- 09 Aug 18
Adolescence has been extended. People are living in their parents' homes for longer than ever. At times young people are gripped by what feels like a kind of terminal indecision. There is, it seems, a problem. Write Here, Write Now winner Robert Gibbons, who is due to start college this year, asks: can it really be true that we are a bunch of confused, unambitious dullards?
Preparing for college is a terrifying and exhilarating time for anybody: joining societies, getting to grips with a new campus and hearing story upon story about how easy this generation has it. Indeed, all you seem to hear, if you’re approaching the age of 20 these days, is that your generation has been cursed with Peter Pan Syndrome, doomed to be always adolescent.
I have already been treated to a litany of stories about how my parents lived in ramshackle apartments with no money, working 40 jobs and surviving on breadcrusts when they were my age. If you are a teenager in the modern era of luxury, gluttony and health and safety regulations, you have probably been treated to your own family’s version of these tales. We are the childish generation, we are told, who live in comfort, showing no drive to get off the couch and forge an independent path.
More young adults than ever are living in their parents’ homes. By age 25, we are twice as likely to still be in college, and less than half as likely to be married or have children. This has garnered for us a reputation as boring, unmotivated, juvenile. But surely there’s more to it than that? Why is almost this entire generation living up to the lyrics of Alphaville and staying ‘Forever Young’?
ONSET OF PUBERTY
Firstly, we should accept that the age of maturity has always been a shifting and rather poorly defined line. Physically: maturity occurs around puberty. Emotionally: the brain has made all of the necessary connections by 25. Socially: maturity is seen as when you’re “supporting yourself.”
But those landmarks aren’t (now or ever) carved in stone. For example, the idea of “supporting yourself” is a relatively modern one, with the idea previously being that social maturity was marked by parenthood. Neurologically and emotionally, the level of brain function required to deal with the complexity of societies has changed as our societies have become more complex. Not even puberty has managed to be consistent.
In Palaeolithic times, the average age of the onset of puberty was around 11 or 12 in girls. By 1860, this had shifted to 16.6 and since then has gradually decreased to about 12.5 today. What is drastically different today, however, is the gap between puberty and social maturity. For most of human history they existed about two years apart, regardless of the age of puberty. Today, in many cases, they can exist over two decades apart.
One clear reason for this is the effect of education. Last year the number of school leavers going on to third-level was over 60%. This number is constantly growing. The time spent in schools is increasing, while the value of the degrees is decreasing. In the past it was feasible, acceptable, normal to drop out of school at 15 and go to start an apprenticeship or work on the family farm. But now, even family farms require a degree in agricultural science at least!
It is different, of course, for people from disadvantaged backgrounds. To a far greater extent, they have to carve a path out without the benefits of academic support. But for the rest, going to college is widely seen as the minimum option.
FORCED INTO MARRIAGE
Here’s the rub. Education can be seen by older generations as a luxury, when in reality, in terms of employment opportunities, it is often a necessity. Settling down, supporting yourself, being an adult is incredibly difficult when you can’t actually get a job, unless you’ve spent a minimum of four years in college (on top of your six years of secondary education). This pressure is only exacerbated by the current state of the housing market. Most people of my age in Ireland feel that they are as likely to own a house in the future as they are to gain widespread fame as a door-to-door denim dealer.
Another aspect of education that has been a factor in staving off adulthood is sex education. Stay with me! In general, in Ireland at least, the lines of conversation about safe sex are more open than ever before. Teenagers now are more knowledgeable about contraception than any prior generation. The number of teen pregnancies fell by 64% between 2001 and 2016 (though the morning after pill probably played a part in this too). While it does happen, fewer teenagers are being pushed into growing up before their time as a result of a crisis pregnancy. Finally, the majority of us have the chance to grow and change at our own pace.
A more indirect way that the widespread availability of contraception is extending adolescence is through the benefits of family planning. There seems to be a direct correlation between the size of the family and the rate of maturing. In larger families, when parents have less time to look after each individual child, the children mature quicker. Whereas in smaller families, parents are more prone to over-parenting. They protect their child’s innocence, they defer their responsibility, they delay the growing-up process.
There has also been a cultural opinion-shift. Increasingly, it is seen as preferable for both men and women to spend more quality time with a child, to look out for them. Parents, now more than ever, are prioritising time spent with their children through all stages of development – even into adulthood.
The final major factor in this dynamic, in this part of the world, is feminism. The fight for equality triggered a period of rapid social change. There was once a model for life that I like to refer to as the “1950s Model”. If you were a man: go to school, get a job, meet a girl, get married, have children, grow old. If you were a woman: meet a man, have children, tend to the house, grow old. In many parts of the world, that model still applies. Women are seen as subservient. Religion still rules the roost, and with it the patriarchy. But in Ireland, those models are now, thankfully, outdated. Women are no longer forced into marriage or to bear children.
PERIOD OF INDECISION
What this means, ultimately, is that people here are far freer to make their own choices. To go beyond the “1950s Model”, we have to construct our own frameworks for life. In general, people are taking their time before making decisions as to what those frameworks might be.
For the majority, the “1950s Model” was seen as the essential goal of life. Now the ‘goal’ is much more complex. Mainly, it is to be personally happy – which was far too ambitious an aspiration for many in the past. But young people now also want to have a career they’re passionate about. Ideally, it should help the world too; and while they’re at it, they should also aim to be wildly successful.
The notionally simple act of deciding what to do and where to go, in personal and career terms, when every door seems to be open, frequently makes people want to pause. One wrong move and you’ll potentially be stuck in a career you hate forever! Or so the theory goes. In a world where the working assumption is that the worst thing a person can be is mediocre, the desire not to put a foot wrong anywhere can be overwhelming.
And so are we, indeed, a bunch of confused, unambitious, dullards? Not so. When you break down the factors at play in creating this “problem,” it becomes clear that they are mostly positive. Of course there is far too much inequality. Poverty is very real, and impinges on the lives of many people. But it is also true that we are living in a society where more people have much greater access to better education. Parents are paying closer attention to their children. People can decide to have a family when they’re ready, rather than having that decision made for them.
In short, it is a product of a series of positive developments in Irish society that people have more time to decide the course of their lives – and have more to consider – than ever before. They aren’t jumping on the first train out of town, marrying the first person who smiles at them, taking the first job they’re offered. Adolescence is a period of indecision, a time of consideration, a moment of calm before the flood of adulthood. But that’s okay.
Rather than panicking, be glad to know that the next generation of adults have taken their time, and are prepared to step into the world with care, contemplation – and lots of crushed avocado on toast.
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