative but also more educated new membership.

  8. As a Modern Orthodox congregation, this is a relatively more progressive scene than in many ultra-Orthodox synagogues, where the women usually only observe the men dance and engage in no ritual activity at all in the women’s section.


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The author would like to thank Ann Swidler, Claude Fischer, Casey Homan, Jessica Lopez-Espino, Lindsay Bayham, Iddo Tavory, and Robert Wuthnow and the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University for their invaluable assistance with this paper. The author would also like to thank Shayna Weiss for the original inspiration for this research.

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Lichtenstein, M. “Younger People Want to Do it Themselves” - Self-Actualization, Commitment, and the Reinvention of Community. Qual Sociol 42, 181–203 (2019).

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  • Community
  • Young adults
  • Organizations
  • Judaism
  • Self-actualization