Delayed Adulthood: Preliminary Thoughts

I have written a bit over the last year about my problems with technological progress and consumerist ideology. One of the most serious consequences of these trends that I have yet to touch upon is delayed adulthood.

Commentators and social theorists are observing that my generation is not growing up. Young adults now take five years on average to get a bachelor’s degree. Marriage, children, home ownership, and a career that can support them all are each coming much later. In the meantime, my generation is living at home with mom and dad, if not all the time, at least some of the time – I myself have had to move in and out of my parent’s home a few times since I graduated.

Only in modern day Western societies, where the struggle for daily existence has been abolished for the majority of the population, could the phenomenon of delayed adulthood arise. It isn’t just that there are too many college degrees and not enough jobs, though that plays an important role. Prolonged education is a part of delayed adulthood. Millions of young people have absolutely no idea what they want to do, what sort of goals they should set for themselves, or what it is that makes life worth living. Meaningful religion has been scrubbed from most of their lives, replaced with some version of Cafeteria Christianity, New Age occultism, or far more frequently, agnosticism, cynicism, relativism and nihilism.

In short, for many in our generation, there is nothing to look forward to. Throughout human history there were new frontiers for each new generation to explore, both physical and intellectual. In our day and age, the physical frontier is space, and unless you have about twenty million dollars, a trip to the space-station is out of the question. The intellectual frontiers are still exciting for those with the aptitude and desire to explore the hard sciences, especially quantum physics. But if we turn to the social sciences and humanities, where many aimless college students end up, the frontiers have been fenced off by the guardians of academic consensus.

It isn’t that my generation cannot let go of childhood; rather, it looks out beyond it and sees a meaningless existence, where one works to acquire things which make work bearable in the pursuit of more things. Some lucky souls will find careers that satisfy them, but at a rapidly increasing rate young people are cycling not only through jobs but whole careers. Majors are selected arbitrarily and changed arbitrarily – it is “no big deal”. One day one’s whole life can be dedicated to psychology; the next, communications; the next, anthropology.

Life has become one large cafeteria, in fact, and it has been since the advent of consumerism and the technological infrastructure that made it possible. What began in the realm of consumer goods was inevitably going to end up happening in the realm of ideas, attitudes, lifestyles, and even major life choices. We are not merely physical consumers of physical goods; our souls too are consumers of immaterial goods. One article I read put the problem plainly: we have so many choices that they weigh us down and overwhelm us. And we can have so much of whatever we choose that it will inevitably loose its distinctive flavor and taste like anything else.

Because we are social beings we will always have a natural inclination to have a place in a well-defined social order, regardless of our libertarian, anarchist, or Satanic pretensions. And because we are specially created souls in the image of God we will always have a desire for fulfillment and completion on an individual level regardless of our collectivist pretensions. Neither dimension of our human existence can be fulfilled in a mass-consumerist society.

Part of the problem of delayed adulthood is a growing lack of respect for the young person as a human being. It is, as I have noted elsewhere, the “flip side” of abortion on demand. With abortion the child is disposed of as an unwanted commodity; with delayed adulthood, the child becomes the object of disproportionate and ultimately unhealthy levels of protection and care, a commodity to be put on display or safely stowed away. For most of human history adulthood practically began during the teenage years. Today it begins for many during their mid-late 20s. I imagine some will point to longer life-spans as a justification for some of this, but our social, emotional and intellectual capacities do not change with them. They can be warped by society but the damage can also be undone.

Children in our society are simultaneously exposed to horrific levels of sex and violence and confronted with dozens of institutions, rules, laws, and authority figures that supposedly exist to keep them safe and regimented. Such a contrast only renders each and every one of the latter a meaningless and sometimes cruel joke. Our society is incapable of sending one clear, consistent, comprehensible message to young people. This contributes greatly to their general confusion.

The truth is that I do not mind, and believe it is healthy, that young people are exposed to “dangerous” things, because life is dangerous, and knowledge is better than ignorance. Our schizophrenic culture, which has completely and hopelessly lost touch with the notion of moderation, either creates unrealistically sterile and wholesome environments, or those which are over-saturated with, and glorify, that which is evil and corrupt. We celebrate and wish to preserve at all costs “the innocence of childhood” long past the point – well into the teenage years – that it should have been left behind.

I do believe, however, that we can learn from our mistakes. There is no reason why we must raise and educate young people in such a way that the world has lost all wonder and meaning. By introducing them to greater responsibilities at a younger age, and more importantly, great ideas and perennial questions about life, society, spirituality, etc., we can turn the tide of empty relativism. The simple statement that there is a knowable truth, no matter who believes it, independent of opinion and emotion, approachable – if not 100% knowable – by the mind and the senses, could inspire new generations.

Even those incurably bored by such pursuits could benefit greatly from simply being treated as a capable human being as soon as possible (as I pointed out in an earlier post, I believe education needs to take personal aptitudes and desires into account). Delayed adulthood, the prolonging of innocence, only serves the misplaced desires of parents, teachers, and other caretakers of the young – it does not help the child or the student. We must prepare and equip our children to deal with a broken and fallen world, and instill in them a hope that in spite of its brokenness it is worth living in and preserving.

5 Responses to Delayed Adulthood: Preliminary Thoughts

  • e. says:

    I think some of the reasons for the seemingly sad symptoms of modern-day society that are described herein are due to not only the preceding enlightenment periods that (quite sadly) came to ultimately define it, but also the many wealth of “opportunities” that appear to lay open to young people these days, not only with respect to the secular but also to the spiritual.

    With respect to the former, when there is such an enormous menu of careers to choose from these days and given the underlying prerogative of wont for wealth, which the world itself teaches as a primary consideration; it shouldn’t be any wonder why such youths feel compelled to switch from one opportunity to the next, in pursuit of what is the current flavor of the month as well as in the perennial search for greener pasteurs.

    As for the latter, the spiritual has become likewise such a vast menu, with not only the assembly of world religions but also the birth of entirely new ones that seem to sprout almost as mysteriously; the search for meaning becomes especially confused and frustrated when all religions (unfortunately, even the Christian one) seem to be conveying the thought that one religion is just as good as any other, in some sort of universal ecumenical gospel.

    Therefore, concerning the same, if you must decry the “Cafeterianism” that is remarkably prevalent in today’s society; you should accordingly decry the cafeterias themselves which invite the very cafeterianism that you so deplore.

    In our immediate case, not only certain Catholics given to the certain relativism alluded to earlier but also certain relativist ecclesiastics themselves who ironically perpetuate life’s utter “meaninglessness”.

    There is one “Truth”; unfortunately, it’s become all too elusive even in the One True Church.

  • ben says:

    It seems that delayed adulthood can be correlated with the increased availablity and reliability of contraception.

    It seems that nature matures people so that they are ready to care for children when things are allowed to follow their natural course.

  • Interesting post. This is something that I’ve thought about a certain amount, mostly in the context of trying to buck the trend: got married at 22, first child at 23, second child at 24, bought house at 25, etc.

    I think a lot of the problem is that there’s not a generally agreed on idea of what our purpose in life is within the wider society. Indeed, one of the things that most makes me feel like I entered a separate sub-culture is that a lot of the people I graduated college with got married within six months of graduating college, had kids right away, have held down full time, career type jobs since leaving college, etc. Most people I know from other contexts didn’t “get serious” in this way until somewhere between 28 and 35. And I routinely pass for being 5-10 years older than I am simply because I’ve got four kids.

    On the other end, however, a thought based on the past: As I recall, if you look at marriage ages for men through history, the age of marriage for men in particular lowers into the early twenties back in the mid 19th century. Before that, men often didn’t marry until later — not because they were being treated as children (they were working from their early teens on) but because there were significant economic obstacles to having your own family. A man worked within his father’s household for a long time before marrying, and even then he and his wife often lived in his father’s household for some time after marriage.

    In a less afleuent society, we’d see later marriage in many cases, and more multi-generational households, but not necessarily with the same extended-childhood which we see in the age of Judd Apatow.

  • Gabriel Austin says:

    One of the finest studies of this phenomenon is Fr. Anatrella’s ADOLESCENCES INTERMINABLES.

    His other books include NON A LA SOCIETE DEPRESSIVE; LE SEXE OUBLIE; etc.

  • Mulumba Tshikuka says:

    Interesting reads. Not sure if I see eye to eye with all of this. Seems to me we’re all looking for justifications for our evolving actions. Have we considered simply that ‘delayed adulthood’ is merely a matter of choice because we can choose, that yes indeed we do have greater options, and that our parents can actually afford to have us home, and want to have us home for reasons that range from the pragmatic (pitching in for ever-increasing rents, etc) to the social (bonding and dilvuging old secrets, etc). And what exactly is wrong with switching careers several times? Where is the harm in hanging out in the cafeteria for a while? I am 35. My very religious parents had me when they were both under 20. Let me tell you, growing up was a mess and a constant battle of idiologies. Now that I am older, I have come back home so that we may bond and see eye to eye again. And while I am here, I have eased their mortgage burdens, acted as a mediator during their violent disagreements – all this as I finally get the chance to pause from working for others and map out my own publishing career…choice is wonderful.

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