Sunday, August 22, 2010

Entering Adulthood in a Complex World

While in high school, I wrote a speech and then a term paper on the idea of adolescence, arguing that it was a myth, originally perpetrated by psychologist G. Stanley Hall, and eventually so absorbed into the American (Western?) psyche as to become fact. As a young "overachiever" I often felt constrained by the low expectations of adults, and sometimes felt as if they saw just my age, rather than seeing me. Looking back, I'm sure that I wasn't as mature as I felt, but I still hold to the statement that our society sets the bar far too low for the majority of adolescents. Humans have a tendency to live up or down to the expectations set for them.


At the same time, as I gain perspective in the complexity of the modern world I also understand why an "adolescent" stage can be beneficial, or even necessary, in bringing young people into adulthood. Although I wouldn't argue that life today is harder I do believe that modern life by definition is more complicated, so I see a place for a more gradual process of coming into adulthood. The creation of the idea of adolescence came in response to the industrialization of society, as more education/experience was considered necessary to function in the world. An article recently published in the NY Times makes the argument that we are beginning to see a similar stage present itself in "20-somethings". Just as a hundred years ago high school was a newer development, a reflection of the increased importance of education, so also today it is becoming necessary, even essential, to have a bachelor's, a master's, or even a doctorate. As education takes longer, and people are waiting longer to marry and have children as a result, a transition stage, echoing the transition of adolescents from children to adults, is beginning to present itself.

While higher and higher levels of formal education are required or expected, the need for other kinds of education has also become evident. In a world with an incredibly complex financial system, where there's a whole lot more to selling and buying a house than shaking hands, turning over the money, and signing a paper, it is more difficult to act as an adult, because more information or experience is required to do so properly. Life is not necessarily harder, but it is more complex. Much of the experience needed to function as an adult can only be acquired one way, experience. As high school (and now college) has replaced apprenticeships as the primary means of education, we have a lot more factual knowledge, but young people are often lacking the practical application of it. It is assumed that a college education prepares you for life, and although it absolutely is an excellent tool, I think many college graduates feel unprepared for other more practical aspects of adult life. I know for myself, I married young and was unprepared for the independent discipline required to live as an adult. I didn't go on campus to college, and I can definitely see how this would be a good first step, since it is a stepping stone between dependence on parental direction and adult independence, leaving room for mistakes and learning experiences in an environment that is lower stakes than a job.

There must be a balance, between paying the consequences for mistakes, and feeling as if a failure is insurmountable. Perhaps some sort of a return to an apprenticeship system would be helpful, not in signing our lives away as was the custom, but in a learning and mentoring based process, which acknowledges a young person’s status as a student, and gives practical instruction, and provides set milestones to adulthood. It would take the work of adults, parents and others, willing to step in, mentor, and direct. It would mean the setting of high standards, holding young people to levels of behavior and discipline, expecting hard work and accomplishment, and giving them the tools to succeed all the while providing room to fail, room to grow, room to become adults.

Perhaps someone needs to write a book: "What I Wish My Parents Taught Me: Lifeskills of an Adult".

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