Four reasons why growing up is hard to do

A recent Beagle Street study has revealed that despite being labelled an adult at 18, the average Briton doesn’t feel like a grown until they reach the age of 29. While particular life stages like buying a home, getting married or becoming a parent make us feel more grown-up, Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent Dr Frank Furedi explains why so many people are delaying becoming an adult…

One of the most remarkable developments in recent decades has been the constant expansion of the stage of adolescence. Psychologists and sociologist may disagree whether the stage of adulthood has been deferred to age 25 or 29 or even the early thirties but they all agree that the phase of adolescence has significantly expanded during recent decades. Terms like kidults, the Peter Pan Generation, adolescent serve as testimony to the reluctance of many young people to make the transition to adulthood.

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Since the early 1990s the reluctance of sections of young people to embark on the transition to adulthood is often diagnosed as a symptom of the economic difficulties they face. It is frequently claimed that job insecurity, the rise in the cost of housing and lack of opportunities has made it difficult for young people to assume the responsibilities usually associated with adulthood. Yet in previous times far greater economic difficulties– during the Great Depression of the 1930s or during the crisis in the 1970s – young people demonstrated a manifest aspiration to grow up and assume the responsibilities of an adult.

No doubt men and women in their early twenties face a difficult economic climate. But it is not economic but cultural attitudes that help account for young people’s estrangement from adulthood. Below we outline the main reasons for this development.

The devaluation of adulthood

Our research suggests that adulthood has been dispossessed of its moral status and that the cultural affirmation for this phase of people’s lives has significantly diminished. The consequent devaluation of adult authority has had important implications for the way that grown-ups have come to perceive themselves. Since the late 1970s a significant section of grown-ups have become confused about their own responsibility for the giving of guidance and direction to the younger generations. The disassociation of adulthood from responsibility for the younger generations was paralleled by a loss of clarity about what is distinctive about this stage in the life.-cycle. One unexpected outcome of the devaluation of adult authority is that the very meaning of adulthood has been called into question.

The erosion of the moral status of adulthood has dispossessed this phase of people’s lives of cultural affirmation. The historic aspiration to grow-up and gain the positive attributes associated with maturity has given way to attitudes that are deeply ambivalent if not estranged from adulthood. Books with titles like Arrested Adulthood and Slouching Towards Adulthood or Failed Attempt at Adulthood speak to a readership that intuits that something is not quite right in the world of adults. Frequently bewilderment about the moral status of adulthood has mutated into an out-right condemnation of the older generation. The theme of ‘adults have ruined the world’ is a message that is frequently communicated by educationalists and the media. Instead of serving as role models, grown-ups are often castigated as setting a bad example for children. In such circumstances the model of an adult may lack cultural appeal for young people.

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Confusion about the status of adulthood

The depreciation of adulthood is a result of the difficulty that our culture has in asserting the ideals usually associated with this stage in people’s lives. Maturity, responsibility and commitment are only feebly affirmed by contemporary culture. Such ideals contradict the sense of impermanence that prevails over daily life. It is the gradual emptying out of adult identity that discourages young men and women from embracing the next stage of their lives.

In the current circumstances even adult are often confused about their role and responsibilities. Adult identity has become relatively insecure to the point that even people in their 30s and 40s often express the view that they are ‘passed it’. Instead of influencing the cultural and social attitudes of the younger generations many look to the ideals of youth culture for direction. Confusion about the role and status of adulthood has led to the erosion of the traditional cultural distinction between the different stages in the life-cycle. The stigmatisation of adult behaviour and attitudes is paralleled by a tendency to flatter children and young people on the ground that their values are more enlightened because they are more up-to-date than those of their elders. Immaturity or non-maturity is idealised for the very simple reason that we despair at the thought of living the alternative.

The celebration of immaturity is continually affirmed by popular culture

The celebration of adolescence stands in sharp contrast to the way that adults are represented. In recent years, television has introduced a new breed of dysfunctional and immature adults who require counselling from teenagers. Films and cartoons like the Simpsons frequently depict adults as clumsy and insensitive individuals who serve as objects of ridicule to young people. The pathology of adulthood –dysfunctional relationships and marriages, poor parenting practices, the permanent mid-life-crisis – are regular themes that are constantly promoted in popular culture.

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In effect popular culture is rarely able to give a positive account of growing-up and provide a model of authoritative adult behaviour. This marginalisation of adult identity means that in effect almost all of popular culture has become youth culture. That is why, while disorientation and meaninglessness are frequently represented as the defining features of adulthood, the life of children and young people is depicted in a much more positive manner.

The reorganisation of social life around the ideal of extended if not perpetual adolescence

Ambiguous cultural attitudes toward growing-up have influenced the way that young people make decisions about embracing long-term relations, permanent political, social, career and financial commitments. The growth of the proportion of men and women in their twenties living at home is one symptom of this development. The increase in the number of singleton is often correlated with a reluctance to adopt long-term and permanent obligations. Social life has become reorganised around the tendency to live in the present. Living in the present and avoiding maturity is encouraged by a veritable industry servicing the kidult community.

In the current circumstances growing up is hard to accomplish. The problem lies not with young people, many of whom aspire to strike out, take risks and gain maturity. The real problem is that in the current circumstance prevailing cultural attitudes complicate the challenging journey to adulthood. Providing a positive cultural affirmation for growing-up is an integral part of preparing society to face the challenges thrown up by the future.

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