Is Adolescence Even Real?

At First Thoughts, we contemplate the nature of adolescence.

A couple thoughts, then I need to earn a living:

– When we think of the great wave of pioneers that pushed ever westward, accepting the dangers and challenges of clearing land, building a house, running a farm and being totally responsible for themselves and their families, it’s good to remember that a good portion of those people would now be classified as adolescents. And need a permission slip to step off campus.

– Alexander the Great had assumed control of a nation and army, suppressed rebellion among the allies, and prepared an army for the invasion of Persia – before he was 20.

– Julius Caesar organized a strike force to retaliate against a bunch of pirates who had kidnapped him and held him for ransom, and had the pirates hanged – when he was 15.

– David Farragut fought in his first battle at sea against three British ships off South America. During this battle, he was drenched in the blood of fallen shipmate, whose corpse knocked him down the ladder into the hold. After the battle, he was put in command of one of the captured British ships, which he ably piloted back to America.  He was 12.

And so on. More mundanely, farm kids – at least prior to the advent of industrial ‘fencepost to fencepost’ farming – were routinely given serious, productive responsibilities when still single digits years old.

We’ve killed all this. In its place, we have 35 year old graduate students who can barely wipe their own noses.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

9 thoughts on “Is Adolescence Even Real?”

  1. Adolescence or youth as we know it is indeed an invention of the 20th century. There is good historical literature about this, and about how the concept of child labor, the experience of poverty and hardship between the two world wars, and liberal responses to those things, created the category of “youth” which was thought of as a transition stage. It’s not coincidental that adolescence emerges alongside consumerism and vastly expanded access to education.

    Falling in love, getting married, and starting a family was the way adolescence ended. We know what’s happened there.

    I worry now about the “Young Adult” stuff. On the one hand it’s an accurate label to describe the particular challenges of an age group in modern America. On the other, at what point does one get to stop being part of a special demographic and just starting being a normal adult?

    I look around my peers and see a kind of anxiety/fetishization around “adulthood” — people who either reject the whole concept, people who fret that they don’t feel like a real adult, people confused and startled by moments when they do feel like adults. It’s clear that a lot of Young Adults are wondering whether adulthood is real.

    It’s tough to be part of the problem and yet at the same time know that one has been trying to resist ending up that way for the last 10+ years. But the crisis of adulthood (if I can call it that) is a very real problem and, I think, something in the culture that if changed could have a huge knock-on effect.

    1. Very good points. Thanks for commenting.

      My fear is that kids around the age 12 or 13 or so NEED responsibility and trust in order to properly grow – that such responsibility is a stimulus required by our souls in order to trigger the development of adult-level behavior. If we delay and delay and delay putting any real responsibility on kids until they’re out of high school, college, grad school and so on, we may have simply missed the window during which we are to mature.

      I hope this isn’t true – but the evidence in the world at large sure supports it.

      I, too, labor under perpetual immaturity, even though I am married, have kids and hold a job. Every day I do stuff (or don’t do stuff) that a mature man would not do (or do). So, is it that my accepting of responsibility was delayed too long, or is it just the sickness unto death of all fallen people? How could one tell?

    2. I agree… at 24, I’ve graduated college and gotten married, and we’re expecting our first child any day now. Looking around myself at other “young” “adults”–grad and undergrad students, twenty-somethings working lousy part-time jobs, people I want to call “kids” who are more interested in who’s dating whom than in whether they can pay rent–has thrown the fantasy of “adolescence” and especially “young adulthood” into sharp relief.

      It’s jarring to think that these people are the same age as I am and are spending all their money on beer even though they can hardly hold down a job, yet once I would have been called an “old maid” for not marrying until I was over 20!

      1. Wonderful story, and good luck with the baby! Babies are the best thing in the world – and more work and worry than you would have thought possible (we had 5). But so, so good!

        My kids have been given a lot of trust and responsibility, and spared traditional schooling, and therefor are very comfortable and competent in a wide range of social situations among people of all ages – but ‘poorly socialized’ when stuck in groups of their traditionally-educated peers. When it has been inescapable – like having to take 1st communion or confirmation classes down at the parish – it has gotten old and trying pretty fast for them.

        The marriage thing is coming up soon – oldest is a 19 year old junior in college, with two more teen right behind her. So I’ll have to report back on that aspect in a few years.

  2. First comment here so forgive my lack of knowledge of comment policy.
    The first sentence of the first comment is not true. This is NOT a 20th century item.
    Indeed, the ancient Druids studied adolescence, mist, mistletoe and a host of categories like these items intentionally!

    Mistletoe is not tree nor bush.
    Mist is not water or air.
    Adolescence is not child or adult.

    These things are all BOTH!
    The Druids believed that by closely examining every aspect of these categories (and more) that it would then be possible to glimpse into two completely different worlds simultaneously. Very few opportunities allow us to do this.
    Embrace your adolescent or any adolescent and do as a Druid….. peer into two worlds at the same time. There is a lot to be learned in pondering these items, groups, things, that cannot be learned by glimpsing in one world.

    Blessings to all especially adolescent among us.

  3. Our contemporary lack of a theology of work has a lot to do with this sad state of affairs. The exploitation of children, which the child labor laws rightly addressed, is one thing – the idea that work itself is an evil from which our “children” must be shielded is another thing entirely….

    I see our daughters are the same age! I do hope yours is enjoying her university education as much as mine is!

  4. I think we need to remember that while adolescence was an invented “phase” of development, especially from an anthropological sense, culture affects development. In other words, if you live in a culture where it’s expected that your maturity is delayed well into your 20’s, your development will be a reflection of that.

    We also need to remember that we cannot compare apples to apples if we say “Alexander the Great did this and that before age 20” when the life expectancy was much shorter compared to now. No, I am not saying we cannot reasonably expect a good level of maturity for people in their late teens and early 20’s. People will still delay certain things to an extent– marriage, childbirth, etc. It’s not the norm for 16-year-olds to get married, but it’s not absurd to think someone between the ages of 18-22 could get married.

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