What Scandinavia Can Teach U.S. Teens About Coming of Age

Civic-confirmation rites could help unify a fraying nation and instill crucial knowledge of American traditions and institutions.

Steven Depolo/Flickr

The latest Pew survey, released last week, tells us that Millennials are as pigeonhole-resistant as ever: individualistic yet networked, socially liberal yet mistrustful of others, pessimistic about the economy yet optimistic about the future.

Overlooked in most dissections of these findings, though, was a cruel fact: young people aren’t so young anymore. The Pew report was titled “Millennials in Adulthood,” and the cohort we once imagined as helicopter-parented kids now ranges from 18 to 33. That means not only that this massive generation is growing up but also that a new as-yet-unbranded generation of truly young folks is arriving.

Both generations come of age at a time of economic dislocation, which has upended expected sequences of educational, relationship, and career progress. This helps explain why so many Millennials simultaneously reject institutions and yearn to belong to something greater than self.

To be sure, “rites of passage” for young people still abound: hazing, bullying, and ritual humiliation of newcomers thrive in American high schools, fraternities, gangs, pro sports, and other professions. On the healthier side, many adolescents still learn a family religious tradition and mark their own transition out of childhood through rituals like bar and bat mitzvahs and confirmations.

But what if a rite like that existed for everyone in America, attached not to a specific faith tradition but to a national creed of values, political traditions, and pro-social character? What if we created a civic confirmation experience that was both constructive and common to all?

It turns out something like this exists already in Scandinavia. As I learned when a friend recently returned from a trip to Iceland, at 14 or 15 Icelanders can sign up for a secular coming-of-age program akin to a Christian confirmation. Participants meet weekly for nearly a year and study national history, world affairs, ethics, ecology. “In the end,” my friend reports, “they have a ceremony celebrating their accomplishment and the beginning of their ‘adult’ civic life.”

This is brilliant. It is sorely needed in the United States, where civic knowledge is dissipating and national cohesion fraying, where youth have ever fewer non-self-destructive ways to prove to society that they’re growing up.

The program in Iceland, like similar ones in Norway, Denmark, and Germany, is called a “civil confirmation.” It grows out of the 19th-century humanist and “ethical culture” movements that self-consciously resisted organized religion and particularly state-established religion. The programs are meant to replace a church confirmation. In Norway, nearly 15 percent of young people now choose to do it.

What we need in America, I think, is something slightly different. We need a civic confirmation that treats democracy as its own ethical and even spiritual experience. That follows a rich tradition—it’s what Tocqueville first dubbed “civic religion” and what Lincoln invoked when he spoke of the “mystic chords of memory” that must bind the Union. A civic confirmation need not be a substitute for church confirmation. It can sit alongside it, or not.

Imagine a weekly experience framed up by a cross-partisan array of educators and parents in which young people at the age of 14 or 15 would spend a year in guided learning about the values, power systems, and hard skills of citizenship in America. Instead of shying away from the controversial stuff, in the way that tentative public schools have, it would lean right into the arguments. Indeed, it would present American civic identity as a series of arguments over the meaning, application and priority of principles like freedom, equality, justice, and opportunity.

There could also be elements of service and contribution, in the same way that in most religious rites of passage young people have to prove through good works that they have absorbed the lessons.

In light of the way the rising generations of young people learn, an American civic-confirmation experience could be designed in the spirit of a wiki or TEDx: Provide a robust fixed frame, then let local learners and teachers flesh it out to make it continuously relevant and adaptive.

There would be no reward at the end for participating in a civic confirmation, no incentive beyond the simple recognition that unlike many of your age peers (and many people older than you) you've begun to reckon explicitly with the responsibilities as well as the rights of being a citizen.

Could a civic confirmation be misused and go awry? You bet. The religious right or the atheist left could hijack it. It could fall prey to political correctness or to establishment blandness. It could become a go-through-the-motions experience.

But every objection one might raise to a civic confirmation could be raised to our constitutional scheme itself. When it comes to figuring out how to live together in a sprawling diverse republic with little more than a creed to hold us together, there are no shortcuts. You just have to show up. If the rising generation can be confirmed in that knowledge, maybe we as a country will have grown up a bit.