18 is the new 19

Six months ago, at the October 2012 General Conference, President Monson announced the missionary age change. Here is his report on how things are going, delivered earlier this month:

The response of our young people has been remarkable and inspiring. As of April 4 — two days ago — we have 65,634 full-time missionaries serving, with over 20,000 more who have received their calls but who have not yet entered a missionary training center and over 6,000 more in the interview process with their bishops and stake presidents. It has been necessary for us to create 58 new missions to accommodate the increased numbers of missionaries.

This is a big change, one that changes the teen life profile of thousands of young Latter-day Saints and that directly affects thousands of LDS families. The iconic image I associate with the policy change was a young man attending Conference to whom the live Conference feed cut just seconds after President Monson made the announcement. A bit dazed, he was obviously doing some quick real-time recalibration: I will be 18 in … four months?

Apart from President Monson’s explanation provided at the time of the announcement in October 2012, not much official commentary on the policy change has been provided. Here is that original explanation, which actually says quite a lot.

For some time the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles have allowed young men from certain countries to serve at the age of 18 when they are worthy, able, have graduated from high school, and have expressed a sincere desire to serve. This has been a country-specific policy and has allowed thousands of young men to serve honorable missions and also fulfill required military obligations and educational opportunities.

Our experience with these 18-year-old missionaries has been positive. Their mission presidents report that they are obedient, faithful, mature, and serve just as competently as do the older missionaries who serve in the same missions. Their faithfulness, obedience, and maturity have caused us to desire the same option of earlier missionary service for all young men, regardless of the country from which they come.

I am pleased to announce that effective immediately all worthy and able young men who have graduated from high school or its equivalent, regardless of where they live, will have the option of being recommended for missionary service beginning at the age of 18, instead of age 19. I am not suggesting that all young men will—or should—serve at this earlier age. Rather, based on individual circumstances as well as upon a determination by priesthood leaders, this option is now available.

As we have prayerfully pondered the age at which young men may begin their missionary service, we have also given consideration to the age at which a young woman might serve. Today I am pleased to announce that able, worthy young women who have the desire to serve may be recommended for missionary service beginning at age 19, instead of age 21.

We affirm that missionary work is a priesthood duty—and we encourage all young men who are worthy and who are physically able and mentally capable to respond to the call to serve. Many young women also serve, but they are not under the same mandate to serve as are the young men. We assure the young sisters of the Church, however, that they make a valuable contribution as missionaries, and we welcome their service.

Often a significant policy change works out rather differently than expected. I suspect that will be the case here, although we don’t really know what the expectations of LDS leaders were and I don’t think we will see the full impact of the change for several years. But here are a few changes I see already.

1. 18 is the new 19. When announced, it was clearly stated that service for young men at 18 is an option, not an expectation. It was also suggested that bishops and stake presidents should consider “individual circumstances” before recommending a young man for missionary service at 18. I think this cautionary counsel lasted about 24 hours. I don’t think local leaders are saying no to any qualified young man who wants to serve at 18. Yes, 18 is the new 19.

2. 19 is not the new 21. It’s a different story for sisters. The age change doesn’t simply move the date forward a year or two, it opens up missionary service to thousands of young LDS women who are eager to serve as missionaries at age 19 but who often have other life plans in place at age 21. The immediate response by thousands of young LDS women to serve is really quite inspiring. Again, President Monson’s note of caution (“We affirm that missionary work is a priesthood duty …. Many young women also serve, but they are not under the same mandate to serve as are the young men.“) doesn’t seem to have any particular relevance at this point. Young LDS women are simply taking this opportunity and running with it.

3. And the long-term impact is …? More young LDS men will serve missions, if only because we don’t lose them to various distractions or doubts before they turn 19. But *many* more young LDS women will serve missions, which will upgrade the talent pool in LDS wards in coming years. The Church will have to provide additional avenues of service for these faithful returned sister missionaries. We can call them all as ward missionaries, or maybe turn the clerk duties over to women (the monthly reports would finally get done on time), or go all in and just give them the priesthood. The Church generally finds a way to use talented people, so change of some sort will happen.

So how is the new policy playing out in your ward and in your family?

26 comments for “18 is the new 19

  1. “or maybe turn the clerk duties over to women (the monthly reports would finally get done on time)”

    Really? The continuing implication that men are incapable of fulfilling their callings, even if just tongue in cheek, gets really old. We get enough of that in Priesthood Session and can do without here.

  2. I sometimes wonder if some of the more prescient church leaders, in looking to the future, have actually factored in the possibility that the demand for women holding the priesthood could potentially grow even more among the membership. Hence they decided to make the policy change to allow women who are 19yo to serve missions as a means of getting the membership accustomed to an increasing number of women in church leadership positions thereby easing the transition for them being given the option of holding the priesthood in the future.

    Boyd K. Packer identified feminism as one of the major threats to the LDS church (along with the gay rights movement and the growing number of intellectuals) in 1981. He was right on in that the church has since only experienced increasing pressure from women (as well as intellectuals and gay rights advocates) within the church for policy changes. Consequently it needs to find a way to make some adjustments lest it grow weaker. Of course lowering the required age for women to serve missions also helps increase the number of missionaries in the field and therefore the number of converts, which the LDS church has struggled to increase in recent decades.

  3. I’ll be interested in seeing what the new baseline will be for number of Sister Missionaries. There will of course be a spike as you have 19,20, and 21-year old’s who are entering the field. What will this number be a year from now?

    The Stakes in our Mission have been asked to find housing for the missionaries with members to cut down on living expenses. Apparently, rent alone cost our mission around $500K last year.

    Our Ward will also have one set of Elders and one set of Sisters in the next transfer or two which will also be the case in many wards across the Mission. We’re excited.

  4. Addressing this statement:
    “The Church will have to provide additional avenues of service for these faithful returned sister missionaries.” AND “The Church generally finds a way to use talented people, so change of some sort will happen.”

    Really? What additional avenues of service was the church compelled to create, when they started inviting sisters in the mission field, in the beginning. (cricket chirping)

    Its a real stretch to think that new positions will be needed for a demographic that most assuredly will strive to return to achieving their life goals. The same goals that may have kept them from serving at 21. The difference being that perhaps they will be all the more prepared, and also more likely to do so with their eye single to God’s glory, as they achieve those goals.

    As for the priesthood comment, perhaps more time spent in the temple will answer for those that can’t grasp that concept. It has for the vast majority of regular attendees. Those that haven’t figured it out – keep going, and seek the answer – its there.

  5. #3 – Tim,

    Valid point. Initially this all a flash in the pan. We see immediate exponential growth in service, but these numbers are not sustainable in the long term, unless the total available youth eligible to serve increases dramatically.

    It will have have the long term affect of helping some YM enter the mission field before they have to experience that year wait, some characterize as “misfits.” Where they can get lost between leaving the YM/Scouting & Mutual, and the comparative lack of structure in Elder’s Quorum.

    So – we will see some longterm gradual increase in missionaries serving, after this short-lived bubble passes through over the next 3 years.

  6. In our stake, its affected all the young men’s programs, since going on a mission is now the natural culmination of the Aaronic priesthood period.

    I can’t speak for the young women’s programs, but its created a lot of excitement for the newly adult women, which is all for the good. In most quarters, of course, there is no inkling that the change is supposed to lead to some kind of future revival of feminist agitation. The excitement is for missionary work, as it should be.

  7. A few years ago a returning mission president said that he hoped for the day when there wasn’t cultural pressure to serve at 19, because it compelled a lot of people who weren’t ready to try anyway. I see this as a step toward that goal. Notice how every time they discuss it, the apostles talk about giving young people more options so they can go when the time is best for them. Hopefully church members will catch on and resist perpetuating the peer pressure.

  8. A lot of commentators on the bloggernacle have suggested that the greater number of sister missionaries will spur an acceleration of feminist awareness leading to a majority of women demanding and eventually receiving the priesthood.

    I wonder, however, if the increase in sister missionaries will increase the doctrinal knowledge, orthodoxy, loyalty to the brethren of the women of the Church, thereby making a large-scale demand for the priesthood less likely.

    My own annectdotal experience, although not conclusive, supports this possibility. Although there are exceptions, the returned sister missionaries I know (not a small number) are, as a whole, the most scripturally-versed, the most unquestioningly loyal to their priesthood leaders and the most orthodox and the least likely to want to rock the boat. I’m sure others might have observed different things.

    Nonetheless, a mission can be a very indoctrinating experience — and I mean that in a good way. The brethren have always said that the mission is just as much for the missionary as for those they serve. Being aware of the high numbers of sisters and the women’s issues facing the Church, I am sure they will use the missionary experience to their full advantage to try to ward-off what they see as future problems.

  9. Shawn: “As for the priesthood comment, perhaps more time spent in the temple will answer for those that can’t grasp that concept. It has for the vast majority of regular attendees. Those that haven’t figured it out – keep going, and seek the answer – its there.”

    Wisely said.

  10. I am a high school teacher in a Wasatch Front community. This is anecdotal, but my perception is that the LDS students are actually exhibiting greater maturity and making better long-term plans. If the students want college it is obvious that thay have to take AP and CE classes and plan ahead. Less play and more work. I think the long-term effects will be positive.

  11. This post discusses a new paradigm for our youth. I would like to see a separate post discussing the historic announcement’s effect on potential converts to the Church.

  12. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Fred (#1), turning some callings from “women can’t do that” to “anyone can do that” would open up some opportunities to serve. Sunday School presidencies and clerk callings seem like possibilities. This seems like a reasonable topic for discussion.

    Tim (#3), I think there will be another T&S post appearing shortly that will look at the missionary numbers.

    Adam (#6) says: “The excitement is for missionary work, as it should be.” Yes, and also for the missionaries. I’m waiting for a soon-to-be missionary or parent to chime in.

    Old Man (#10), that’s nice to hear. I hope young LDS are thinking seriously about when and how to serve. This will lead to better prepared missionaries.

    Chet (#11), you left me hanging. What might the effect of the announcement be on potential converts?

  13. I am waiting to see the effects on my local ward that tends to have early marriages and all the problems of immature parents. Hopefully it will turn this trend around. I am also excited to see these sisters bring their experience and dedication into current church callings. I see no need to add additional callings. Visiting teachers who have experience in teaching the basic principles of the gospel. Sister with the desire to do temple work, teachers who can relate to a variety of class members. The list goes on and on of possible blessings these return missionaries can provide to any ward.

  14. A month ago a 18.5 yr old was deemed too big to serve a mission and now he is putting in his papers, apparently “someone changed their mind”… Our stake loses a lot of RMs to inactivity and so I wonder if this change will prevent that or just do as it always has in the past confront youths to Church reality and they decide they don’t want to be a part of it.
    The other part is with the youth program. I hope that we are turning out saints who go on a mission or not and not youths in training to be salesmen.

  15. Finally we’ll “upgrade the [female] talent pool”! Too long have we been laden with unqualified masses of non-RM women. Line upon line or bust! ;)

  16. OK, I’m a parent of a soon to be 18 year old high school senior boy. In my stake in the LA area it seems to be the status quo, the young men are all preparing to go to college next year and then serve at 19. But we have friends in the Phoenix area with a son the same age as ours. There it seems that most of the young men are leaving this summer after graduation. They even told us of one YM they knew who is graduating early so he can leave on his mission as soon as he turns 18.

  17. Dave (12) – how about a parable?
    Building more Walmarts does not entice me to shop there. I need a friend who shops there to convince me to do the same.

  18. 18 is the new 19…well except that brains aren’t fully formed until 25 so to the extent that this encourages earlier marriages I don’t think this policy is helpful or healthy.

    This will offer a one time boost in the total number of missionaries going to the field with perhaps some real but relatively small on-going gain more in young women than young men. I suspect this new policy has more to do with declining growth % and converts per missionary ratios plus an attempt to *lock in* young defectors.

  19. What does age have to do with maturity, Howard? Perhaps the Lord is wise to invert the extended infantilization of young adults by offering more ambitious and flexible options?

  20. No one in our ward has gotten a mission call since October.
    Big game changer for my motivated daughter. The mission went from being a decision neither of us felt the need to discuss a lot because it wasn’t part of the first steps after high school. Now, however, it is part of the big decisions for what’s after high school. She is now planning on going on a mission and just wonders whether to start college first or not (Oct. birthday). She doesn’t have a Mormon peer group so she isn’t being influenced by others. The announcement meant that she came to me to start discussing it because she is used to talking college plans with me even though she is a 9th grader.
    I didn’t expect to raise my girls to go on a mission. I always told them that when they turned 21 they could pray about it (and assumed they would be off on their own making their own decisions at that time). So this is very different for me to now help her prepare for a mission in 3 years.

  21. My cousin turned 18 a few weeks after the policy change was announced. He was like “Doh!” because had he known the change was coming, he wouldn’t have just started community college. So he’ll probably go this summer. (Another cousin who’s a little older, is about to go at 19. No change in plans there.)

    George Durrant (onetime president of the MTC, religion instructor at BYU forever) was my Sharing the Gospel instructor there. He told us the Brethren had studied the issue, and they had determined that if the age were 19 for both genders, there would be more sisters out then elders. Maybe the Brethren have decided they need a bigger corps of sister missionaries.

    My experience when I was a senior at BYU was that there were many more returned sister missionaries who were seniors (thus about 23 or 24) than there were seniors who hadn’t served missions and were still single (about 21 or 22). After the age change was announced, one of my cousins decided that since her mother and older sisters had all married at 19, and she wasn’t going to (hadn’t met anyone) that she would serve a mission at 20 while she had the chance. So she’s off to Minnesota soon.

  22. Cameron N wrote: What does age have to do with maturity, Howard?

    “Postponing those decisions makes sense biologically for those in “emerging adulthood,” the years roughly from 18 to 29, which psychologists, sociologists and neuroscientists increasingly see as a distinct life stage. As recently as the 1960s, the average age of first marriage for women in the U.S. was 20, and men 22. Today, the average is 26 for women and 28 for men. The front part of the brain, called the prefrontal cortex, is one of the last brain regions to mature. It is the area responsible for planning, prioritizing and controlling impulses. Many of those issues ease by the late 20s. Meanwhile, says Dr. Arnett, “It pays to relax and not panic because your 21-year-old or even your 26-year-old doesn’t know what he or she is going to do. Almost nobody still has that problem at 40 or 50. We all figure it out eventually.”

    See WSJ article: Delayed Development: 20-Somethings Blame the Brain

    Not the brightest question Cameron unless you think you don’t need a prefrontal cortex to be mature.

  23. I think this will have some unpredictable consequences on marriage patterns, particularly for the Utah and Idaho educated segment of the mission population.

    If you look at men who do missions/college in 7 years. They are still juniors and seniors around 23 or 24. There is not much change in that population.

    However, men typically marry a women younger than them. As the first “double crop” of males returns the prior 19 year leavers and the new 18 year old leavers, the females 2 years younger will be experiencing higher rates of mission service resulting in a pretty sever shortage of marriageable spouses for those males. They will either defer marriage, marry older women or marry outside the population of active LDS seminary attended, college educated women. Probably some combination of the 3. The trend to later marriage is already well under way and this just extends it. So, whatever effect there will be from not “losing” males before missions may be offset by an extended period of not being married post-mission with all the possibilities for vice.

    In the short run, this should lead to good marriage prospects for the women not going on missions, followed by good prospects for recently returned female missionaries.

    In other situations, men are more likely to search outside the normal geography than to marry older women, the age difference preference is quite strong.

    This does seem to help both men and women in that the men will be motivated to make themselves more marketable as spouses and women will have an easier time finding spouses. That is how it has worked in most countries with a high male to female sex ratio – men marry later but in the same percentages, women are more likely to be married.

    There may be an adverse effect on women who don’t marry soon after their missions in that men are competing harder for the limited supply of younger women but older women may have missed the market until several years after the change.

    Interestingly also, there is some evidence females tend to be more willing to leave relationships when there are more males relative to females. This may put even more pressure on the instability of early age marriages.

    Can’t wait to watch it play out.

  24. Ronan, thanks for the link — I’d forgotten about that BCC post when I was thinking about the topic and drafting this post. If you’d like to recycle one of my posts for BCC to even the score, go right ahead.

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