Does Adolescence Make Sense?
Serving as a transitional period between childhood and adulthood, adolescence is an integral stage in the human growth process. It is both a period of physical metamorphosis and of identity formation. However, sociologists have begun to place "emphasis on adolescence as a problematic stage in modern society" (4). In fact, some scientists have even asserted that adolescence has become obsolete. Today, it is undeniable that, if current trends continue, the prolongation of adolescence and postponement of adulthood will have increasingly detrimental effects on both youths and society (6). Nevertheless, history and biology have proven that when regarded as a period of physiological and intellectual maturation, adolescence makes sense.
In all societies, adolescence is characterized by a biological constant and is then conditioned by a series of social variables (2). The biological constant is puberty. For girls puberty coincides with menarche and the development of secondary sex characteristics. For boys, puberty begins later and, though cultural interpretations are often ambiguous, it is typically marked by a voice change and the appearance of secondary sex characteristics.
As they undergo puberty and as physical maturation becomes evident, adolescents are often alienated by their communities. They can no longer assimilate with younger children, but are also not yet operating as adults (1). During this period of extrusion, adolescents are expected to begin establishing a sense of identity and independence. A similar developmental stage has been observed in sexually mature, but unmated, primates including chimpanzees and baboons. Alienated from the rest of the group, these young apes are kept at a spatial and social distance until they are considered mature (1).
Since a period of adolescence is apparent in other species, it can be reasonably assumed that adolescence-as a developmental phase has primitive biological origins. In fact, studies show that "as the animal scale is ascended," the duration of adolescence becomes longer (6). This progressive extension of the "period of helplessness and dependence" is necessary because it gives "complex individuals time to become competent to exercise increased control over themselves and their own environment" (6). In fact, humans experience the longest and most formative period of adolescence. Yet, they have also artificially extended its duration.
Until recently, it had been assumed that adolescence was a product of 20th century urbanization. In reality, though, problematic adolescence was the result of urbanization. During the 19th and 20th centuries the industrial revolution stimulated mass movements from rural areas to large cities. Because children were no longer being raised in insular communities and were instead being exposed to a stratum of diverse families and social groups, the period of social adolescence became more complicated. The diversity introduced by urban societies began to offer youths many new and different influences in terms of career and lifestyle choices and as a result, adolescents required more time to explore their options (3). In addition, the movement toward industrialization and urbanization of the last century, caused an unhealthy tendency to postpone adulthood (2).
The trend of postponing adulthood became particularly apparent in the 1920s. During the Great Depression, "unemployment, the extension of education, and the decline of the family-based farm began to create a social class of people who were neither children nor adults. As such, these people enjoyed a lengthy period of semi-autonomy" (4). This emergence of a new "social class of people", prompted sociologists to begin observing adolescents more closely. In 1941, a scholar observed that "when, as in the past decade, half or more of the persons who have reached or passed the supposed terminal age of adolescence are not able to act as adults, we are suddenly overwhelmed and confused" (6). In other words, the emergence of the prolonged adolescence was sudden and startling. Proposed solutions included employing children in part-time jobs. Although, naturally, no one was suggesting reintroducing the dangerous factory labour of the industrial revolution, part-time jobs would still have allowed youths to attain a sense of responsibility and social skills (1). Other suggestions included modifying the school system to provide better social training and better insulating the family unit.
When the Cold War was at its peak, so too were the commentaries on youth maladjustment. Political and cultural variables were begun to be considered as factors that contributed to the problems of modern adolescents. For instance, a comparison of the educational systems showed that the former Soviet Union system stressed that school be made a central component of the political and economic structure and that youth be given a "productive role" (5). As a result, adolescents from the former USSR were observed to be compliant and well behaved. In contrast, the problems of misbehaviour among American youths were "patriotically" dismissed as the price that had to be paid for freedom and an "extremely individualistic, dynamic social order" (5). The fact that sociologists were drawing these cultural comparisons suggested that problematic adolescents were still attracting attention and solutions were still being sought more than ever.
In recent decades adolescence has become one of modern society's most widely accepted assumptions about the process of human development. In fact, adolescence has come to be viewed as a period of entitlement during which individuals have a licence to renounce responsibility and to remain self-indulgent. Moreover, the gradually lengthened duration of adolescence has been identified by sociologists and psychologists as the prime cause of juvenile delinquency and other socio-interactive disorders (2). Because teenagers are finding themselves with so much spare time on their hands and little responsibility, many occupy the time by misbehaving or engaging in criminal activities. Whether or not these criminal activities are ways of proving independence to their parents or are impulses triggered by hormonal imbalances, they indicate a lack of responsibility. Often, these social infractions are tolerated and rarely castigated, as the contemporary impression of adolescent behaviour oscillates between viewing it as either childishly immature or sensibly adult-like. As such, adolescents are excused as 'impressionable' when they misbehave but praised as adults when they perform well.
Interestingly, problematic adolescents are distinctly modern and uniquely present only in industrialized societies. In fact, studies of pre-industrial cultures have revealed that adolescents begin to imitate adult activities and to acquire certain degrees of responsibility early on (1). By comparison, the current trend of postponing adulthood has created a unique class of maladjusted young adults and delinquent adolescence.
Western cultures fail to realise that adolescence as a social stage is purely a response to internal biological change (1). If the developmental and nurturing functions of adolescence are to be restored, then contemporary Western societies must first accept adolescence for what it is: a biological process. Then, adolescence ought to be defined as a social phenomenon. Psychologists are still vague when discussing what adolescent behaviours are appropriate. More importantly, adolescents ought to be encouraged to assume responsibilities either through work, volunteering, or other initiatives. While the search for identity and independence is a component of adolescence, so too is establishing social skills. By becoming more productive, adolescents will be able to assume adult responsibilities with less hesitation. Moreover, they will know precisely when it is that adolescence has successfully reached a point of termination and adulthood has begun.
1. Schlegel, Alice. "A Cross-Cultural Approach to Adolescence." Ethos. Vol. 23 No. 1, Adolescence. (March 1995), pp. 15-32.
2. Havighurst, Robert J. "Adolescence and the Postponement of Adulthood." The School Review. Vol. 68, No. 1. (Spring, 1960), pp. 52-62.
3. Demos, Virginia & John. "Adolescence in Historical Perspective." Journal of Marriage and the Family. Vol. 31, No. 4 (Nov. 1969), pp. 632-38.
4. Furstenberg, Frank F. "The Sociology of Adolescence and Youth in the 1990s: A Critical Commentary." Journal of Marriage and the Family. Vol. 62, No 4,(Nov. 2000), pp. 896-910.
5. Davis, Kingsley. "Adolescence and the Social Structure." Annals of the Academy of Political and Social Science. Vol. 236, Adolescents in Wartime, (Nov. 1944) pp. 8-16.
6. Cline, E.C. "Social Implications of Modern Adolescent Problems." The School Review. Vol. 49, No. 7 (Sept. 1941), pp. 511-514.