Chapter 2: Before Identity Crisis Was Given a Name

On 4 August 2020, The New York Times reported on the case of BethAnn McLaughlin, who in a statement acknowledged that through her Twitter account, ‘MeTooSTEM’, she had invented the false persona of a female Native American anthropologist at Arizona State University. @Sciencing_Bi was portrayed as a Hopi anthropologist, who was allegedly the victim of sexual harassment by a Harvard professor. The announcement of the death of this non-existent person due to COVID-19 complications prompted widespread expressions of grief, including a memorial service organised on Zoom.95 Numerous individuals who identified with the victim identity of the fictitious @Sciencing_Bi were no doubt pained by this act of deception. They were forced to confront the fact that in the 21st century, identity is not always what it seems.

In a world where identity has become so important, it often serves as a medium through which people make a statement about themselves.

Today we have become accustomed to the existence of ‘pretendians’, that is, people who pretend to be who they are not. Given the cultural valuation attached to the identity of a victim, it is not surprising that in the United States there have been numerous examples of white people embracing a black or a Native American identity. During her campaign for nomination to be the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in 2019, Senator Elizabeth Warren faced criticism for her assertion that her DNA allowed her to claim Native American heritage. As one member of the Cherokee Nation complained about ‘“pretendians,” or people pretending or claiming to be Native’:

Pretendians perpetuate the myth that Native identity is determined by the individual, not the tribe or community, directly undermining tribal sovereignty and Native self-determination. To protect the rights of Indigenous people, pretendians … must be challenged and the retelling of their false narratives must be stopped.96

Would-be pretendians are unequivocally warned to Keep Out! All access to Native American identity is denied. Evidently, identity has become a site of conflict and of competitive claims making.

Competing claims about identity and who has the right to identify themselves as members of a particular group suggest that these disputes are intertwined with a cultural and psychological condition that is frequently diagnosed as an identity crisis. This condition is frequently alluded to by pretendians, whose personal narratives have been exposed as false. Just listen to the words of Jessica Krug, a white history professor at George Washington University who admitted to claiming a black identity. In her confession to a blog post on the Medium website she acknowledges that she has been a serial pretendian. She wrote that

To an escalating degree over my adult life, I have eschewed my lived experience as a white Jewish child in suburban Kansas City under various assumed identities within a Blackness that I had no right to claim: first North African Blackness, then US rooted Blackness, then Caribbean rooted Bronx Blackness.97

Jessica Krug, a serial consumer of different black identities, wrote that her actions were an outcome of her mental health issues.

In a world where psychological determinism is used to explain people’s behaviour and action, it is not surprising that Krug blamed her embrace of a black identity on her childhood trauma. She wrote;

Mental health issues likely explain why I assumed a false identity initially, as a youth, and why I continued and developed it for so long; the mental health professionals from whom I have been so belatedly seeking help assure me that this is a common response to some of the severe trauma that marked my early childhood and teen years.98

So long as people are estranged from who they are, it is unlikely that pretensions to an idealised identity will cease. At a time when it has become socially acceptable for a biologically born man to identify himself as a woman and a biologically born woman to adopt the identity of a man, dramatic shifts in the presentation of the self are the new normal.

The estrangement from one’s self, which often leads to a quest for a (new) identity, is in historic terms a relatively recent development. It is in literature that we first encounter people who seek to reinvent themselves through the adoption of a new persona. Miguel de Cervates’ novel Don Quixote (1605) portrayed the first encounter with the dramatic act of reinvention. In this, the first modern novel, Alonso Quixana is disenchanted with his unremarkable role of a Spanish country gentleman. In his fantasy, he is someone else and he identifies with the role of an honourable and dignified knight and adopts the name of Don Quixote.

Not unlike a 21st century pretendian, Don Quixote self-consciously reinvents his identity, assumes the manner of a chivalrous knight and sets forth on a life of adventure. Today, we diagnose men like Don Quixote, who embark on a dramatic quest for meaning, as suffering from a mid-life identity crisis but back in the early 17th century, before the emergence of the discipline of psychology, there was no name for identity-related afflictions.

Finding one’s place

The attempt to find one’s place in the world, which drove Don Quixote to madness, was a challenge faced by a significant cohort of young people in the 18th century. A new modern world appeared to put into question many of the prevailing norms and conventions that gave meaning to human experience. This quest for meaning – particularly for young people − acquired its most vivid expression in the new genre of the romantic novel.

Anxieties about changing values and behaviour and finding one’s place in the world were most clearly and imaginatively expressed through literature, particularly through the genre of the novel. During the 17th and 18th centuries the intensity with which these problems were brought to life by literature, itself became a matter of concern. Don Quixote himself served as an early illustration of the risks associated with reading. According to Cervantes, Don Quixote was an obsessive reader, who ‘whenever he was at leisure (which was mostly all year round) gave himself up to reading books of chivalry’ to the neglect of other activities. Consequently, his reading overwhelmed his imagination to the point that he lost the ability to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction.

With the development of a mass reading public in the 18th century, numerous readers found the reality portrayed in novels more directly relevant to their selves than that which they encountered in their normal everyday existence. It is in the 18th century that the troubles surrounding the realisation of the self came to be openly recognised and discussed. It was principally through the new genre of the novel that the theme of tension between the aspiration for self-realisation and the social and cultural obstacles to it became a focus for discussion. Reading allowed individuals to develop thoughts in accordance with their own personal circumstances and inclinations, which sometimes did not conform to official sentiment – creating tension between the authority of the self and the prevailing moral order.

Romantic novels in particular included frustrated characters who felt that their life was thwarted by onerous rules and conventions, which prevented them from being true to themselves. An awareness of the gap between their day-to-day existence and who they felt they were meant to be, pointed to the need for the attainment of an identity that seemed to elude many readers of fiction.

For many young people, the novel provided a medium through which for the first time they could find their self. The novel held up a mirror to what had previously only been intuited or hinted at, and it gave meaning to all those traces of one’s self that one had struggled to express or understand. In this respect Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s novel published in 1761, Julie, or the New Heloise, is particularly pertinent. In Julie, a triangular relationship of the main protagonists stands in stark contrast to prevailing forms of stolid, limited and limiting relations. On the publication of La Nouvelle Heloise Rousseau was inundated with letters − written mainly by women, but also by men – indicating that they felt he had written the novel just for them: that it was really about them in particular, that he had captured their self in the novel. They saw in Julie a story of yearning, transgression and redemption that resonated with their own imagination, desire and sensibility.

Rousseau’s Julie played an important role in the development of 18th century romanticism and of romantic literature. His sensitivity to the predicament faced by alienated youth provided insights on which future writers would draw to develop the concept of adolescence and identity crisis. Other authors, too, were driven towards the depiction of characters at the threshold of adulthood. The association of emotional upheaval and preoccupation with the self and young adulthood acquired widespread public recognition in the aftermath of the publication of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774.

Werther became the media sensation of the 18th century. It touched a raw nerve and led to widespread disquiet on both sides of the Atlantic. This was a story of unrequited love that led to the act of suicide by the main character of the novel. Goethe’s sympathetic depiction of Werther and of his demise drew attention to the turbulent emotional upheavals experienced by young people attempting to endow their life with meaning. For many readers, Werther’s attempt to gain moral freedom from existing stultifying conventions through ending his life symbolised the dramatic circumstances faced by young people who felt that they were thwarted from realising their destiny. For many young readers, Werther’s crie de coeur: ‘Ah, this emptiness! This terrible emptiness that I feel in my breast’, expressed their own sense of loneliness and estrangement.

The publication of Werther turned into an almost instant media event, becoming the first documented literary sensation of modern Europe. The novel was translated into French (1775), English (1779), Italian (1781) and Russian (1788), and repeatedly republished in different editions. There were more than 20 pirated editions published within 12 years of the novel’s appearance in Germany. Werther also enjoyed a remarkable success in the United States, becoming one of the bestselling novels before the War of 1812 and having a powerful influence on the early American literary public.99

Werther provided the focus for a very early example of a phenomenon that would be labelled in the 20th century as a youth subculture. At the time, a generation of idealistic and romantic youth adopted Werther as their hero, many memorising excerpts from his letters and imitating the affectations associated with the persona of their tragic idol. According to one account, the ‘youth of Europe learned his speeches as they learned Hamlet’s’.100 To many of them, Werther personified an identity to which they were attracted and which they were ready to imitate. It was as if this fictitious character evoked by Goethe appeared as a vibrant living role model to many young readers.

It was widely reported that young men and women were weeping for days, even weeks, over his tragic demise. Groups of young men adopted the fashion of wearing yellow trousers in combination with blue tailcoat and high boots in imitation of Werther’s appearance in the novel. This novel also exercised a powerful impact over young people in the United States. The fans of Werther were disproportionately composed of readers who at the turn of the 20th century would be called adolescents. As one study noted, ‘many of them were boys on the cusp of manhood’, like the one a British traveller came across in Georgetown in 1798, who ‘delighted in the perusal of the Sorrows of Werther [and] perfumed his handkerchief with lavender’.101

With hindsight it is evident that the young men who imitated Werther’s appearance and adopted his affectations were not only identifying with their hero but also adopting his identity. Like Don Quixote, who dressed up as a knight, devotees of Werther pursued their fantasy by dressing up in the style of their hero. They were also the pioneers of performing distinction. Unlike the insensitive and pedestrian, fans of Werther were advertising their sensibility of awareness. Centuries later artefacts of awareness would be mass produced as literally millions of young people displayed their awareness through the ribbons and bracelets that they sported.

The Sorrows of Young Werther is considered to be a central accomplishment of Germany’s Sturm und Drang literary movement. This movement’s preoccupation with the realisation of the individual self and people’s internal anguish and internal life resonated with the feelings and outlook of many young people in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Werther directly appealed to a sensibility that experienced the prevailing social and moral order as constituting a barrier to the cultivation and development of the individual self. It was the contradiction between the aspiration to the realisation of individual personality and the conventions of society that Werther struggled to transcend. The tragic consequences of his struggle served to highlight his supposed heroic quality and reinforced his appeal to the novel’s readers. In this regard, readers’ response was influenced by the emergence of a new individual-oriented romantic fashion that valorised the intense emotional experience and self-discovery.

In the case of Werther, an obsessive sensibility of the self coexisted with an immature rejection of the duties and responsibilities associated with prevailing conventions. That, nevertheless, his persona became a focus of celebrity adoration indicates that prevailing fashion resonated with his behaviour. In the decades that followed the publication of Werther, sections of middle-class society came to the conclusion that whimsical and self-obsessed behaviour was both a normal and an understandable feature of young adulthood. At the time, this turbulent phase in young people’s lives was not yet called adolescence. It would take several decades before the emotional upheavals linked to this phase of development would gain the attention of psychologists, who would then go on to diagnose the anguish and self-obsession of Werther as a normal symptom of the phase of adolescence.

The belief that the turbulent phase of emotional upheaval was a normal feature of young people’s lives gradually crystallised into the conviction that they were not yet ready for adulthood. Devotees of Werther and other young people were no longer children but neither were they in a position to assume the role associated with adulthood. One consequence of this way of perceiving human development was to imagine that young people inhabited a distinct stage in the life-cycle; one that distinguished them from both children and adults. The invention of this distinct stage of youth had the effect of creating and increasing the distance between childhood and adulthood. To bridge the distance between these two phases of development, a new stage – soon to be called adolescence – was constructed.

The formulation of the idea of adolescence is usually associated with the work of the French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his discussion of the emotional upheavals brought on by puberty, he wrote of ‘the child who is moody and erratic, and has a more or less strong aversion toward parental authority’. He observed that ‘it does not want to be led anymore … it does not want to have anything to do with the adult, it is unreasonable, and mutinous, in short, it is unmanageable’.102 Rousseau’s description of this rebellious phase of adolescent life highlighted an attitude and form of behaviour that was widely recognised by observers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Rousseau perceived adolescence as a tumultuous phase of transition to adulthood during which young people learn to adjust to the role expected of them by society. In his study Émile, he used the terms ‘rebirth’ and ‘second birth’ to capture the process through which an adolescent would be reborn as an adult.103

Rousseau also alluded to this turbulent phase as a period of crisis during which young people develop a sense of who they are and acquire the maturity necessary for assuming, and learning to adjust to, the responsibilities that are usually linked to adulthood. His discussion of this process of adjustment anticipated the 20th century characterisation of this process as that of an identity crisis.

Rousseau’s three-stage model of development posited the bridging stage −adolescence – as far shorter than 21st century views on this subject. He referred to the emotional crisis associated with the transition to adulthood as very brief – ‘ce moment de crise, bien qu’assez court’.104 Since the 18th century, this bridging period between childhood and adulthood has steadily increased, and in the 21st century the crisis of adjustment is rarely perceived as very short. As Koops noted, ‘since Rousseau, adolescence has not only increased in duration, but also in intensity’.105 Koops used the term ‘infantilisation’ ‘to describe a historical process that from the 17th century, led to childhood gradually lasting longer and the distance between children and adults steadily increasing’.106

The discovery of adolescence

In the 21st century adolescence is perceived as a taken-for-granted stage in human development. Its attributes are a focus of discussion and debate among social scientists in general and psychologists in particular. Since adolescence has become intensely psychologised during the past century, it is easy to overlook the fact that its literary representation as a distinct stage preceded its formulation as a scientific concept. Society’s preoccupation with the management of adolescence surfaced within the context of the powerful cultural upheavals surrounding values and norms that accompanied the rise of modernity in the 18th century.

The early psychological theories of adolescence tended to draw on the literary representations of the identity crisis of youth, which they rebranded in a scientific language. This approach characterises the work of the American psychologist Stanley Hall, whose two-volume study, Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relation to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion, and Education (1904) served as the point of reference for this subject. In this study, which is said to be the beginning of scientific and scholarly research on adolescence, Hall drew on the romantic sensibility towards youth expressed by the Sturm und Drang movement and Rousseau to conceptualise the personality traits most associated with adolescence. His work and that of other psychologists ensured that the spirit of Romanticism, with its ‘affirmation of a realisable, essential self, found scientific legitimation’.107

Following Rousseau, Hall asserted that ‘adolescence is a new birth’, during which ‘the higher and more completely human traits are now born’.108 Rousseau’s idea of adolescence as second birth informed Hall’s account. In this way, ‘Rousseau’s ideas became stable elements not only of western folk psychology but also of academic psychology’.109 Rousseau’s idealisation of second birth as the outcome of a developmental crisis also provided the cultural underpinning for 20th century theories of identity crisis.

Hall was strongly influenced by the insights and romantic sensibility of the Sturm und Drang movement and by its literary representations of the emotional upheavals represented by youth. He was fulsome in his praise for Goethe and observed that ‘perhaps no one ever studied the nascent stages of his own life and elaborated every incident with such careful observation and analysis’.110 He wrote that ‘Romance, poetry, and biography furnish many admirable descriptions of the psychic states and changes characteristic of every stage of ephebic transformation’.111 Hall’s discussion of the psychological characteristics of adolescence bears all the hallmarks of the influence of romantic literature. He venerated adolescence, and described himself as one who was ‘an almost passionate lover of childhood’, who for long believed that this phase of youth was ‘one of the most fascinating of all themes, more worthy, perhaps than anything else in the world of reverence, most inviting study, and in most crying need of a service we do not yet understand how to render aright’.112

Although Hall’s Adolescence presents itself as a work of scientific psychology, it often reads as a compilation of the available folk knowledge on the meaning of youth derived from literature and non-literary sources. Hall, like many 19th century commentators, was fascinated with youth and it is difficult to avoid the impression that his interest in the subject matter was motivated by the feeling that something important was lost in the transition to adulthood. At times, he portrays adulthood as a stage that is inferior to what preceded it. There is a clear tone of regret in his statement that ‘in one sense, youth loses very much in becoming adult’.113 His yearning for youth exists in an uneasy relationship with the need to uphold adult authority. From this standpoint, Hall’s contribution can be seen as an early example of the contemporary tendency to recycle the problems of adulthood as issues facing youth.

Adolescence often comes across as a homage to youth. In its Preface, Hall suggests that his study ‘can appeal only to those still adolescent in the soul’.114 He reminds his readers that ‘the best definition of genius is intensified and prolonged adolescence’, a phase that ‘only poetry can ever describe’.115 In many instances, this supposedly scientific text resembles an updated version of a Platonic dialogue, inspired by the ‘charm’ of the ‘noble love of adolescent boys’.116 Though framed in the language of modernist science, Adolescence communicates a sense of disillusionment with modernity. More widely, through the emerging narrative of adolescence numerous 19th century commentators expressed their ambiguous reaction to the dictates of modernity. The idealisation of youth and of its emotions offered a unique opportunity for freely voicing a romantic anti-rationalising sensibility.

In part the invention of the concept of adolescence and the growing interest in this phase of young people’s lives were motivated by concern about the problems and behaviour of young people. Despite his romantic idealisation of youth, Hall, like most of his colleagues, was worried about what he perceived as the disorderly, unpredictable and delinquent behaviour of adolescents. Hall described this phase of life as ‘the age of sentiment and of religion, of rapid fluctuation of mood’ which intensified ‘self-feeling’ and which encouraged an ‘exaggeration and excess’ of ambition and sentiments. He believed that such sentiments could lead to the quest for noble deeds, but could also drive young people in self-destructive directions. ‘Never has youth been exposed to such dangers of both perversion and arrest as in our own land and day’, warned Hall.117

The literary evocation of adolescence and its subsequent representation through the language of psychology has their origins not so much in the empirical reality of young people as in the anxieties of adults about their own values. As the historian Joseph Kett contends, in the 19th century:

Rather than describing the experience of teenagers, the discourse on adolescence in this and subsequent periods has primarily reflected the challenges that adults saw to their own values and the ways in which they adapted to change.118

In other words, it was through the narrative about youth that emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries that adults attempted to understand their own confusions and response to the cultural changes brought about through the rise of modernity. Adulthood and its meaning were rarely discussed in its own terms. Instead, the recycling of moral anxieties through the predicament faced by youth provided the narrative through which adults tried to interpret their own predicament in face of the changing conditions confronting them.

Why was adolescence invented?

Accounts of the invention of adolescence rarely perceive this development as more to do with the challenges facing adults than with the discovery of biological or psychological characteristics of youth. Most studies of this discovery attribute it to the experience of broad structural and social changes – especially in American society. In particular the transformation of family life, the demands of a modern industrial economy and urbanisation are seen to provide the sociological underpinning for the construction of the bridging phase of adolescence. In effect, adolescence came to be represented as ‘a form of psychology and behavior exhibited by pre-adults’ that emerged in the 19th century as an outcome of the ‘peculiar social conditions’ that ‘prevailed at the time’.119 As one study explained, the ‘“discovery” of adolescence can be related to certain broad changes in American life − above all, to changes in the structure of the family as part of the new urban and industrial order’.120

According to the dominant narrative, the invention of adolescence in the 19th century was closely linked to the transformation of the family, particularly the reduction in the number of children. This decrease in family size allowed parents to make a greater emotional investment in their child than in previous times. Phillipe Aries, the influential historian of childhood, argued that unprecedented parental concentration on the child led to the loss of freedom of children.121 This exercise of control coexisted with the expansion of the phase of children’s dependence on their parents, which in turn created a cohort of pre-adults, who were ‘not yet in control of their destiny’:

Confronted by this expanded period of control, whether at school or with parents, facing an increasingly industrial complex and changing world, youth became bewildered and confused about the process of becoming an adult and thereby spawned what historians identify as the unique psychological features of adolescence.122

In numerous studies these psychological features of adolescence are attributed to the specific socio-economic context of the 19th century. The tension between dependence on parents at a time when young people yearn for independence is said to create many of the psychological strains of adolescence.

According to this narrative, the socio-economic transformation of capitalist society led to the expansion of education, which in turn altered the status of youth and intensified generational segregation while increasing children’s dependence on parents. These changes led to the emergence of an unprecedented degree of generational separation of children from adults. The unique adolescent experience of the 19th century emerged out of this separation.

Theories of adolescence focused on the loss of freedom of young people who were intensely aware of the fact that they were pre-adults who were not yet in control of their destiny. As Skolnick outlined this story;

Thus, economic, familial, and cultural changes transformed the experience of growing up; adolescence became an important stage of the individual’s biography. The opening of a gap between physical maturation and the attainment of social adulthood led to the psychological characteristics that have come to be known as the adolescent experience − the urge to be independent from the family; the discovery of the unique and private world of the self; the search for an identity; and the questioning of adult values and assumptions which may take the form of idealism, or cynicism, or both at the same time.123

Different versions of this account present adolescence and its problems as the outcome of a changing socio-economic landscape. From this perspective, these new problems invited the science of psychology to engage with what was in the 19th century supposedly a relatively new phenomenon.

Undoubtedly, the radical socio-economic changes of the 19th century had a major impact on people’s lives. Industrialisation and urbanisation intensified the distinction between activities carried out at home and at work. The structure of the family underwent important modification, and most children and many young people were drawn into schools and ceased to participate in the world of work. Though these changes significantly altered the experience of growing up it does not necessarily follow that they led to the emergence of the emotional traits that Hall and other psychologists attributed to adolescence.

There is considerable evidence that the emotional and personality traits attributed to adolescence by psychologists were identified and discussed in detail centuries before the arrival of the science of psychology. Aristotle’s description of the volatility and emotional turbulence of youth anticipated Hall’s formulation of this adolescent trait. Indeed, Hall explicitly refers to Aristotle’s description of adolescence and asserts that this Greek philosopher gave the ‘best characterisation of youth’.124 Aristotle regarded adolescence as the third stage of life that followed infancy and childhood. In his writing, he described the inner tension experienced by youth in a language that would later be captured through the rhetoric of storm and stress:

The young are in character prone to desire and ready to carry any desire they may have formed into action. Of bodily desires it is the sexual to which they are most disposed to give way, and in regard to sexual desire they exercise no self-restraint. … If the young commit a fault, it is always on the side of excess and exaggeration. … They regard themselves as omniscient and are positive in their assertions.125

Aristotle both idealised youth − ‘they are inclined to be valorous’ while expressing concern about its lack of restraint – ‘they are slaves, too, of their passions’.126 Over 2000 years ago, Aristotle outlined in detail many of the adolescent traits that modern psychology supposedly discovered in the late 19th century.

The historian Vivian Fox provides numerous illustrations that indicate that ‘adolescent personality traits were identified and described in a manner similar to the modern characterizations of adolescence well before the modern era’.127 She claims that the years of adolescence were depicted as a transitional phase well before the 19th century. Inner turmoil, ‘storm and stress and emotional tensions related to sexual desire were described in detail by numerous authors, the most famous of which is the Confessions of St Augustine’.128

With hindsight, it appears that what was significant about the 19th century psychology of adolescence was not that it discovered something new but that it attached an unprecedented degree of significance to a phenomenon that had been in existence for a long time. In this respect the work of Hall and other psychologists can be seen to reflect the concerns that were widely circulating in society. The frequently voiced assertion that Hall’s concept of adolescence captured a ‘real change in the human experience, a change intimately tied to the new kind of industrial society that was emerging in America and Europe’, is only partially accurate.129

The discovery of adolescence was stimulated by the difficulty that adult society experienced in relation to the challenge of socialising and influencing the behaviour of young people. As Baumeister commented, in the absence of clarity about moral authority, ‘it was unclear as to what version of fundamental truth’ adult society culture ‘imparts to its adolescents’.130

The 18th and 19th centuries saw the steady erosion of the influence of traditional institutions and moral norms. Hitherto the tensions and conflict between generations coexisted with a system of more or less shared values. In contrast, from the 19th century onwards inter-generational conflict was often articulated through the competing values held by the old and the young. The emotional intensity with which young people rebelled against prevailing conventions was linked to the degree with which the traditions of the past retained their influence. This point was recognised by Hall, who wrote that emotional turbulence of adolescence was more likely to erupt in the United States of his time than ‘in older lands with more conservative traditions’.131

In the 19th century the weakening of traditional conventions was a constant theme in American commentaries on childrearing. Concerns were regularly raised about the apparent loss of parental authority. Parenting books ‘imparted the same message: the authority of parents must be established early in a child’s life and firmly maintained throughout the years of growth’.132 These calls for the restoration of parental authority often unwittingly conveyed a tone of defensiveness and confusion. This defensive tone reflected the realisation that parental authority had lost its previous unquestioned valuation. The traditions that had hitherto underpinned parental authority had lost much of their force.

Ambiguity towards the moral status of adulthood ran in parallel with the idealisation of youth. Among progressive circles the young were increasingly portrayed as the bearers of progressive change while the old were often depicted as the repositories of the archaic traditions of the past. This sentiment was shared by Hall, who believed that the ‘future of our race’ depended on the ‘increased development of the adolescent stage’, which he characterised as the ‘bud of promise for the race’.133

Fascination with youth and the idealisation of the innocence of the child were paralleled by calls to restrain parental control. Competing claims about the best way of bringing up children reflected the erosion of consensus on the role of adult authority. Jacob Abbott, a well-known writer of children’s books, was aware of the dilemma facing parents on this score. In his Gentle Measures in the Management and Training of the Young (1871), Abbott indicated that there were three modes of managing children. These were ‘Government by manoeuvring and Artifice’, ‘By Reason and Affection’ and ‘By Authority’.134 Abbott was in no doubt that the management of children demanded the exercise of ‘that absolute and almost unlimited authority which all parents are commissioned by God and nature to exercise over their offspring during the period while the offspring remain dependent upon their care’. At the same time, Abbott advised parents to adopt ‘gentle methods’ and techniques in the management of their children. He noted that such gentle methods are not a substitute for authority, but they can ‘aid in establishing and maintaining it’.

Despite Abbott’s insistence that childrearing required the exercise of ‘absolute and almost unlimited authority’, the reader of his book was likely to gain the impression that successful parenting depended on ‘gentle’ pedagogic and psychological skills. The implication of his approach was that, at the very least, mothers and fathers had to adopt an approach to childrearing that was different from the way that parental authority had been exercised in the past. In a round-about way Abbott called into question the status adult of authority. For once authority is conceptualised as a form of management that relies on the use of psychological technique, it becomes deprived of its moral content. In such circumstance, adulthood loses some of its moral status, and its capacity to influence the younger generation diminishes.

In the minds of many 19th century observers the challenge of influencing the younger generation was intertwined with a lack of clarity about what was expected of adults. Indirectly, the discovery of adolescence helped turn a troublesome value-related problem into a more manageable technical/psychological one. Through the attribution of unprecedented significance to the emotional traits of young people, confusions regarding moral norms were recast as psychological ones. Such confusions were naturalised as the emotional traits of adolescence.

The discovery and the conceptualisation of adolescence offered a provisional solution to the challenges faced by adult authority. This was the cultivation and institutionalisation of a moratorium on the assumption of adulthood and the responsibilities associated with it by young people. Following Hall, psychologists argued that young people required this ‘gentle’ phase where through limiting the intensity of adult control, adolescents could cultivate their identity freed from the burden of adult responsibilities. The normal and natural demands of this moratorium relieved some of the pressure on adults regarding the exercise of their authority.

Slowing down the transition to adulthood

The moratorium on the assumption of the responsibilities of adulthood created the conditions that permitted adolescence to acquire qualities that distinguished it from both childhood and adulthood. With the passing of time these qualities were perceived as the natural psychological or biological attributes of adolescents.

Unlike children, adolescents possessed a degree of freedom from parental control and in contrast to adults they were given latitude to experiment and adopt forms of spontaneous behaviour that would be frowned upon in later life. Hall noted ‘youth must have its fling’, which required ‘the need of greatly and sometimes suddenly widened liberty’. He recognised that youth still needed ‘careful supervision and wise direction’ but this had to be exercised ‘from afar and by indirect methods’.135 It is likely that in giving youth permission to ‘have its fling’, Hall was not only acknowledging but also justifying a practice that had become a fact of life for at least a minority of young people. However, psychology’s advocacy of a psychosocial moratorium during which young people could have their fling helped boost and legitimate the cultural narrative of adolescence.

Psychologists and educators idealised the transition period as one where people could enjoy the kind of freedom or lack of restraint that they were unlikely to experience either in childhood or in adulthood. One psychologist called on adults to create the condition of freedom for adolescents in the following terms:

We can surround youth with encouragement. There need be no sneering superiority, no ridicule, no tyrannical authority, no dogmatic over ruling, nothing to undermine the confidence and assertion that are necessary to approach work and love on an adult basis. We can have young people as free as possible to develop their own interests, free to discover for themselves, to experiment, even to make mistakes. We can give them freedom to experiment in the ordering and control of their own group life as well as their individual interest.136

This narrative of freedom was rarely realised in practice. Nevertheless, this commentary titled ‘Mental hygiene problems of normal adolescence’ echoed the approach adopted by the professional advocates of a moratorium.

The gradual acceptance of the moratorium – first in the US and later throughout much of the western world – was shaped by powerful cultural impulses reflecting confusions about the exercise of adult authority. As we discuss in the chapter to follow, these confusions centred on the capacity of adult society to socialise the new generation. In part young people were freed from direct adult control because their elders were far from certain about how to exercise their authority. As Kett argued, adults ‘were uncertain where to draw the line with youth’.137 Since the 1950s, lack of clarity about where to draw the line between adolescence and adulthood had become progressively a greater problem.

The advocacy of a moratorium was not the cause of the gradual removal of young people from work and economic life. Nor did it precede the expansion of education and enrolment of growing numbers of adolescents into high school. The conceptualisation of a moratorium served as a medium through which a new narrative of youth was reconciled with the new socio-economic circumstances. With hindsight, the really important ‘discovery’ was not so much that of adolescence but of the need for a moratorium − that is, the need to slow down the process of transition to adulthood. Therefore, the institutionalisation of a prolonged bridging period between childhood and adulthood should not be interpreted as a response to the biological or psychological difficulties that inhere in the adolescent condition. Rather, as Koops indicates, insofar as adolescents find it difficult to grow up, it is because ‘they are not accepted by the grown-up world’.138

The difficulty that the grown-up world had in accepting young people into adulthood was often justified on the ground that in previous times society was too hasty in forcing its unprepared youth to grow up. Though these sentiments first gained influence in the US, they had spread to other parts of the world by the early 20th century. In England, the educator and social reformer Margaret McMillan criticised previous generations for hurrying children into premature adulthood. In her 1909 article ‘Adolescence’, she claimed that this stage of development was ignored until the arrival of ‘Brain Specialists’. ‘Our ancestors ignored it in their ignorance’, she claimed. She observed that

Adolescence is a period of growth through which some human beings pass on their way to Adult Life. Some are allowed to pass through and out of it happily, but for others this stage of becoming is ignored, or slurred over, so that the child is hurried into manhood or womanhood by a short cut as it were.139

McMillan and other British advocates of adolescence did not merely condemn the supposed ignorance of their ancestors. Their target was their contemporaries, who in their ignorance continued to ‘hurry’ children into adulthood. Towards the end of the First World War, a commentary in The Athenaeum warned that the ‘age of adolescence demands a care which we have not yet accorded it’. The commentator asserted that

Growing boys and girls live in a society which does not understand them, which presses them into adult organization and, instead of developing as Nature ordained they should, they are thwarted, repressed and distorted.140

In its appeal to the authority of Nature, this call to give children time to grow up reflected the romanticised narrative of youth that influenced the sensibility of many educators and reformers at the time. However, unlike 18th century Romanticism, its early 20th century version relied on the authority of science such as McMillan’s ‘Brain Specialists’ or psychologists to legitimate their views on adolescence.

The elaboration of a moratorium – the relaxation of pressures for adult activity during adolescence – was the work of psychologists, educators and social workers like McMillan. Many commentators on this subject were critical of prevailing childrearing and pedagogic practices and regarded themselves as the defenders of the interest of the young against a failing moral order. As Kett commented; ‘the psychologists, social workers, and educators who fashioned an institutionalized moratorium for adolescents held highly negative perceptions of the work ethic and success myth that had permeated earlier conceptions of youth’s role’.141 Their narrative of adolescence was influenced by anti-modernist impulses that surfaced in the late 19th century.

Hall, too, was worried about the negative effect of ‘overcivilization’ on the development of young people. Hall’s fear that overcivilization led to the loss of masculinity and undermined young people’s mental health influenced his view of adolescence. His support for a moratorium was in part expressed in a language with clear anti-modernist overtones:

[The adolescent] must have much freedom to be lazy, make his own minor morals, vent his disrespect for what he can see no use in, be among strangers to act himself out and form a personality of his own, be baptized with the revolutionary and skeptical spirit, and go to extremes at the age when excesses teach wisdom with amazing rapidity, if he is to become a true knight of the spirit and his own master.142

Centuries previously, the aspiration to become a true knight inspired Don Quixote to embark on his futile quest. At the turn of the 20th century, psychology offered youth permission to embark on a voyage free from restraint and the burden of adult responsibility. Later, in the post-Second World War era, this moratorium was represented as a phase during which young people could experiment with cultivating their identity and overcome their crisis of identity. At least that was the theory. It is unlikely that Hall would have anticipated that six decades after the publication of Adolescence, the moratorium would be celebrated as an end-in-itself, with millions reluctant to complete their journey to the land of adulthood.

The institutionalisation of adolescence

During the decades following the discovery of adolescence, its advocacy led to its gradual institutionalisation through the steady expansion of education. In the UK, supporters of expanding compulsory education used the discovery of adolescence as a key argument for promoting their cause. Some went so far as to claim that the post-First World War reconstruction of the nation depended on providing new opportunities for the education of adolescents:

We are beginning now to discover adolescence and the most important test of sincerity and determination in the cause of Educational reconstruction will be found in the boldness with which we approach the problem of adolescent education.143

During the interwar era calls for education reform focused on the necessity for schooling adolescents. It is worthy of note that at the time, the most important official report on the reform of schooling in the UK, The Hadow Report (1926), was titled The Education of the Adolescent.144

As in the UK, so, too, in the US, advocates of social reform took up the cause of adolescents to support their claim for the extension of compulsory education. As the historian Paula Fass remarked, ‘taking up the banner of adolescence, educators reimagined the US public high school as an institution that could address the needs of immigrants and other Americans, while maintaining a democratic idiom in a transforming world’.145 In part because of the unique prosperity of the US, advocates of the cause of adolescence were more successful than their counterparts in the UK. As Fass noted, by the end of the interwar era they had succeeded in transforming the ‘US high school into a socialising institution for adolescents’.146

The expansion of schooling was not simply motivated by pedagogic imperatives. Around the turn of the 20th century many educators came to the conclusion that retaining students in schools as long as possible was an end-in-itself. Kett observed that ‘the preponderance of opinion among public educators began to shift away from this meritocratic, survival-of-the-fittest pedagogy to a greater emphasis on the value of retaining students in school as long as possible’.147 This point was echoed by Fass, who wrote that ‘educators opened wide the doors of high school because they were intent on keeping students there for as long as possible’.148This emphasis on retention was in part motivated by the impulse of shielding adolescents from the supposed outdated influence of their families.

The objective of retention was realised through the expansion of education. The steady growth of the public high school provided the cultural infrastructure for the flourishing of adolescent consciousness. Through the retention of young people in schooling until the age of 16−18, it also contributed to the slowing down of the process of transition to adulthood. As Fass explained:

The comprehensive public high school transformed the aims of education from being a limited period directed toward making the young literate and reliable citizens into a training institution for variously defined social and economic purposes. Rather than a short transition period of personal uncertainty and discovery, adolescence became a prolonged sojourn of development spent among other youth.149

The high school gave ‘American adolescents an institutional platform and visibility’, notes Fass.150 It gave prominence to adolescence and provided the institutional foundation and resources for what would eventually be characterised as ‘teen age’ or youth culture. Consequently, until the 1950s adolescents were far more visible in the US than in any other part of the world.

However one conceptualises the forces driving the discovery of adolescence, it is evident that by the 1920s and the 1930s concerns about the moral order and about society’s capacity to adjust to a changing world were often interpreted through the prism of adolescence. A heightened awareness of the challenge of maintaining stability in the face of change was gained through focusing on the problems of adolescence. Social scientists coined the term ‘adjustment’ to capture the process through which adolescents learned to come to terms with their place in the world. It was through the narrative of adolescent adjustment that society often sought to explain the cultural tensions thrown up by change. Although the term was often used with reference to the psychology of personal adjustment, it also referred to society’s capacity to come to terms with changing reality.

Social scientists often portrayed adjustment as the essence of the condition of adolescence. According to the authors of ‘Adolescence: psychosis or social adjustment?’ (1935):

Adolescence is a crisis in social adjustment. In our Western civilization many of the major demands of life are made upon the adolescent within a few years. He must achieve self-direction. He must make a vocational choice. He must adjust to our pattern of sex behavior. He must achieve, from our welter of conflicting values, a satisfying philosophy of life.151

Yet, in a world of conflicting values, where a ‘satisfying philosophy of life’ was by all accounts difficult to attain by adults and adolescents alike, it is evident that the problem of adjustment transcended the predicament facing young people.

That adjustment to prevailing social norms was mainly discussed through the problematisation of adolescence is understandable since it is through the attempt to socialise the younger generation that the confidence of adults in their cultural outlook is tested. In her discussion on ‘Mental hygiene problems of normal adolescence’ (1921), the American psychologist Jessie Taft raised uncomfortable questions about whether adults possessed the wisdom and confidence required to help adolescents adjust to the world they faced. She asked if adults are ‘wise enough and grown up enough’ so that ‘we can give the adolescent an interpretation of sex and human behavior which will enable him to face frankly his own cravings and inferiorities real and imagined and adjust to them in a constructive spirit’.152 Reading between her lines, one gains the impression that she had doubts as to whether ‘parents and teachers’ were ‘wise’ and grown up and ’well adjusted’.

By the 1940s adolescent adjustment was represented as the pathway through which young people resolved their crisis of identity and developed the maturity required to play the role of confident adults. However, as we shall see, the problem of adjustment raised the question of ‘adjustment to what’? Could adult society provide the cultural resources through which most young people could acquire an identity so that they could make their way in the world?

The moratorium described by Hall and other psychologists provided adolescents with an opportunity to define who they were and what they believed in. Western culture tended to support the quest for identity and idealised its youth. As Aries concluded, ‘our society has passed from a period that was ignorant of adolescence to a period in which adolescence is the favorite age’. He added that ‘we now want to come to it early and linger in it as long as possible’.153 Erikson, too, was attracted to this age, and following Hall he underlined its importance for personal development. To the tensions that inhered in the course of the moratorium he gave the name ‘identity crisis’, and argued that society must do what it can to give adolescents the freedom and space they need to resolve this crisis in a satisfactory manner.

One development that Erikson did not count on was that in the post-Second World War era, circumstances conspired to make ‘adolescents of us all’ and, as is now widely recognised, ‘identity crisis becomes the typical biographical crisis of the modern person’.154 But even he would have been surprised by the frenetic borrowing and consuming of identities that characterise the Jessica Krugs of this world.

In this chapter, we have argued that the invention of adolescence had little to do with the discovery of the psychological traits associated with youth. Nor was it a direct outcome of socio-economic changes to the structure of society and family life. The expansion of education did not create the adolescent but constituted a response to the prevailing consensus that insisted that young people were not ready for adulthood. Our conclusion from the available evidence is that in response to the difficulty that adult society had in accepting young people into its ranks, it opted to postpone the point at which the transition to adulthood was to be completed.155

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