Child psychologists have “discovered” that adolescence actually ends not at 18, but at 25. Once again psychologists have waved their wands and magically created a larger customer base. But maybe I’m being cynical, maybe adolescence really does end at 25. Or is it 18? Or is it 40? 35? 50? 12? 2? 93? I think the answer is yes. And no.
Let me explain.
Back in the old days, there were two types of people in the world: children and adults. You were a child and then you became an adult, and you really had no choice in the matter. The timeline of events went something like this:
Phase 1: Birth, childhood.
Phase 2: Adulthood.
Phase 3: Death.
Of course, this is just a general outline; Phase 3 could rudely interrupt Phase 1 or 2 at any time. Still, the transition from “child” to “adult” happened early and inevitably. Just look at some of the religious initiation rites that are still practiced by Christians, Jews and other faith groups. In Catholicism, the sacrament of Confirmation is usually administered between the ages of 12 and 15. Once Confirmed, you are officially a full-fledged adult member of the Church. In Judaism, 12 and 13 year olds celebrate their Bat or Bar Mitzvah; a coming of age ritual where they pass from child to accountable adult. The newly minted Jewish young adult is then given enormous sums of money from his family members, while his gentile friend looks on with envy, remembering the plastic rosary and pocket prayer book he got for his Confirmation.
Virtually every culture has its own child-into-adult initiation, and almost all of them happen significantly before the 18th birthday. In the Amazon’s Satere Mawe tribe, 12 year old boys have to don ceremonial gloves filled with bullet ants. This is pretty unique, although I’ve seen it done at a few Sweet 16’s. Some tribes in Papua New Guinea practice “bloodletting,” which is about as fun as it sounds. Young males, in order to become men, must expel the “female blood” from their bodies by shoving sharp objects up their nostrils and down their throats, right before stabbing their tongues with arrows. Don’t worry, I’m pretty sure they sterilize everything ahead of time.
We might feel fortunate that we played Pin the Tail on the Donkey during our childhood birthday parties, rather than the slightly less pleasant Stab Myself in the Mouth, but all of these customs, barbaric or not, stem from something quite rational: the need for young people to become adults at some point before the emergence of their first gray hair. In that sense, even the Mawes, with their gloves full of stinging bullet ants, have a leg up on us.
In modern Western society, we’ve delayed the onset of adulthood, instead inventing a new sort of human: the “teenager.” The teenager exists in this limbo which we’ve created; we call it “adolescence.” Adolescence is a state-of-the-art modern innovation, like crack-cocaine or chemical warfare. Take a time machine back to the early 19th century, or any century prior, and you won’t see it or hear of it. The contemporary Western adolescent would be looked at like an alien species by anyone who lived in any era prior to the late 1800’s. He is a strange and mysterious creature; he doesn’t possess the innocence or natural helplessness of the child, but he isn’t expected to assume any of the responsibilities and challenges of the adult. The adolescent can live a life that, in times past, only the children of Emperors and Pharaohs might have enjoyed. He can spend entire months — generally from June to August — aggressively engaged in doing absolutely nothing. We even had to come up with new terms to describe the primary function of the adolescent: “Hanging out,” or “chillin’.” Our ancestors — who would have considered “hangin'” to be a punitive measure for convicted murderers — took the strength and energy of youth and used it to make strong and energetic young adults. We, on the other hand, suddenly decided that a 16 year old is really nothing more than an enormous child, incapable of being helpful and useful. Rather, not expected or required to utilize their energetic nature in a valuable way, adolescents end up developing their own hobbies, such as vandalism and binge drinking.
Although physically capable of contributing to his household and his community, the adolescent is permitted, by many parents, to sit back and have all of his needs and desires met. He can be an ungrateful, resource-sucking leech, and his behavior and attitude will be shrugged off as a “natural” phase. But of course there isn’t anything natural about it. And, for many, it isn’t a phase. The damage done during this strange period of developmental regression can be permanent.
While poor and middle class mothers and fathers struggle to make ends meet, we legally prohibit their teenagers from working and helping the family financially until they reach the frivolous threshold of 16. We’re told child labor laws are meant to protect 1st graders from being enslaved by sweatshop owners, but they also “protect” high schoolers from pushing a mop at a grocery store for a few hours a week. I started working when I was 13 — mowing lawns at a competitive price — little did I know that I was the victim of oppressive “child labor.” If I had realized, I might have told my parents, and they likely would have responded by saying something like: “yeah, and why shouldn’t a child do some labor?”
We won’t even trust a grown man with a beer until he turns 21. By that age, our great-grandparents were married with kids and a few acres of property. Now, at 21, most people still depend on daddy’s financial charity, but at least they can lawfully own a 30 pack of Natural Lite.
Our new timeline looks something like this:
Phase 1: Birth, childhood.
Phase 2: Extended childhood.
Phase 3: Teenage adolescence.
Phase 4: Early twenties adolescence.
Phase 5: Late twenties adolescence.
Phase 6: Adult adolescence.
Phase 7: Adulthood.
Phase 8: Adolescence again, adulthood didn’t work out.
Phase 9: Death.
You’ll notice that death generally still comes without a warm up period, which is another solid reason to consider trimming a few of those steps, in favor of getting on with an actual life of your own while you still have that option.
I was an adolescent once, and I had a pretty bad case of it. My parents, luckily, found a cure. It took many doses of some pretty tough medicine, but my treatments were ultimately successful. So to any parents living with a child who suffers from adolescence: there is hope, there is an antidote. The antidote has four essential components:
Millions of twenty-something adults are heading into job interviews with “Key Club” and “soccer team captain” as their only entries under “Work Experience.” This should be impossible. It should be impossible to hit 25 without ever having held a job of any kind. Perhaps exceptions to that rule can be made for med students who have been utterly engrossed in their academics for their entire childhood and early adulthood, but a lot of these “kids” with no work experience have never been engrossed in anything. If you want to break someone of their adolescence, you have to put them to work.
When I was 18, I remember being stunned and shocked when I found out that many of my peers didn’t even pay their own cell phone bill. When I was 26 not much had changed, except I wasn’t shocked anymore. I can’t fathom why any parent would pay their adult child’s Verizon tab, but it’s a pretty common practice nowadays. I chipped in for my bills and expenses as a teenager (my parents could have afforded to take care of everything, however they had this crazy idea about teaching me “responsibility,” or some such nonsense) but the real life lesson came when I moved out. I remember getting all of those bills in the mail the first month — holy crap, everything costs so much money. What’s going on? I just got paid and now I have to spend almost all of it on living expenses? This is bull crap. I don’t even have enough left over for beer. I’m in hell.
Bills. I still hate them, but they are the price of adulthood.
Going without. Hardship. Hunger. I don’t think you can achieve maturity unless you run through a gauntlet of suffering to find it. Maturity — the shedding of “adolescence” — has nothing to do with your age demographic. It has everything to do with how hard you work. Someone wrote me last week to tell me about his experience as a younger man. He moved out of the house at 19 and found a job bussing tables and another one as a janitor. At 20, he had lost both. He couldn’t pay his rent so he spent the next two months living in his car while he looked for employment. He got a free trial membership at a local gym so he could use the locker room to shower before interviews. He went days without eating. Eventually he found a job, worked his way up the ladder, and now he owns a house, has three kids, and makes six figures. He’s 28 years old, so don’t tell me that it “doesn’t work that way anymore.” It works that way if you make it work that way. So many people see the time before they have a spouse and children as an opportunity to relax and party, meanwhile the ambitious ones see it as a chance to sacrifice, and to suffer, and to go hungry, and to do what is necessary, and to strive for success. The people in the former category have more fun in their twenties, but then spend the rest of their lives complaining about how things didn’t “work out.”
When my daughter is older and ready to contemplate marriage, I’m going to give her two pieces of advice: 1) Your husband should be a man of strong faith. 2) Be very wary of entering into marriage with a guy who’s never lived on his own and taken care of himself. Of course, the “live on his own” rule can be adjusted in certain cases, like for men who’ve been on active duty in the military. They weren’t on their own, but they certainly learned plenty about sacrifice, discipline, and hard work. That aside, ladies, be careful about marrying a dude who’s never spent one day entirely detached from his momma’s umbilical cord. How can he provide for his family if he hasn’t had a chance to hone the skills necessary to even take care of himself?
As long as a person lives a life devoid of these four ingredients — job, bills, sacrifice and independence — they will be an adolescent. They will exist in this limbo world between childhood and adulthood; too old to be a child, but too immature and incompetent to be an adult. Adolescence isn’t a product of brain chemistry — it’s a product of our expectations. If we expect 23 year olds to act like they’re 13, then we will get just that. For thousands of years, 13 year olds were expected to act like they’re 23, and those expectations were met. So, yes, adolescence can last until 25. It can last until 55. It can follow you right into your casket. We created it, and we can abolish it. And we can do that simply by expecting more out of people.