When I was growing up, it was legal for 18 year olds to drink alcohol, but you had to be 21 to vote. Now, in a triumph of social engineering, it is legal for 18 year olds to vote, but you have to be 21 to drink. It took years of debate involving many layers of government to achieve these changes. Why was so much effort necessary to produce this result?

Here is another example. I’ve seen the following educational variations over time: eight years of elementary school plus four of high school; six years of elementary plus three of junior high plus three of high school; and five years of elementary plus three of middle school plus four of high school. What is going on here? What is the problem for which these are solutions? Or, more specifically, why does each solution seem to fail, and necessitate a different educational policy?

To me, the reason for so much bureaucratic wheel-spinning seems obvious: adolescence.

Biologically, adolescence can be seen as a later version of the “Terrible Twos.” Two year olds are mobile, but they have neither the brain development nor experience of the world to know not to run into the street. In a similar way, adolescents have the physical strength and sexual development of adults, but lack the brain development and experience of the world to avoid a variety of dangerous behaviors.

Socially, in traditional societies, puberty often coincides with a transition from childhood to adulthood; and usually there are specific ceremonial events that mark that transition. We see vestiges of this past in events like bar mitzvahs or sweet sixteen parties (fifteen in Latin America); but everyone knows that participants are no more considered to be adults after the event than they were before it.

In the United States and other Western countries today, it is unclear when a person actually becomes an adult. Is it on graduation from high school? From college? On leaving the parental home to live independently? On becoming economically self-supporting? On getting married? Having children?

One thing is clear: the link has been broken between the biological changes of puberty and the social status of an adult.

Technological innovations and economic globalization are creating rapid change and increasing social complexity, so that individuals need to acquire more knowledge and cognitive abilities and new social skills in order to function effectively as adults. Perhaps in response to these changes and because we have been living longer, the socially ambiguous period of adolescence—between childhood and adulthood—has also been increasing in length.

Psychologists have recognized this change. Courses and textbooks that used to be called Psychology of Adolescence are now called Psychology of Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood.

While adolescence used to be viewed as ending by the late teens, the new period is seen as extending to the mid-twenties. Many students who graduate from college return home to live with their parents—often for economic reasons; previously they would have gone off to live on their own. And over the half century from 1960 to 2010 the median age at first marriage has increased from 22.8 to 28.2 for men and from 20.3 to 26.1 for women.

As the period in developed countries between biological maturity and social maturity expands, the predicament adolescence poses to society increases correspondingly. Over time, we can expect new forms of social dislocation—for example, in family structure and the job market. Already, the number of years of education required for entry into the job market is expanding; and the Affordable Care Act allows individuals to remain on their parents’ medical insurance until they are 26. In the future, we can expect additional innovations in government policies aimed at coping with the increasing length of adolescence, or at least creating the appearance of doing so.

Image source:

Six Teenagers Posing for a Picture (Drossignol10)--Wikimedia Commons

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SixTeenagers.jpg

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