14 June 2009

Becoming adult

Writing for Breakpoint's Worldview Magazine, John Stonestreet explores Our Adolescent Culture. Taking as his springboard Diana West's The Death of the Grown-Up: How America’s Arrested Development Threatens Western Civilization, he suggests that, whereas adolescence as a distinct stage of development was unknown before the mid-20th century, what was originally seen as a transitional phenomenon has overtaken the entire culture such that our social and political institutions nurture a kind of permanent immaturity. Take note of Stonestreet's six marks of an adolescent culture, which seem all too evidently applicable to North America.

I have little to add to his analysis. Nevertheless, as an instructor at a post-secondary institution, I have sometimes wondered whether universities really help young people move into adulthood, or whether they inadvertently prolong adolescence beyond what is healthy for the student and the society at large. I ask this as someone who was not fully self-supporting until well beyond 18 years of age, due entirely to my pursuit of graduate studies towards a PhD.

But there's another factor. Forty years ago my own baby-boomer generation, under the cover of a radical critique of society, coined such terms as "the establishment" and "the system," and put retreads on "status quo," "capitalism," "patriarchy" and "military-industrial complex," all terms of opprobrium describing forms of society to be opposed. To be sure, there was an element of truth behind these labels, though they were too easily tossed about as means of discrediting a complex network of social patterns which such simplistic terms could never hope to capture in their entirety.

Could the use of such language have been the first signs of a society refusing to grow up? If one can blame "the system" for every personal failure, one is perhaps implicitly absolved from having to take responsibility for rectifying it. Far from empowering the young, as some would have it, such an attitude is more likely to nurture resentment and stifle initiative, the very things we expect adolescents to outgrow. Perhaps it's time, if not to abolish adolescence, at least to recover its original meaning: becoming adult!

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