One of the reasons for lowering the missionary service age to 18 for men in the UK seems to have been to prevent the “dead space” that otherwise existed between school and missions. The British education system has historically not allowed a pause in university studies. The new system allows a seemless transition from school to mission to education/career which has been attractive to some.
What it does not seem to have done is remove the problem of what I have noticed to be the general educational underachievement of young Mormon men in the UK. With no experience of higher education before the mission, some return and find the pull of work and marriage greater than the desire to go to university. The new system doesn’t really solve that problem. Perhaps an emphasis on age flexibility might help, allowing some to decide to get a degree before the mission, but I cannot see that happening as Mormon culture is going to continue to prefer missions before graduation. Thus missions remain somewhat perpendicular to higher education in the UK, especially Oxford and Cambridge who prefer their candidates at 18. Consequently, very, very few Mormon male undergraduates make it to Oxbridge and serve a mission, which is a shame.
I have made this point before so don’t wish to belabour it. More interesting is the effect on young women. I think it is wonderful that more women are probably now going to serve missions but there could be an interesting consequence, again regarding education. As it stands in the UK, LDS girls find it easier to go to university and serve missions. They leave school, take their degree, and then serve. Consequently, Mormon women here tend to be at least if not more educated than their husbands. Now they will find themselves in the same situation the boys used to be in. More are going to want to serve but they now face that same “dead space” between school and mission, space they cannot fill with college. Will they return and move on the university in the same numbers they do now? I suspect they will not.
And even in the US, a woman is going to graduate later because of these changes than she does now, with more things (missions, marriage) to interfere with her education. So, are we going to have better ecclesiastically trained women but less educated ones? This is all crystal ball stuff right now, but it’s worth thinking about. I am optimistic about this change but it really is a change, and a big one at that.
One other thing: the year between school and missions has often helped in the fundraising necessary to pay for them. A boy who goes from school to mission is going to have little time to work to raise enough money. Many 18 year old elders will be coming from homes where that isn’t a problem.
All in all, I hope we heed Elder Holland’s plea that this change only widens our options, not enforces certain mission ages as “normal”.