The Death of the Grown-Up

Before the 1940’s, the term teenager was unknown; before this period humans tended to fall intoonly two groups—children and adults. Exactly when a child transitioned to adult could vary, but what was clear was that there was no intermediate period. Furthermore, children, or those in their teen years, would seek to identify with adult culture—they would seek to behave like adults, to dress like adults, and to be taken seriously like adults. Today the tables have turned. “That was then. These days, of course, father and son dress more or less alike, from message-emblazoned t-shirts to chunky athletic shoes, both equally at ease in the baggy rumple of eternal summer camp. In the mature male, these trappings of adolescence have become more than a matter of comfort or style; they reveal a state of mind, a reflection of a personality that hasn’t fully developed, and doesn’t want to – or worse, doesn’t know how.”

It is teenagers who are respected and teenagers who are envied. Adults now seek to recapture youth and to return to their teen years. They dress like teens, think like teens and increasingly act like teens. This intermediate period between childhood and adulthood, this recent development, is being continually extended. Some organizations today go so far as to suggest that adolescence continues until age thirty. Some go further and suggest thirty-four. Thus a thirty-three year old man or woman should not truly be considered an adult. Any other generation would laugh at the mere suggestion.

After the idea of adolescence became popular, it took only a generation before popular culture, and particularly the medium of television, began to portray age as “square” and youth as “hip.” The dignity of age was replaced with disgust. Where children used to orbit around their parents, today the opposite is true. Parents orbit around their children, “abdicating their rights and privileges by deferring to the convenience and entertainment of the young.” No wonder, then, that people wish to avoid adulthood.

There are consequences to our disregard for maturity. “Even as age has been eliminated from the aging process, they have a hunch that society has stamped out more than gray hair, smile lines, and cellulite. What has also disappeared is an appreciation for what goes along with maturity: forbearance and honor, patience and responsibility, perspective and wisdom, sobriety, decorum, and manners—and the wisdom to know what is ‘appropriate,’ and when.

Tim Challies, reviewing Diana West’s book, The Death of the Grown-Up: How America’s Arrested Development is Bringing Down Western Civilization (St. Martin’s Press, 2007)

Note: While I don’t agree with every detail of West’s book, her basic argument seems to be a strong one.

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