According to updated guidelines being given to child psychiatrists in the UK, adolescence in kids now ends at 25 – the age for adulthood is being raised from 18 to 25. To prevent young people from getting an inferiority complex.
This brings to my mind the question of what exactly is adolescence, is it a universal phenomenon or is something that arose out of the compulsions of a modern industralized society, and is increasing the age of adolescence a step in the wrong direction.
There are a couple of thought-provoking articles that I would like to point you towards. The first one, by entrepreneur Paul Graham is a long article that starts out talking about nerds, geeks, and bullying in American schools, but in the second half, as he explores the reasons behind the problems, he discusses adolescence and the role of “suburbs” and high schools in creating the previously unheard of problem of adolescence:
The first point is that adolescent students spend years in school, a very protected and non-real-life-like environment. And this is a part of the problem.
[…] the whole world we lived in was as fake as a Twinkie. Not just school, but the entire town. Why do people move to suburbia? To have kids! So no wonder it seemed boring and sterile. The whole place was a giant nursery, an artificial town created explicitly for the purpose of breeding children.
Where I grew up, it felt as if there was nowhere to go, and nothing to do. This was no accident. Suburbs are deliberately designed to exclude the outside world, because it contains things that could endanger children.
And as for the schools, they were just holding pens within this fake world. Officially the purpose of schools is to teach kids. In fact their primary purpose is to keep kids locked up in one place for a big chunk of the day so adults can get things done. And I have no problem with this: in a specialized industrial society, it would be a disaster to have kids running around loose.
Adults can’t avoid seeing that teenage kids are tormented. So why don’t they do something about it? Because they blame it on puberty. The reason kids are so unhappy, adults tell themselves, is that monstrous new chemicals, hormones, are now coursing through their bloodstream and messing up everything. There’s nothing wrong with the system; it’s just inevitable that kids will be miserable at that age.
But, this is neither inevitable, nor universal:
I’m suspicious of this theory that thirteen-year-old kids are intrinsically messed up. If it’s physiological, it should be universal. Are Mongol nomads all nihilists at thirteen? I’ve read a lot of history, and I have not seen a single reference to this supposedly universal fact before the twentieth century. Teenage apprentices in the Renaissance seem to have been cheerful and eager. They got in fights and played tricks on one another of course (Michelangelo had his nose broken by a bully), but they weren’t crazy.
As far as I can tell, the concept of the hormone-crazed teenager is coeval with suburbia. I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think teenagers are driven crazy by the life they’re made to lead. Teenage apprentices in the Renaissance were working dogs. Teenagers now are neurotic lapdogs. Their craziness is the craziness of the idle everywhere.
So, how come this problem did not exist earlier?
Teenage kids used to have a more active role in society. In pre-industrial times, they were all apprentices of one sort or another, whether in shops or on farms or even on warships. They weren’t left to create their own societies. They were junior members of adult societies.
Teenagers seem to have respected adults more then, because the adults were the visible experts in the skills they were trying to learn. Now most kids have little idea what their parents do in their distant offices, and see no connection (indeed, there is precious little) between schoolwork and the work they’ll do as adults.
And if teenagers respected adults more, adults also had more use for teenagers. After a couple years’ training, an apprentice could be a real help. Even the newest apprentice could be made to carry messages or sweep the workshop. Now adults have no immediate use for teenagers. They would be in the way in an office. So they drop them off at school on their way to work, much as they might drop the dog off at a kennel if they were going away for the weekend.
Why did this happen?
What happened? We’re up against a hard one here. The cause of this problem is the same as the cause of so many present ills: specialization. As jobs become more specialized, we have to train longer for them. Kids in pre-industrial times started working at about 14 at the latest; kids on farms, where most people lived, began far earlier. Now kids who go to college don’t start working full-time till 21 or 22. With some degrees, like MDs and PhDs, you may not finish your training till 30.
Teenagers now are useless, except as cheap labor in industries like fast food, which evolved to exploit precisely this fact. In almost any other kind of work, they’d be a net loss. But they’re also too young to be left unsupervised. Someone has to watch over them, and the most efficient way to do this is to collect them together in one place. Then a few adults can watch all of them.
While Paul Graham points to the reasons for existence of adolescence, and suggests that this is a difficult problem to solve, the second article, by Newt Gingrich former speaker of the US House of Representatives, is more direct, and says Let’s End Adolescence:
We have to end adolescence as a social experiment. We tried it. It failed. It’s time to move on. Returning to an earlier, more successful model of children rapidly assuming the roles and responsibilities of adults would yield enormous benefit to society.
Prior to the 19th century, it’s fair to say that adolescence did not exist. Instead, there was virtually universal acceptance that puberty marked the transition from childhood to young adulthood. Whether with the Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah ceremony of the Jewish faith or confirmation in the Catholic Church or any hundreds of rites of passage in societies around the planet, it was understood you were either a child or a young adult.
He makes the same point as Paul Graham – the existence of “apprenticeships” in the past effectively ensured that adolescence did not exist:
[E]arly adulthood, early responsibility, and early achievement were the norm before the institution of adolescence emerged as a system for delaying adulthood and trapping young people into wasting years of their lives. To regain those benefits, we must develop accelerated learning systems that peg the rate of academic progress to the student’s pace and ability to absorb the material, making education more efficient.
Adolescence was invented in the 19th century to enable middle-class families to keep their children out of sweatshops. But it has degenerated into a process of enforced boredom and age segregation that has produced one of the most destructive social arrangements in human history: consigning 13-year-old males to learning from 15-year-old males.
I don’t have any suggested solutions. But I believe this is an interesting point to think about. And somehow, the idea of officially increasing the age of adolescence to 25 “to prevent young people from getting an inferiority complex” just seems like a step in the wrong direction.