Chapter 3: The Cultural Contradictions of Adulthood

The sentimentalisation of adolescence discussed in the previous chapter ran in parallel with the modern society’s unease with the process of ageing. This sensibility was fuelled by the consciousness of a world that was rapidly changing. In the 19th century, perceptions of rapid change were often optimistically interpreted as a marker of progress. The young were frequently portrayed as the bearers of change while the old were represented as obstacles to progress. Though the old were still formally venerated as the personification of maturity and wisdom, their authority was in practice often contradicted by the sentiment that they represented a bygone age. Perceptions of a rapidly changing world reinforced this trend and adulthood became increasingly associated with the past.

Inter-generational relations were frequently represented as coextensive with the interaction between the present and the past. As the sociologist Jennie Bristow noted in the literary representation of these trends, ‘intense generational conflict’ served as an ‘allegorical representation of progress and social change’.1

During the 19th century, political movements communicated their commitment to change through designating themselves as parties of the young. The Young Italy movement founded by Giuseppe Mazzini was paradigmatic in this respect. It self-consciously endowed the young with the responsibility of creating a unified Italian nation. Similar sentiments motivated the Young Turks in northern Greece, who played a leading role in the overthrow of the Ottoman Empire. Throughout Europe, nationalist movements portrayed youth as the symbol of liberation and progress. On the other side of the Atlantic, the ‘Young America’ movement, with its quest for the new, often presented itself as the instrument for the realisation of the nation’s destiny.2

The cult of the young was regularly counterposed to the archaic ways of the elder generation. In the 19th century, literature often touched on the conflict between the cultural attitudes of different generations. Ivan Turganev’s powerful novel, Fathers and Sons (1862) offers a powerful dramatisation of a growing generational divide. Despite resistance from traditionalist quarters, the idealisation of the young swiftly gained momentum and became ascendant by the turn of the 20th century. Idealisation of the young coexisted with anxiety about their capacity to play a constructive role – the appellation of the ‘Lost Generation’ for those who came of age at the end of the First World War reflected this concern. Despite such anxieties, the idolisation of the young became steadily more pronounced from the 1920s. Fascist movements in particular lionised the young and praised them for their physical strength, idealism and self-sacrifice. Joseph Goebbels − soon to be Hitler’s Propaganda Minister − remarked that ‘The old ones don’t even want to understand that we young people even exist. They defend their power to the last. But one day they will be defeated after all. Youth finally must be victorious.’3 The glorification of youth coupled with the devaluation of the elderly was a theme that resonated with totalitarian ideologies – left and right – during the interwar era.

Writing in 1942, one of America’s leading social scientists, Talcott Parsons, indicated that ‘a tendency to the romantic idealization of youth patterns seems in different ways to be characteristic of modern Western society as a whole’.4 His point was echoed in the early 1960s, when a social scientist remarked; ‘Yet we still share with the ancient Greeks the wish that “youth should not be spoiled by old age.” We try to stay young.’5 In the 21st century the romantic idealisation of youth has acquired unprecedented momentum. The media’s sanctification of Greta Thunberg is underwritten by the claim that the young are putting right the problems created by their parents’ generation.

The sentimentalisation of youth developed in parallel with growing scepticism directed at the ways of the older generations. At the turn of the 20th century it appeared to many that the ways of the old were fast being displaced by rapid social, technological and cultural change. Commentators on both sides of the Atlantic insisted that the world was now subjected to constant change, which demanded that society adapt to new circumstances. This prognosis of ceaseless change was coupled with the conclusion that the young were likely to be far more effective in adjusting to new realities than their elders. As Eisenstadt, one of the leading sociologists of generations, explained, ‘the necessity of a continuous adjustment to new changing conditions has emphasised the potential value of youth as the bearers of continuous innovation, of noncommitment to any specific conditions and values’.6

Eisenstadt also noted that the focus on ‘instrumental adaptability’ to new circumstances turned ageing into an empty ‘meaningless passage of time’.7 The meaninglessness accorded to the ‘passage of time’ and to ageing stood in contrast to the adulation of youth. The flip side of the celebration of youth was the devaluation of ageing. In particular, this attitude influenced the outlook of many thinkers and commentators associated with the progressive movement at the turn of the 20th century. A leading radical progressive intellectual, Ralph Bourne, wrote a veritable manifesto – Youth And Life (1913) − which portrayed the young as the saviours of civilisation. Adults were viewed by him as obstacles to progress:

There is no scorn so fierce as that of youth for the inertia of older men. Adults are little more than grown-up children. This is what makes their arrogance so insulting. … Youth has no right to be humble. The ideals it forms will be the highest it will ever have, the insight the clearest, the ideas the most stimulating. The best that it can hope to do is to conserve those resources, and keep its flame of imagination and daring bright.8

In the eyes of Bourne, there was little to be valued in adulthood. He explained that it is the young ‘who have all the really valuable experience’.9

At the turn of the 20th century, Bourne and many leading American liberals invested their hopes in the youth because it appeared to them that, unlike their elders, they were not weighed down by the traditions of the past. Bourne portrayed the young as the saviours of civilisation. He called on intelligent youth to be ‘the incarnation of reason pitted against the rigidity of tradition’.10

Bourne believed that the experience of the elderly counted for little since it was based on a bygone age that was made irrelevant by the impact of rapid change. Not only were the older generations irrelevant, but their behaviour and attitude also held back young people from realising their destiny. In an accusatory tone, Bourne complained that ‘an unpleasantly large proportion of our energy is now drained off in fighting the fetishes which you of the elder generation have passed along to us’.11

Sentiments similar to those of Bourne were voiced throughout Europe. The Italian Futurist movement worshipped novelty and youth and communicated an unrestrained sense of contempt for the old. The Futurist Manifesto, published in 1909, warned young people that

To admire an old picture is to pour our sensibility into a funeral urn instead of casting it forward with violent spurts of creation and action. Do you want to waste the best part of your strength in a useless admiration of the past, from which you will emerge exhausted, diminished, trampled on?12

The Manifesto depicted ageing as a form of social death that possessed no redeeming features. It observed:

The oldest among us are not yet thirty years old: we have therefore at least ten years to accomplish our task. When we are forty let younger and stronger men than we throw us in the waste paper basket like useless manuscripts!13

The sentiments articulated by the Futurists were more extreme than most commentaries devoted to the glorification of youth. Nevertheless, this movement exercised an important influence on the aesthetic sensibility of several generations of young Europeans, particularly in the domain of art, design and architecture.

The association of youth with progressive change and reform became widespread in the aftermath of the First World War. Responsibility for this catastrophic global conflict was assigned to a short-sighted and irrational older generation. Numerous commentaries − fiction and non-fiction − portrayed the older generations as incompetent, irresponsible and self-deluded. The stupidity and callousness of adult authority were frequently denounced for causing the pointless death of millions of young men who perished on the battlefields of Europe. This act of generational betrayal was eloquently dramatised by Erich Maria Remarque in his influential novel All Quiet on the Western Front (1929). In this angry novel, the young people who come of age during the Great War perceive themselves as the casualties of their incompetent elders. That this novel became an instant international bestseller showed that the resentment of the betrayal of the older generation resonated with the interwar cultural imagination.

An essay titled ‘Youth at the Helm’, published in the British literary magazine The Athenaeum (1918), highlighted the growing sense of estrangement from the traditional attitudes towards respecting one’s elders. It asserted that ‘one of the most irritating experiences – and one, moreover, which all young men must suffer – is to be told with all the emphasis which portly men of 50 and upwards are able to command that “You’ll grow wiser as you grow older” or “I used to think like that, but I’ve learnt better since”’. The anonymous author of this essay repudiated the coupling of wisdom with old age. He insisted that experience was overrated. ‘The value of experience to civilisation, however, is not primarily positive and constructive. Experience is the nitrogen which dilutes the oxygen of Youth’, he observed. This author had no doubt that ‘progress means the victory of Youth over Experience’. He suggested that whatever reservation one had about youth in previous times, the First World War revealed that the elderly could not be trusted. He predicted that the future ‘will be a world of Youth for Experience will be even more at a loss and more discredited’.14 This author’s derision of experience anticipates the ascendancy of the values of flexibility, nimbleness, agility and adaptability in the late 20th century.

The conviction that experience no longer counted for very much was widely held among intellectuals and cultural influencers during the early 1900s. The English writer, and social commentator H.G. Wells, regarded by many as a prophetic critic of society, dismissed the experience of the past as irrelevant to the conditions of the early 20th century. In his novel The New Machiavelli (1911), Wells’ progressive liberal protagonist observed that the world had changed so much that ‘suddenly, almost inadvertently, people found themselves doing things that would have amazed their ancestors’.15 This sensibility of ceaseless change was often drawn towards the conclusion that the new ways of ‘doing things’ relied on harnessing the energy, idealism and capacity for risk taking of the youth.

The identification of youth with the future and the older generations with the past implicitly – and gradually explicitly − called into question the moral status and authority of adults. The prevailing consciousness of temporality associated ageing with inflexibility and a dogmatic commitment to an increasingly irrelevant past. In contrast, youth was deemed to possess the potential to adjust to a constantly changing world and forge a path towards the future.

This sensibility gained greater and greater influence during the course of the 20th century. Writing in the aftermath of the so-called ‘youth revolt’ of the 1960s, Erikson surmised that ‘even in a period of rapid change, adolescence seems to serve the function of committing the growing person to the possible achievements and the comprehensible ideals of an existing or developing civilization’.16 Erikson believed that adult society was likely to have difficulty in sharing authority with the young because they mistrusted themselves and were defensive and uncertain about their role in society. He concluded that, having discovered the adolescent, ‘we must dare to ask: What, really, is an adult?17 Another way of posing Erikson’s question is that ‘With devaluation of experience, what is the point of adulthood?’

Why was adulthood not discovered?

As it happens Erikson’s query about the status of adulthood was not a rhetorical one. Throughout most of the 20th century, the psychologists, social scientists, commentators and policy makers who had a lot to say about children and adolescents were conspicuously disinterested in adulthood. Until the 1970s, the concept of adulthood waited to be discovered. Anyone attempting to ascertain what commentators and experts had to say about adulthood would be hard put to come across any serious study of this subject. This absence has been noted by a number of sources. As early as 1933, one study stated that ‘in the ordinary discussion of adult education the meaning of adulthood has been taken for granted. Everybody knows − until he attempts to tell it − what it means to be grown up.’18

In an important monograph, ‘Searching for adulthood in America’ (1976), the historian Winthrop Jordan wrote that ‘it is an interesting commentary on our culture that we find ourselves asking: What does adulthood mean?’19 Jordan noted that whereas growing interest in the different stages of the life-cycle around the turn of the 20th century led to the ‘discovery of adolescence’, no such discovery occurred in relation to adulthood. Jordan pointed to the late development of academic interest in the idea of adulthood − for example, as late as 1968 the International Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences had articles on ‘Aging’ and ‘Adolescence’ but none on adulthood.20 He expressed his surprise that ‘it took until 1975 for a symposium on adulthood to materialize’.21

The Preface to a collection of papers given at the 1975 symposium echoed Jordan, and stated that the ‘archives for the study of adulthood still wait to be created’.22 Stephen Graubard, the author of the Preface, wrote that ‘adulthood figures rarely in the scientific literature of our time: it has none of the concreteness that attaches to terms such as “childhood” or “adolescence”’ and encompasses as a ‘catch-all category everything after 18 or 21’.23 Thirty-five years after this symposium, an essay on the ‘changing semantics of youth and adulthood’ reiterated Graubard’s point and stated that ‘adulthood is under-theorized in sociology’. It added that this was truly ‘remarkable’.24 Five years later, in 2015, a book devoted to the very study of adulthood repeated the same point: ‘Adulthood is the one stage in life that lacks a history’.25

Although there is general agreement that the study and elaboration of the concept of adulthood is a relatively undeveloped subject, there has been little attempt to explain why this should be so. Jordan merely suggests that adulthood was a condition that used to be simply assumed as a process but ‘it now seems to demand explanation’.26 While Jordan is right to suggest that the ideal of adulthood can no longer be taken for granted, he has not explained why it was and still remains a relatively neglected subject.

Looking back over the available evidence, the absence of a serious intellectual engagement with adulthood is striking. As late as the 1970s, most discussions of adulthood took the form of an afterthought to the problem of adolescence. Adulthood was discussed in the context of adolescents transitioning towards it.27 However, what young people were transitioning to was often dealt with perfunctorily and in passing.

Our examination of literary sources and several on-line databases suggests that the term ‘adulthood’ was rarely used until the 20th century. The first reference to adulthood in the Oxford English Dictionary is to an item in a veterinary journal in 1850. It relates not to humans but to horses, and states that ‘at five years old the horse arrives at adult-hood’.28

During the last two decades of the 19th century, there are a handful of references to adulthood, particularly in Christian publications, where it is used as an expression of maturity. The first use of the word ‘adulthood’ to convey positive connotations that I came across was in an 1893 edition of Zion’s Herald, where it is said that a perfect man for Christ is an adult man and that ‘perfect implies adulthood’.29 Another issue of this publication notes that ‘a state of adulthood in contrast with infancy’ is ‘a state involving the power of skilful discrimination in matters whose good or evil nature is doubtful’.30

Most references to adulthood in the late 19th and early 20th centuries contrast it unfavourably with that of childhood. In 1882, a commentator remarked that the Saviour makes provision for childhood, but the problem is ‘irresponsible adulthood’.31 Another religious commentator asserted that the purity of a child is ‘more important than the maturity of adulthood’.32 The tendency to portray adulthood as a stage that is morally inferior to childhood is clearly voiced in a poem, A Child’s Mind, in May 1914, published in a London-based tabloid weekly, Answers:

And wandering thus and talking on,

 My spirit purged and chastened grows

For in the innocence of youth

I find more simple love and truth

 Than e’er adulthood knows.33

The poem concludes by indicating that those who seek wisdom can do no better than ‘with a simple spirit heed, a thoughtful child’s mind’.34

In some instances, the influence and role of adulthood towards children were depicted as far from benign and were portrayed as potentially damaging to children. At the 1897 meeting of the National Education Association of the United States, one of the speakers declared that the ‘child can never become its real self so long as adulthood blights it and dwarfs it by daring to stand between it and God’. The speaker added that ‘adulthood must not interfere so much with childhood’.35 At this point in time many educators assumed that adulthood needed to be restrained to give children more space to develop. An article in the Methodist Magazine in 1898 observed that ‘the greatest improvement yet wrought by the new education is the altered attitude of adulthood toward childhood in disciplining it’. It warned that ‘the reformation of the coercive ideals of adulthood has only well begun’. It concluded by stating that ‘adulthood must not interfere so much with childhood’.36

Dickens As An Educator (1900), authored by the Canadian educator James Laughlin Hughes, presented a series of unattractive traits of adulthood that leads it to disrespect childhood. He wrote that, by ‘false ideals of coercive law adulthood has been made repressive instead of suggestive, depressive instead of helpful, dogmatic instead of reasonable, tyrannical instead of free, “child quellers” instead of sympathetic friends of childhood’. He directed his fire at ‘kind but thoughtless adulthood’, which is ‘most grievously unjust to childhood, because it fails to consider how things appear to the child’.37

In some instances, adults were not only accused of being far too controlling but also of refusing to assume their responsibility towards the younger generations. These sentiments were directed at parents who resisted adopting modes of behaviour associated with maturity. An article titled ‘Parents who haven’t grown up’ in a 1925 edition of Harper’s Monthly Magazine indicts mothers and fathers who do not want to grow up, since adulthood means ‘discipline, self-control, judgment, responsibility, and justice’. Ernest Grove, the author of this article, who was a Professor of Social Science at Boston University, had no doubt that ‘one of the perils of young life’ is the ‘emotional immaturity of the parent’.38 Whereas many commentators wanted to restrain the exercise of too much adulthood on the ground that it served as an obstacle to child development, Grove identified parental rejection of adulthood as the problem. Both versions offered an unattractive version of adulthood.

Although by no means a dominant theme, the condemnation of immature adults who are morally inferior to the younger generation recurred fairly regularly in the 20th century. Writing in the late 1960s, Erikson suggested that parents appear to their children as ‘overgrown boys and girls’.39 In recent decades the theme of immature adults who wish to be ‘forever young’ has been a frequent topic of discussion in the media.

Classical views about the wisdom and maturity of adulthood continued to be communicated in everyday settings by traditionalist commentators. In contrast, scepticisms directed towards adulthood – particularly the role of parents − dominated the thinking of cultural influencers, educators and psychologists throughout much of the 20th century. Educationalists and psychologists often perceived adults as out of touch and diagnosed adulthood as a rigid and backward-oriented condition.

The cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, who played a central role in promoting the idealisation of adolescence, communicated a distinctly downbeat account of adulthood. ‘All adults are to some extent out of touch with the newest patterns of behavior as they most particularly affect the behavior of adolescents’, she wrote in 1940.40 Other experts were far less charitable and acted as if it were their job to insulate young people from the toxic influence of adults. L.K. Frank, who played a central role in the promotion and institutionalisation of the new science of childhood in the US, continually called into question the view that adults possessed the wisdom and maturity required to guide the development of the young.

Frank held parents responsible ‘for so many of the tragedies among adolescents’. He observed that ‘we are beginning to realize that the very family life that enjoys the highest social approval for its conformity’ to ‘traditional practices and beliefs, may, ironically enough, be responsible for the misconduct and disastrous lives of the children and youth who have been subject to that kind of child rearing’.41 Frank was no cultural outlier. He was Foundation Officer with the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial and the General Education Board during the 1920s and the 1930s. Later, he became Director of the Caroline Zachry Institute for Human Development, 1945−1950, and Chairman of the International Preparatory Commission for the International Congress on Mental Hygiene, London, 1948. According to one account, Frank was ‘the architect and administrator of several major foundation-sponsored programs in child development and parent education and in culture and personality’. He formulated and advanced a socio-political project for the development and dissemination of new, ‘“enlightened” methods for socializing children and adolescents’.42 He was in regular contact and collaborated with the leading authorities on adolescence, and his negative appraisal of the role of adults in children’s development was more or less shared by them.

There was of course a normative lag between the negative attitude towards adulthood expressed by Frank and other clinical and academic experts and the general public. Within communities, everyday discussions on generational tensions and about the challenge of bringing up children were rarely accompanied by a negative framing of adulthood. It would take time before the moral devaluation of adulthood would gain a wider hearing and become a recurrent theme in popular culture. Mintz pointed out that ‘the emergence of a more sceptical and even cynical attitude towards adulthood did not occur overnight’.43 There were traces of this attitude in the late 19th century but it wasn’t until the 1940s that it gained significant institutional support, and it would take another couple of decades before the devaluation of adulthood came to be reflected in popular culture.

Mintz’s study represents one of the very few attempts to account for the shifting of attitudes towards adulthood. In his discussion of American coming-of-age novels that deal with the trials of making the adjustment to adulthood, he noted that

Over time, we can detect within these American coming-of-age tales a striking shift in attitude. Whereas the earlier works viewed the achievement of mature adulthood positively, during the twentieth century growing numbers expressed disdain and alienation from the attributes of conventional adulthood. Some books like Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers (1925), and especially those that followed Catcher in the Rye, are more cynical, critical, or ironic tales of alienation, disaffection, and angst.44

Mintz added that ‘if literary depictions of coming of age have grown more ambivalent or even hostile toward conventional adulthood, the same is true in real life’.45

Adulthood is not only seen as morally inferior to youth but is also frequently depicted as an undesirable and unattractive phase of life. In 1963, Keniston pointed out that young people ‘frequently view the more public aspects of adult life as empty, meaningless, a rat race, a futile treadmill’. He asserted that ‘adulthood suffers by comparison with childhood’ with its imaginative life of ‘spontaneity, freedom, and warmth’.46 Writing more than half a century later, Mintz echoed the same theme; ‘today, many young adults view the traditional markers of adulthood with suspicion and contempt, associating adulthood with weighty, unwelcome responsibilities, closed-off options, and stultifying, button-down conformity’.47

In the 21st century it is difficult to come across any positive accounts of adulthood in popular culture. While the current mood of disenchantment with adulthood is unparalleled, it is essential to note that its devaluation is not a novel phenomenon. One reason why adulthood was not discovered at the same time as adolescence was because the attention of psychologists and social investigators was almost entirely focused on young people. Unlike adults, the youth were seen as susceptible to expert guidance. The young were seen to possess potential; many psychologists and educators regarded them as a pliable material that could be moulded and influenced to become the bearers for progress. In contrast, bereft of potential and energy, adulthood was depicted as lacking in vigour, as exhausted and an obstacle to change. No wonder that many of the early explorers of adolescence soon declared that the 20th century would be the ‘century of the child’.48

The psychologist and educator William Kessen described the attitudes that characterised ‘century of the child’ advocates as a ‘salvationist view of children’.49 According to this view, children were by nature innately good, with impulses that needed to be allowed to flourish and develop. Proponents of the salvationist view of children believed that, through social engineering, the reform of education would lead to the reform of society. This sentiment, which was particularly influential among child psychologists, endures to this day. Kessen wrote that child psychologists, ‘whatever their theoretical stripe, have taken the Romantic notion of childish innocence and openness a long way towards the several forms of “if only we could make matters right with the child, the world would be a better place”’. He added that the ‘child became the carrier, of political progressivism and the optimism of reformers’.50 This point is emphasised in Jane Golden’s Babies Made Us Modern, where she argues that it was through the care of babies that psychology created a new modern understanding of the self.51

In the 1920s, American and English progressive educators believed that children could play a vital role in the moral regeneration of the nation. ‘This regeneration was to be achieved through developing the spiritual life of the child, primarily by means of promoting individual creativity’, noted one study of this movement.52 From this perspective, the exercise of adult authority at home and in schools tended to be seen as an obstacle to the spontaneous development of a child.

Psychologists, along with the influential Mental Hygiene movement, were drawn towards the salvationist ethos and argued that the ‘scientific promotion of well-being in childhood could prevent adult dysfunctions’.53 This belief was linked to the conviction that the road to progress was founded on the influence that psychologists and educators could exert on children. According to a study of this movement, the ‘mental hygiene paradigm originated with the premise that society could be perfected through the socialization of children’.54 An alliance of psychologically informed ‘child savers’ believed that adults, and particularly parents, stood in the way between it and children.

Unlike adults, who were stuck in their ways, children were malleable and open to the guidance provided by enlightened expertise. This point was strongly underlined by a group of psychologists at the end of the Second World War in their Peace Manifesto. In this Manifesto, its main author Gordon Allport elaborated the premise on which psychology based its differential attitude towards adults and children.

In planning for permanent peace, the coming generation should be the primary focus of attention. Children are plastic; they will readily accept symbols of unity and an international way of thinking in which imperialism, prejudice, insecurity, and ignorance are minimized.55

The belief that children were plastic and could be influenced to adopt the kind of progressive sentiments that could prevent wars and conflicts inspired many psychologists and child professionals with hope. As we shall see, this sentiment also encouraged them to adopt policies of social engineering that were designed to harness the malleability of children to the realisation of political objectives.

The devaluation of adulthood

It is frequently argued that the devaluation of adulthood, and particularly the authority of parents, was the outcome of profound socio-economic changes. In his study of adulthood, Mintz contends that the loss of respect for the status of the elderly in the US was due to the fact that in the late 19th century ‘old age was increasingly associated with dependency, physical disability, mental debility, and a host of character problems including depression, bitterness, hypochondria, and an inability to absorb new ideas’. He added that other factors that contributed to the negative perception of old age were ‘mounting economic dependency of the elderly, in an increasingly urban and industrial society’. He also cites ‘an increasing incidence of chronic degenerative conditions amongst the elderly as medical advances reduced the number of deaths caused by infections and epidemic disease and extended life expectancy’. Finally, Mintz attributes changing attitudes towards adulthood to ‘a cult of youth, which regarded the elderly as inflexible, unadaptable, and out of step with the times, and as inefficient and unproductive workers’.56

It is likely that some of the developments cited by Mintz contributed to the unravelling of adult authority. However, it should be noted that rapid economic change, urbanisation and increased life expectancy did not lead to a loss of respect for the elderly in many cultures such as in Japan or China. Nor should youth culture be perceived as one of the causes of the decline of adult authority. On the contrary, the rise of youth culture should be understood as a symptom of the decline of the cultural and moral status of adulthood. As early as 1938, the philosopher George Boas drew attention to the estrangement of adults from adulthood:

We who have grown up so hanker after childhood that we openly deny our years. Has there ever been a period when adults so brazenly have pretended to be young? No matter what their age, our women dress and act like girls, our men like undergraduates. The greatest compliment you can pay a person is to remark upon his youthful appearance. Every- thing is done to conceal the fact that human life lasts longer than 25 years.57

In 1942, Parsons related the rise of youth culture to the decline of the appeal of adulthood. He remarked that youth respond to adulthood ‘negatively’ and noted that ‘there is a strong tendency to repudiate interest in adult things and to feel at least a certain recalcitrance to the pressure of adult expectations and discipline’.58

Mintz is right to draw attention to a narrative that portrayed adults, and particularly older adults, as inflexible and out of step with a rapidly changing world. However, this narrative was not simply a direct response to social change. The cultural script of adult irrelevance expressed the point of view of a coalition of anti-traditionalist, progressive, technocratic professionals, whose project of moral engineering directly targeted beliefs and practices that were rooted in the old ways. Their social scientific knowledge often served to validate the promotion of subordinating the status of adulthood to the authority of the expert. Their outlook towards the old was justified on the ground that in a rapidly changing world adults struggled to keep up with their children. From this perspective, not only were adults out of touch with a constantly changing world but their archaic ideas could only confuse and misguide the younger generation. They were portrayed as both irrelevant and a negative influence on young people. The conclusion drawn by the experts was that the socialisation of young people required the intervention of professional social engineers, who, unlike most parents, possessed the most up to date, modern ideas. The devaluation of adulthood was not so much the direct outcome of socio-economic changes but of the professionalisation of the management of inter-generational relations.

Throughout the 20th century there persisted a ‘normative lag between common sense and social science discourse’ on adulthood.59 The diagnosis of the inflexible and out of touch adult was developed and promoted by experts such as psychologists, child professionals and educationalists. Through the decades their discourse gained a wider influence through its promotion by the media, commentators and cultural influencers. However, throughout the 20th century the normative lag between expert knowledge and common-sense views ensured that this negative diagnosis of adulthood had less influence over folk knowledge and communities than on circles of professionals. Nevertheless, with the passing of time this negative diagnosis gained greater and greater authority, which eventually led to the wider cultural devaluation of adulthood and of the attributes associated with it, such as maturity, experience and responsibility.

The line of attack against the authority of adulthood developed along three different fields. First, adulthood was indicted on account of its inflexibility, its inability to move with the times and its adherence to out of date archaic values. Secondly, adulthood was attacked for its supposed negative influence on the development of young people. Thirdly, the values associated with adulthood came under fire − particularly those of maturity and responsibility − on the grounds that they constrained spontaneity and freedom enjoyed by youth.

From its conceptualisation as a distinct stage, adulthood was often unfavourably contrasted with youth on the ground of its inflexibility. The inability of adults to adapt to changing circumstances was and remains a constant theme in the literature on inter-generational relations. In his analysis of the situation in interwar Germany, Fromm painted a picture of desperate, disoriented adults faced with being left behind by the younger generations. He asserted that during the upheavals in post-First World War Germany, ‘the older generation was bewildered and puzzled and much less adapted to the new conditions than the smarter younger generation’. Fromm added that ‘the younger generation acted as they pleased and cared no longer whether their actions were approved by their parents or not’.60 Fromm’s description of the repudiation of the moral status of adulthood by the ‘smarter younger generation’ implied that in the context of the new conditions adult authority rightly lost its legitimacy.

Typically, attacks on adult authority were also linked to its alleged failure to rise to the challenge of guiding and socialising young people. The ineptitude of adults in the domain of childrearing was often attributed to differences in generational experiences and values. ‘Not only are parent and child, at any given moment, in different stages of development, but the content which the parent acquired at the stage where the child now is, was a different content from that which the child is now acquiring’, argued Kingsley Davis in 1940. Davis, who was a demographer with a keen interest in generational interaction, concluded that when parents attempt to socialise their children, they ‘apply the erstwhile but now inappropriate content’.61

Davis was sympathetic to the predicament faced by adults whose outlook based on the experience of the past lagged behind that of the adolescents they attempted to influence. He believed that this situation could not be remedied because parents could not ‘modernize’ their point of view, because they were the product of their own childhood experiences:

He can change in superficial ways, such as learning a new tune, but he cannot change (or want to change) the initial modes of thinking upon which his subsequent social experience has been built. To change the basic conceptions by which he has learned to judge the rightness and reality of all specific situations would be to render subsequent experience meaningless, to make an empty caricature of what had been his life.62

Davis’ argument about the time and cultural lag between the experience and outlook of generations was widely shared by experts by the early 1940s. Inter-generational conflict was often interpreted and explained through the model of differential generational experience.63

In contrast to Davis’ sympathetic depiction of an adulthood steeped in the experiences of the past, politically motivated commentators accused the older generations of wilfully misleading the young by subjecting them to their archaic prejudices. Their narrative of condemnation focused on the damage that adults, particularly in their role as parents, allegedly inflicted on their children. The psychiatrist Brock Chisholm, who was the first Director of the World Health Organisation (WHO), adopted a strident tone in his denunciation of old taboos that the old impose on the young. He argued that

Old ideas and customs are generally called ‘good’ or ‘sound,’ and new ideas, or experimental thinking or behavior, are usually labeled ‘bad,’ ‘unsound,’ ‘communist,’ ‘heretical,’ or any of many other words. The power these words have obtained over much of the race is astonishing. They are the symbols of the control that older people and the past have, and cling to, over young people and the future.64

Chisholm blamed the outbreak of world wars and conflicts on the imposition of the old ways on young people. ‘We have swallowed all manner of poisonous certainties fed us by our parents, our Sunday and day school-teachers, our politicians, our priests’, argued Chisholm.65

Chisholm’s attack on the ‘old ways’ was linked to his romanticised idealisation of children. He called for the protection of ‘that freedom present in all children’, which has been ‘destroyed or crippled’ in the past through the imposition of adult control. His call for liberating children from the clutches of their elders was conveyed in a radical and provocative tone. But similar sentiments were widely circulated by child professionals, though expressed in a far more restrained manner. As Director of the WHO and a leading figure in the international mental health establishment, Chisholm enjoyed significant global authority. In a ‘Foreword’ to Chisholm’s published lecture on this subject, Abe Fortas, who was the American Under Secretary of the Interior, praised his call to put aside the ‘mistaken old ways of our elders’.66

Adults were not simply condemned for imposing the old ways on the younger generations – they were also blamed for inflicting a variety of mental health problems on their children. During the 1940s and 1950s, the behaviour of authoritarian-inclined adults was diagnosed by psychologists as the outcome of repressive forms of childrearing. Writing in the midst of the war against Nazi Germany, Frank warned that ‘it begins to appear that those who threaten or defeat social order are the individuals who have been warped and distorted by their nurture and rearing’.67 By the mid-20th century similar sentiments were frequently conveyed by psychologists, parenting experts and child professionals. As the historian Joanne Meyerowitz outlined:

In one widespread formulation (simplified here), parents − with the blessings of their culture − repressed their children, which caused frustration in early childhood, which in turn caused aggression and neurosis in adult citizens. This formula could be used to explain social ills in various cultures. In one common variation, authoritarian German fathers repressed their children who then grew up to be fascists and racists; in another, smothering American mothers reared delinquent or homosexual sons. As one commentator noted, ‘The clinging mother is the great emotional menace in American psychological life, the counterpart to the domineering father in England and on the Continent’.68

The cumulative effect of the representation of parents as the cause of children’s mental health problems drew attention to yet one more unattractive feature of adulthood.

The claim that adults were unwittingly messing up young people was routinely promoted by experts whose unflattering representation of parenthood served as an invitation for their professional services. This attitude was regularly advocated from the interwar era onwards. Writing in 1930, the British parenting expert Jean Ayling warned that ‘most of the children of my acquaintance are already badly damaged at an early age’. Her solution was to limit the role of parents, since they have a ‘strictly bounded domain of usefulness’, and to assign the wider task of child socialisation to the helping professions.69

The authority of adulthood acquired its most corrosive dimension in relation to the ambiguity surrounding the value of maturity. ‘“Maturity” acts as a central metaphor encompassing normative achievements and attributes of adulthood’, noted Harry Blatterer.70 Yet, although maturity is a frequent object of praise and seen as essential for the exercise of authority and leadership in a variety of institutional settings, it also conveys undesirable and negative connotations in popular culture. The most extreme version of the narrative of anti-maturity can be found in the writings of the German psychoanalyst Wilhem Reich, who, according to one account, ‘expressed his hatred of all doctrines of maturity’.71

The normative status of maturity was contested by the very construction of adolescence. The frequent description of adolescence as the ‘best days of your life’ conveys the implication that something precious is lost in the transition to adulthood. Bryan Adams’ hit song, the ‘Summer of ’69’, described a moment when he and ‘some guys from school’ set up a band and, looking back at that summer, he recalled wistfully:

Oh, when I look back now

That summer seemed to last forever

And if I had the choice

Yeah, I’d always wanna be there

Those were the best days of my life.72

The phrase ‘I’d always wanna be there’ does not simply convey the sentiment of wishing to be forever young but also the implicit disavowal of the normative status of maturity and responsibility.

Back in 1942, Parsons portrayed the values motivating the then emerging youth culture as one that directly contradicted the normative attributes of adulthood. He outlined his thesis in the following terms:

Perhaps the best single point of reference for characterizing the youth culture lies in its contrast with the dominant pattern of the adult male role. By contrast with the emphasis on responsibility in this role, the orientation of the youth culture is more or less specifically irresponsible. One of its dominant features themes is ‘having a good time’ in relation to which there is a particularly strong emphasis on social activities in company with the opposite sex. A second predominant characteristic on the male side lies in the prominence of athletics, which is an avenue of achievement and competition which stands in sharp contrast to the primary standards of adult achievement in professional and executive capacities.73

During the 1940s adulthood and youth culture existed in an uneasy relationship with one another. Formally, the authority of adulthood still enjoyed significant cultural and institutional validation and youth culture tended to be dismissed as a phase rather than a desirable end point in life. But even at this point in time, the common-sense view of adulthood was questioned by the emerging professional discourse on the subject.

Margaret Mead highlighted the fragility of the authority of adulthood. Like Fromm, she too believed that the young were the ‘smarter’ generation:

By and large, the American father has an attitude towards his children which may be loosely classified as autumnal. They are his for a brief and passing season, and in a very short time they will be operating gadgets which he does not understand and jokingly talking a language to which he has no clue.74

There is an unmistakable tone of derision in her description of the rejection of adults by the young. The child soon learns that grandparents are ‘not really necessary’, she wrote, and suggested that in America young people trust themselves more than their parents and their leaders.75

The positive narrative regarding the maturity of adulthood still competes with those that promote the antithesis of the qualities attributed to maturity. However, in contrast to the 1940s the moral status of adulthood rests on far more fragile foundations. As one observer commented recently, ‘our social institutions and technological devices seem to erode hallmarks of maturity: patience, empathy, solidarity, humility and commitment to a project greater than oneself’.76 Whereas previously maturity was associated with positive qualities, in the contemporary era popular culture often portrays it as an undesirable state and stage of life, if not a form of social death. There are of course historical precedents for the phenomenon of infantilisation. But this trend, which existed on the margins of social life, has in recent times gone mainstream, especially in the Anglo-American world.

The social science literature on adulthood has tended to underestimate the fragile normative foundation for maturity. It frequently claims that the problem only kicked in during the 1960s or 1970s, or even later. Writing in this vein, the social analyst Reuel Denney wrote in 1963 that previously there had been a ‘general acceptance of a clear-cut idea of adult identity and maturity’, before concluding that ‘today’ ‘this concept no longer exists so clearly’.77 Blatterer suggests that ‘adulthood’s normative status as the ultimate benchmark of adult maturity’, though based on the experience of the 1950s and 1960s, still ‘remains robust’.78 Our analysis suggests that while adulthood persists as a model of maturity, it has lost much of its moral status and struggles to retain its role as a desirable destination in the life course. While maturity is associated with psychological health, there is an evident cultural trend that encourages young people to regard maturity as a status to be avoided.79

The recently invented word adulting is the rhetorical achievement of a culture that increasingly portrays the identity of an adult as one that no sensible person would enthusiastically embrace. In the Anglo-American world, adulthood is constantly portrayed as disagreeable and the responsibilities attached to it as an impossible burden. The tendency to portray adulting as an unusually difficult and unpleasant accomplishment that has to be taught coexists with a palpable sense of disenchantment with the status of adulthood. In all but name adulthood has become destabilised to the point that it has become a target of scorn and for many an undesirable identity. No wonder that adulting is an activity that many biologically mature individuals are only prepared to do on a part-time basis.

In 1970 Keniston pointed out that from the point of view of youth, adulthood appears as a state of stasis. He underlined ‘its unconscious equation with death or nonbeing’. Consequently, he concluded that ‘the desire to prolong youth indefinitely springs not only from an accurate perception of the real disadvantages of adult status’ but also ‘from the less conscious and less accurate assumption that to “grow up” is in some ultimate sense to cease to be real’.80 This statement, made over half a century ago, captures a trend that has acquired greater visibility and force in the current era.

Transition to what?

In its original conceptualisation, adolescence was presented as a transitional phase in a jowurney towards adulthood. By the 1960s, there were clear indications that many young people did not want to embark on this journey. At this point, Keniston represented youth culture as ‘an expression of the reluctance of many young men and women to face the unknown perils of adulthood’.81 At the end of the decade Erikson observed that young people, ‘transient as they are, declare the world beyond youth to be totally void and faceless’.82

The devaluation of adult identity has important implications for the process of transition from adolescence to adulthood. In effect it means, as Mintz contends, that ‘the normative scripts of adolescent-to-adult-transition has broken down’.83 Once adulthood becomes disparaged by significant sections of society, it ceases to serve as a desirable goal for generational transition. As Eisenstadt remarked, ‘the close linkage between the growth of personality, psychological maturation, and definite role models derived from the adult world has become greatly weakened’.84 In these circumstances the question of ‘transition to what?’ becomes pertinent.

The successful resolution of identity crisis during the phase of adolescence depends on the availability of a clear model of adulthood. The gaining of identity depends on understanding who you are and how you fit into society. Gaining such an identity is ‘easier if the society already has a clear role that you are expected to fill and respects you for filling it, and you have good role models’.85 Erikson claimed that clarity about the meaning of adulthood is critical for the resolution of young people’s identity crisis and the acquisition of a robust identity. He commented that without a clear ‘definition of adulthood’ any ‘question of identity is self-indulgent luxury’. According to him, the ‘problem of adulthood is how to take care of those to whom one finds oneself committed as one emerges from the identity period, and to whom one now owes their identity’.86

Since adulthood is meant to provide the model that guides the formation of identity, the weakening of its status and appeal has important implications for the process of transition from adolescence. This issue was alluded to by Erikson when he raised concerns about the problem of giving meaning to adult authority. He was critical of the failure of adult society to provide the leadership that adolescents required to resolve their crisis of identity. What was at stake was not simply a question of adults not providing inspiring leadership but also their inability to uphold the ideals to which the young should aspire. Erikson warned that ‘we must not overlook what appears to be a certain abrogation of responsibility on the part of the older generation in providing those forceful ideals which must antecede identity formation in the next generation – if only so that youth can rebel against a well-defined set of older values’.87

Erikson’s concern with the failure of adult society to provide the forceful ideas that are necessary to identity formation is to the point. However, the absence of such forceful ideals is not due to a character defect of the older generations. By the time Erikson penned his thoughts on this issue not only was the normative foundation of adulthood seriously undermined but also adult society was struggling to articulate the ideals and philosophical outlook needed to share with the younger generation. Over the decades the norms and values that guided generations in the past were systematically called into question by experts who continually claimed that rapid change had made them irrelevant. This loss of continuity had important implications for the cultivation of adolescent identity. ‘For, recall that one of the chief tasks of identity formation is the creation of a sense of self that will link the past, the present and the future’, asserted Keniston.88 Having invested so much emotion and energy in renouncing the influence of the past and its traditions, psychologists and related professionals have made a significant contribution to the erosion of the sense of continuity required for the formation of stable identities.

Back in 1950, Benjamin Spock, arguably the most influential parenting expert of the Cold War era, expressed the hope that the crisis of identity among the young could be overcome with a ‘fundamental reemphasis on all childhood education, in which human feelings and family relations will become the core’. He added that ‘the result to be hoped for is that the idea of eventually being a father or being a mother will sound like an exciting aim throughout childhood’.89 Spock hoped that stable and well-defined roles could offer adulthood the meaning that could inspire the young. As subsequent events indicate, that hope proved to be illusory.

The detachment of the present from the past meant that adulthood lacked a narrative with which it could confidently assist the project of identity formation.

As an implicit refusal of accepting adulthood gained cultural force, the process of identity acquisition appeared increasingly problematic. A group of sociologists echo this point: ‘contemporary society makes adolescents of us all, and thus identity crisis becomes the typical biographical crisis of the modern person’.90 While this problem afflicts all the generations, its impact is particularly confusing for the young. ‘True identity’, remarked Erikson, ‘depends on the support which the young individual receives from the collective sense of identity characterising the social groups significant to him: his class, his nation, his culture.’91 As the following chapter explains, the prevailing regime of socialisation failed to answer the question of how to provide young people with a collective sense of identity.

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