Abolishing adolescence

Abolishing adolescence

I’ve blogged before on the phenomenon of extended childhood embodied in the modern concept of adolescence. To recap, I think adolescence is an invention designed to keep children from growing up too soon. In previous generations a 15-year-old was an adult preparing for marriage and raising a family. Now we have 25-year-olds who don’t act very different from when they were 15.

The Glenn and Helen Show podcast recently brought up the topic Should Adolescence Be Abolished?

Are we infantilizing teens to the point that we are raising a nation of wimps? Is adolescence extended so long that people have gray hair by the time they become adults? Robert Epstein, Director Emeritus of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies in Massachusetts and author of The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen talks about these questions and more on today’s podcast. Epstein’s new book argues that adolescence is an artificial and unnecessary part of life that people are better off without. Find out how your teen’s exposure to school and Western media may be setting him or her up for incompetence, poor judgement and social-emotional turmoil. What can you do about it? Read the book or listen to the podcast to find out. Or go take Dr. Epstein’s competency test to find out how adult your teen is (or how adult you are) at www.howadultareyou.com or visit his website at drrobertepstein.com.

I haven’t listened to it yet, but plan on it.

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  • I do think the concept of “adolescence” is a marketing/consumer concept, particularly in the postwar (WW2, that is, The Big One) First World where keeping more people into high school and increasing numbers of people into college helped both consumption and manage unemployment – these where lessons learned from the aftermath of WW1.

    That said, we would be mistaken to think of European forebears commonly marrying in their mid-teens. It was more true if their families were of means, even more if of gentle or especially noble or princely birth. But for the poor and the yeomen peasantry, marrying times were often not so far from what we currently have today, especially in times of dearth. When I was going through birth/marriage registers of the 19th century for my family in Ireland (well, post Emancipation, that is, since Catholics were basically non-persons for registry purposes before Emancipation except for the upper class Catholics who had private chapels), for example, the decades-long dominant pattern was for women to marry in their mid-20s and men around 30 or even later – and *lots* of men *never* married. The idea was hold off on marriage until you had a place and means to live and raise a family; otherwise, you held off as long as possible. My grandmother (and her younger sister in turn years later) fled the most destitute county in Ireland (any guesses? it’s not one most people know) a hundred years ago because they were being faced with arranged marriages to older men of means who could help them take care of their parents; none of their three brothers ever married, and they had *plenty* of company in this regard.  (This was one reason there were lots of people who entered the religious life and priesthood, which is not nearly as attractive today as an alternative than it was then.) Other than the distorted sense of what the basic means of living and raising a family, of course, it’s not so different in principle today.

    A big pastoral problem for Catholics is that the Church still hasn’t developed a full sense of what a single, unvowed adult is called to be as a state of life, except mostly negatively. There have been some efforts to fill in the gap, but it’s still an open problem as a pastoral matter. And we should not be surprised when people then seek other things (material and otherwise) to fill that gap; that doesn’t make it right, but it should not be neglected, either.

  • Married or not, the typical 15-year-old was an adult and acted like it. My pastor tells me about going to his family’s home in Ireland in the 1970s and seeing the teenage boys participating in adult group conversations on an equal footing. (Ireland, incidentally, is somewhat unique in the bachelor/old maid category, mostly due to the aversion to breaking family farms into every smaller plots, but that’s getting too far off topic.)

    Marriage does not necessarily equal adulthood.

    As for marrying age, yes, folks put off marriage in the past until you had the means to take care of a family and that’s the same reason you often hear today. There’s just a very different idea of what minimum means is.

    As for your first point, I agree that post-WWI that was the plan, but it had the side-effect of infantilizing that age group.

  • Dom

    Actually, the patterns in Ireland were also common in many other rural parts of Europe (the urban dynamic shifted, especially with industrialization). It was not unique to Ireland by any means. Otherwise, I don’t think we disagree that much on this.

  • Liam, I’m sure I’m probably wrong, but I know that the some of the hardest hit counties are those that were the most Gaelic (where the people maintained the Irish language and culture) because the land was poor, and the Brits didn’t really want it. I shall pick Donegal—my personal favorite of Ireland, and the home of some of my ancestors. Others came from Roscommon and Galway. My other guess might be Sligo?

  • Liam –

    I am going to say Mayo.  Mostly because my ancestors were starved out of there and I was raised to always respond to any reference to county Mayo with “God help us!”

  • Regarding “infantilizing teens”, that concept is somewhat alive and well in MA.  When the MA legislature was tweaking the process by which teenagers got drivers’ licenses, they wanted to raise the driving age to 17 1/2!  Luckily they were met with a lot of resistance.

  • I think there are two different questions to be addressed:  those growing up at a later age, and those refusing to grow up.  My grandmother (born 1900) and I led similar lives in some ways.  We both finished school (she finished 8th grade and I graduated from college), established careers (she as a hired girl, to be promoted to farmer’s wife upon marriage, and me as a paralegal)and then got married.  She married at a much younger age than I di, but those extra eight years of school were the difference, and while working on a farm as a hired girl provided her with training needed for her long-term career goal, a a career goal that was very economically viable in her day, for me to start working after eighth grade would not only have been illegal, it would have deprived me of the chance at an economically viable career.

    On the other hand, we clearly have a society that worships youth.  People don’t want to “settle down”, children are seen as impediments to freedom rather than an integral part of life.  Young adults cannot afford the standard of living of their parents so are remaining in the nest, and instead of saving money to move out, are spending it on toys and vacations.  Colleges report problems with “helicopter parents” whose kids still expect them to intervene in every problem—a task made easier by today’s favorite leash, the cell phone.

  • That’s kind of the point: Our society is set up right now such that it is illegal, if not impossible, for you to do anything but remain a child long past the time your grandmother did. Have you ever seen the eighth-grade graduation test from 1900 that’s been floating around the Net? Essentially, most college grads would have a hard time passing it.

    Our society has changed fundamentally such that this extended childhood is almost impossible to avoid.

  • The word “teen” or “teenager” first appeared in usage in the 1930s, I believe. As the first commenter noted, the word was invented as a marketing ploy, the first effort to segment the “youth” market as a distinct group toward which advertising could be directed.  Now there are advertising campaigns backed by TV shows and reportial media (the Godless) aiming at subteens, preteens, or whatever. Segmentation of segments.

    It’s as simple as that. Selling stuff to these young people is a trillion-dollar enterprise. It enrolls public schools, and most colleges and universities, as well as producers of stuff, in the serious work of separating young people from their money. Writing books bemoaning “extended adolescence” is just another way to cash in.

    The best antidote is to remove internet access/computers and TVs from the home while children are present, and then monitor their outside-the-home whereabouts.

  • Liam, I’m pretty sure I win at least a moral victory—Leitrim being right between Donegal and Sligo. So I win a prize??No??—Oh, well, I’m surprised that people don’t know of Leitrim. Live and learn, I guess. Sorry I can’t write the name of my ancestors from the West—it translates to Curley (also Terry, and I think Curry). The actual Gaelic is something like Mac Thoirdealbhaigh—I think. Oh, and to stay on topic, my father, grandson of the immigrants, was very much an adult at 16—didn’t marry until 37 or 38 (after serving in WWII at 31-33, I think). God rest his saintly soul. (yeah, he didn’t marry a youngster, either. Mum was about 32-33.)