An interesting article by Newt Gingrich appears in Businessweek. In it, Gingrich says that it’s time to put an end to the social institution of adolescence. It’s a concept worthy of consideration and debate, but because Gingrich is a polarizing political figure, my hunch is that the message will be largely ignored due to the voice of the messenger.
Even if our society reached a consensus that adolescence should be ended, I’m not sure it could really be achieved. I don’t believe there exists a majority of parents today who want their kids to grow up faster, or take on adult responsibilities sooner. There’s nothing sinister to this. Today’s parents grew up within the social institution of adolescence and there’s nothing unusual about their desire to allow their own kids to have a similar experience.
Further, there are powerful economic forces at work. The “youth” market is a 200 billion-dollar annual behemoth. I can’t imagine that companies would willingly walk away from the youth cash cow.
But, the question is worth consideration: Is Gingrich right?
Has adolescence, at least in recent decades, been a transition time from childhood to adulthood? Or rather, has it served to simply prolong childhood? Just in the past week, I’ve posted two items that seem to indicate adolescence is more of the latter rather than the former.
First, there was a marketing report that promoted a redefinition of the “youth” market to include 25-34 year-olds. What was notable was marketers own definition of “youth”: "Contemporary youth should now be defined as 'the absence of functional and/or emotional maturity,' reflecting the fact that accepting traditional responsibilities such as mortgages, children and developing a strong sense of self-identity/perspective is occurring later and later in life." Is a culture that creates the climate where adolescent 34-year-olds exist, a good thing?
Secondly, there was a report on college-age students who feel a sense of entitlement on receiving high grades in return for modest effort including consistent attendance in classes and simply reading course texts. These students appear to consider educational institutions as service providers that exist to serve their roles as consumers.
To me, these items do indicate problems with the cultural phenomenon of prolonging adolescence and gives merit to at least giving due consideration to Gingrich’s call to end adolescence as we now know it.
It's time to declare the end of adolescence. As a social institution, it's been a failure. The proof is all around us: 19% of eighth graders, 36% of tenth graders, and 47% of twelfth graders say they have used illegal drugs, according to a study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the University of Michigan. One of every four girls has a sexually transmitted disease, suggests a recent study for the Centers for Disease Control. A methamphetamine epidemic among the young is destroying lives, families, and communities. And American students are learning at a frighteningly slower rate than Chinese and Indian students.
The solution is dramatic and unavoidable: 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.
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.
It's time to change this—to shift to serious work, learning, and responsibility at age 13 instead of age 30. In other words, replace adolescence with young adulthood.