Adolescence: You thought it was over at 18. Not so fast. For those who study adolescence as a stage of life, treat it as a disease, sell to it as a market, entertain it with songs and shows that make it seem the greatest time of life, it's growing and growing, providing ever new opportunities for grants, fees, and jobs and changing how we think about kids.
The Society for Adolescent Medicine, a physicians' organization, now says on its Web site that it cares for persons "10 to 26 years" of age. A National Academy of Sciences committee, surveying programs for adolescents, discussed extending its review to age 30. (To which one committee member and mother of three gasped, "Oh my God, I hope not.") The MacArthur Foundation has funded a $3.4 million project called Transitions to Adulthood, which pegs the end of that transition at 34.
The new theories also mean that plenty of Americans who vote, fight wars, buy houses and alcohol and serve in Congress can be branded as adolescents.
Not all experts agree.
Frank Furstenberg, professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, says, "Adolescence has been stretched so much it's becoming an obsolescent term."
Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, professor of developmental psychology at Columbia University, says, "It's very disrespectful. Twenty-year-olds aren't teenagers. Cognitively, emotionally, they're like adults."
The young Marines stationed in Afghanistan don't think of themselves as adolescents. "We're suffering in the cold together, defending our country together. We're all men," says Lance Cpl. William Isaac Jones, 20, of California. Adolescents are children, says Lance Cpl. Kevin Ihm, also 20, and "children stay home. That's who we protect."
Those who work with, treat and study adolescents have seen their budgets increased substantially by donations from federal agencies, foundations, local and state government and the private sector. They're hoping for more: The Younger Americans Act introduced in Congress this year would fund youth development programs to the tune of almost $6 billion over five years.
To date, the federal government's efforts have been limited to those under the age of 19. Not so that of doctors.
Thirty-two years ago, a group of pediatricians formed the Society for Adolescent Medicine (SAM); 25 years later, adolescent medicine became a board-certified sub-specialty of pediatrics. A year after that, in 1995, SAM passed a resolution defining adolescent health care as lasting till age 26.
"Our patients were getting older and we wanted to continue to treat them," says SAM President Manuel Schydlower, assistant dean for medical education at Texas Tech University School of Medicine. Schydlower personally cuts two years off the SAM model, however, pegging the end at roughly 24.
Of course, this notion disturbs those who note that the word "adolescent" is often synonymous (wrongly) with irresponsible, even dangerous people; think L.A. slacker Jody in John Singleton's "Baby Boy" or Columbine High School's real-life Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. It's also synonymous with childishness. To foist such images on young biology researchers or Marine infantrymen makes these people seem at best irrelevant and at worst infantile. It deprives them of the right to be proud of themselves as adults.
The men and women of science have reasons for their conclusions, some more logical than others. The defining of adolescence has a long history filled with the theories of well-meaning thinkers.
Once, it hardly existed at all, at least among the lower classes. Farm children took huge responsibility at early ages and behaved like adults by the time they were in their teens. The "breaker boys" of mine company coal chutes were frequently crippled for life before they'd even be allowed to flip burgers nowadays. Child labor was once such an issue that a constitutional amendment against it passed Congress, but failed to be ratified by the states.
Then the idea of public high school for the masses took hold. Later, as white-collar jobs began to outnumber blue-collar ones, it became clear that even a high school diploma wasn't sufficient to secure a well-paying job, and so many adolescents were sent off to college, further delaying their entrance into the adult world.
Educators like to boast that more high school graduates enter college now than ever before, about six in 10. But only about half of them complete four years of college, according to Jeffrey Arnett, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland. This means that the majority of young adults are in the work force. In fact, whole industries and institutions depend on our low-paid young. Fast food service is one. Another is the U.S. military, which has resisted pressure from other Western nations to outlaw the drafting of anyone under the age of 18.
From Camp Rhino in Afghanistan, Marine Cpl. Ralph Clark, 23, of Annapolis, Md., says he realized he was an adult in 1996 when Marines evacuated 846 Americans in Albania. "When I first stepped on that land, I realized that was what I had trained to do. For the first time, someone was relying on me to do something to help them."
Larger proportions of young, unmarried adults are living at home with their families, even after living independently for a while. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than one-half of men ages 18 to 24, and almost one-half of women that age, lived with their parents last year.
More significantly, the proportion of college graduates 24 and younger living with their families is rising, to more than one-third.
These are largely the sons and daughters of the middle class, the group that researchers study most frequently, the group into which their own offspring fit. They defy traditional descriptions but, like earlier generations of youths, have to be labeled so that, in the view of historian Thomas Hine, their elders can keep their awesome potential power in check.
Is "adolescent" the correct ID for this cohort? Jon Biegel doesn't think so.
Biegel, 25, graduated from Boston University three years ago with a major in psychology. He didn't know what to do next. So he returned to work as an instructor at Meadowbrook Stables in Chevy Chase, Md., where he'd taught riding during high school. He quickly was promoted to office manager, overseeing the accounts of 400 clients. This fall, he left the stables for a job as an insurance and financial agent for Mass Mutual Financial Group.
He's an earnest, hardworking guy who dresses in well-tailored suits, keeps his blond beard carefully trimmed and never travels anywhere without his portfolio, cell phone and Ford Explorer. He bought it used.
Biegel also lives with his parents, rent free. "I'd like to have a stable financial base before moving out," he says. "Do I feel like a kid because I'm living at home? No, I don't."
By the standards of his parents' generation and the generation before that, Biegel's choice to work and live at home are unusual. But he'd feel right at home in present-day Spain, Poland and other industrialized countries where young people tend to live at home even longer than their colleagues in the United States. (In Italy, the average age to leave Mom and Dad is 34 years, according to the William T. Grant Foundation, which supports research on youth issues.)
The Society for Research in Adolescence is forming a group to look at the years 18 to 29 -- and the lives of people such as Biegel.
Arnett, the group's organizer, has discarded the term adolescence in favor of "emerging adulthood." The University of Maryland psychology professor argues that it makes no sense to call young people in their late teens and twenties adolescents or even late adolescents. Boys and girls between the ages of 10 and 19 "have in common that they live with their parents, are experiencing the physical changes of puberty, are attending secondary school and are part of a school-based peer culture," he writes in the May news issue of American Psychologist. "None of this remains normative after age 18."
Arnett argues that society needs a better understanding of what it means to be an adolescent and an adult. The MacArthur Foundation's Transitions to Adulthood project aims to come up with new descriptions.
"We're about to ask the questions of when adulthood starts, why it starts when it does and how the timing of adulthood has changed," says sociologist Furstenberg, who will direct the research. Investigators "may conclude that virtually everyone regards themselves as an adult by their mid- or late twenties; nonetheless, many people are continuing to contend with adultlike transitions."
So why not call them young adults, as we used to? Do we really want them to continue to think of themselves as dependent on their elders?
Another question: Is an adult someone who is capable of being on his own, not necessarily a person who is in fact on his own? "The point should be how an individual functions, not where," says Michael Kerr, director of the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family in Georgetown.
With housing costs rising faster than food costs and insurance premiums going through the roof (especially for the young), it's tough to fly solo and, in fact, few young people do. Some seek support from their parents, others from the military service or social services. That doesn't mean they can't -- or don't -- shoulder some adult responsibilities.
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