Reviews | July 22, 2017
Life Studies: Changing Ideas on Adolescence, Adulthood, and Aging
The old believe everything, the middle aged suspect everything, and the young know everything.
Teenage: the Prehistory of Youth Culture by Jon Savage. Penguin, reprint edition, 2008, 576 pp., $18 (paper).
Emerging Adulthood: the Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties, 2nd edition by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett. Oxford University Press 2015, 394 pp., $31.95 (paper).
Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps by Kelly Williams Brown Grand Central Publishing. 2013, 273 pp., $15.99 (paper).
This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto against Ageism by Ashton Applewhite. Networked Books, 2016, 278 pp., $19.95 (paper).
Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (or Die Trying) by Bill Gifford. Grand Central Publishing 2015, 366 pp., $27.00 (hardcover).
By the age of ten, I experienced the melodrama of first love. His name was Tom, and I spent hours during summer twilight trying to catch glimpses of him from my bedroom window as he tore through the neighborhood on his red Huffy Rail with a pack of wild boys. I remember burning up with impatience and frustration, wanting my love life to begin. When I teach James Joyce’s iconic short story “Araby,” I relive my own heightened state of ardor as the narrator pines for Mangan’s sister: “Oh love, oh love,” he murmurs to himself while overcome with desire at the thought of her. As I recite these lines in literature class, one of my college students will invariably ask with incredulity, “What’s wrong with him?” Years ago, I discovered that the majority of my students have yet to experience first love, and with each passing year the milestone experience seems to happen later and later, along with first jobs and bank accounts, a driver’s license, and a desire to detach from their parents.
I wanted to understand this suspended state of adolescence, so I developed a literature class on the history of the teenager. What I discovered was that life phases have always been in flux and that scholars have worked at different points in history to redefine what it means to be an adolescent, an adult, and a senior citizen. While we are often stunned by the elasticity of youth—each generation redefines what it means to be young—we currently think of other life stages as more permanent. Yet analysis, both scientific and observational, reveals that all life stages are surprisingly flexible and offer a lively area of study.
Adolescence (Latin adolescentia, from adolescere, to grow up) is the period of psychological, social, and physical transition between childhood and adulthood. Today in the United States, we call a young person during this developmental period a “teenager” or “teen.” According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the first usage of this term occurred in a Popular Science Monthly in 1941: “I never knew teenagers could be so serious.” Today we recognize adolescence as a standard phase of human development when young people try to make sense of and navigate the world. In Teenage: the Creation of Youth Culture, British journalist and broadcaster Jon Savage reminds us that adolescence was not always deemed a separate life stage subject to certain stresses, needs, and desires. Chock-full of detail from popular culture and social history, the book reconstructs an interesting prehistory of “the teen,” from an era when theorists were still working out the concept and its implications.
According to Savage, even advanced economies did not always treat adolescents as thoughtfully as they often do today. In the 1850s, slum children, routinely disparaged in the press, lazed about American city streets half-drunk and malnourished, without home or occupation. Believing that adulthood immediately followed childhood, society expected them to fend for themselves. Lacking adult support, they formed gangs. Savage’s depiction of these tight-knit groups of youth provides some of Teenager’s most riveting reading. By 1890, gangs divvied up Manhattan’s Times Square into clearly defined kingdoms: the Five Pointers, the Eastmans, the Gas House gang, the Gophers, the Fashion Plates, the Marginals, and the Pearlbuttons. They offered a detailed menu for the crimes they were willing to commit. Punching was $2; doing “the big job” ran around $100. Although prostitution was one of their more prosperous enterprises, women had their own clans—the Lady Locusts, the Lady Liberties, and the Lady Gophers.
Savage also details America’s gang influence on France and England. The French were so fascinated by Native American culture—much of it inspired by James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel The Last of the Mohicans—that the most notorious gang in Paris called themselves the Apaches. They had an extravagant dress code: black jackets worn with colored shirts and kerchiefs. They sported “tummy ache” pants, baggy trousers bunched at the waist with thick leather belts fastened with heavy brass buckles. They topped off their getups with flat caps, tattoos, and haughty attitudes as they perfected pickpocket techniques still used today.
Without the existence of social services for needy children, Savage points out, defining adolescent independence through gang association was an unfortunate aspect of life during the new century. He paints a grim picture of day-to-day existence for the young in New York City. Juvenile delinquency was calamitous—in 1889, of the 82,000 arrested by Manhattan police, more than 10,000 were under twenty years old. There were few opportunities to keep them out of trouble. Despite the misguided but popular belief that America was a classless society, most people who were born poor stayed poor and struggled for survival. According to Savage, a significant number of children routinely abandoned on the streets died, while a lucky few found occasional employment as newspaper carriers, porters, flower sellers, domestics, and errand boys.
Savage reminds us that a century earlier, Rousseau had argued that puberty—usually beginning around twelve or thirteen and ending at eighteen or nineteen—had such outstandingly unique emotional and mental qualities that it represented “a second birth.” Rousseau defined the characteristics of this stage as “temper, outbreaks of anger, and a perpetual stirring of the mind” and argued that because of these “storms and stresses” the interval between childhood and adulthood needed to be prolonged. By the 1870s, G. Stanley Hall, a leading genetic psychologist who devoted his career to the study of youth, took the philosopher’s recommendations seriously. Hall believed that “as a civilization advances, education broadens. The school years lengthen inevitably as the community tones up its ideals.” Any attempt to restrict the time spent in school or college was “an attempt to return to savage conditions.” Hall argued that the goal of education should be to bring young people through adolescence “with the greatest perfection of development.”
American and European governments began to listen, developing and instituting compulsory education. By the 1880s, public schools and universities moved into poor districts, and newly established youth clubs and community centers worked to civilize the urban working class. Savage outlines important legislation that slowly began to improve the lives of the young. The 1880 Education Act decreed that children attend school until they were eleven, and in 1904 the National Child Labor Committee fought for the abolition of child labor. Moving children from factories to the classroom happened slowly. In 1906, out of 27 million young Americans between five and twenty-one, only 12 million were attending school. There was also a battle in schools over curriculum—an argument that still resonates today—between the values of an academic vs. a vocational education. Many felt that education should prepare youth for a way out of the factories rather than educate them to return to menial labor. In the end, the attempted industrialization of education was unsuccessful; by 1912 only 7 percent of high school attendees were taking industrial and trade courses. Schools still continued to battle a high dropout rate. In 1910, 88% of high school students did not graduate. High schools were attracting pupils but not holding them. They simply could not compete with the short-term attraction of factory wages.
While educators kept up the fight, by the early twentieth century society finally accepted that puberty was a separate life stage, yet the concept of a teenager as recognized today did not take off until the First World War, when young people began to question their roles in society. The 1920s ushered in the flapper and the vogue of youth culture. Young people believed that the times made them more experienced for their age: “Those who get the youth get the future.”
During the Second World War, when the United States gained sway as a new empire, our notions of teenagers—their fashion, music, slang, and movies—were exported around the world. Teens gained in power, significance, and interest. For the second time, war had freed young people from the authority of their parents who had gone off to work or to war. They needed a place of their own, so social clubs were organized—Teen Canteens and Jive Hives—which helped impose social controls and moral codes by making them feel as if they had a say. Suddenly “teen” and “teenager” were marketing terms used by advertisers and manufacturers, reflecting the newly visible spending power of adolescents. Youth was in style, and it was for sale: fashion, cigarettes, perfume. Teenagers had become their own target market, as well as a discrete age group with its own rituals, rights and demands.
Like G. Stanley Hall, psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett has played an important role in changing our ideas about life stages. In his landmark work Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties, he examines how the lives of people during postadolescence have changed so dramatically that a new stage of life has developed—emerging adulthood. Some hundred years later, he picks up where Hall left off, focusing on evolving changes in eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds in the United States and other developed countries. Arnett’s inspiration for his life’s work came from his own delayed struggle to grow up. He writes that the road to becoming a junior professor of psychology at the University of Missouri was an arduous one. For years, he moved from place to place in search of new opportunities and experiences and was without a permanent relationship. He began to wonder if other young people were equally untethered. How and when do other people feel they have reached adulthood? He soon learned there was not much research on this topic. In the 1990s, he began by interviewing over 200 eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds in Columbia, Missouri, while his graduate assistants interviewed 100 or more mainly Latinos in Los Angeles and African Americans in New Orleans. He discovered that his interviewees were taking longer to grow up than young people in the past “as measured by their entry to stable adult roles as well as their own perceptions of not-fully-adult status.” After looking at the data, he concluded that the young people he spoke to fit neither the category of late adolescence nor that of young adults. So what were they? He toyed with calling the stage “post-adolescence” before settling on “emerging adulthood.”
Before detailing this life phase, Arnett, like Savage, provides historical perspective. He writes, “As recently as 1960, the typical 21-year-old was married or about to be married, caring for a newborn or expecting one soon, done with education or about to be done, and settled into a long-term job or a role as a full-time mother.” Young people grew up quickly and made serious life choices early. Arnett argues that today life for the average twenty-one-year-old is quite different. Higher education lasts several more years—the four-year degree realistically taking five or six years—and a career and family are acquired even later, making the road to adulthood a long one. Interestingly the most important criteria for adulthood, to the young people he interviewed, were not entirely tangible: “accepting responsibility for one’s actions, making independent decisions, and becoming financially independent.”
Arnett attributes the changes in today’s early twentysomethings to four key factors, which he outlines in detail. First, our information- and technology-driven economy requires postsecondary education. Seventy percent of young Americans continue their education beyond high school and wait until they have finished their college education before thinking about serious adult commitments. The Sexual Revolution of the sixties, with the invention of the birth control pill and changing standards of sexual morality, play a part in postponing adult commitments. Young people no longer feel the need to marry before entering into sexual relationships. The third major change that has shaped young people’s lives is the Women’s Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Women’s options have expanded. There used to be great social pressure for women to marry; now women are surpassing men educationally—57 percent of college and university graduates are women—and are equal to men in obtaining law, business, and medical degrees. Finally, the Youth Movement of the 1960s and 1970s denigrated adulthood, with many young people proclaiming, “I hope I die before I get old.” While young people of the 1950s were eager to marry and settle down with a secure job, home, family, and children, a decade or two later young people began to see these as perils to be avoided. When they ponder these obligations, they think “Yes, but not yet.”
Arnett’s investigation into young adulthood in America leads him to the conclusion that this life stage has several distinctive features. First, there is identity exploration and a period of intense self-focus and the trying out of various life options, especially in love and work. Instability in love, work, and place of residence also characterize the period. As a result, young people feel in-between: neither adolescent nor adult. Finally, because young people have the freedom to spend time “finding themselves,” they report feeling a sense of possibility and optimism. Arnett concludes that when hope flourishes, people have an unparalleled opportunity to transform their lives.
When Arnett presented his new paradigm in 2000 in American Psychologist, it was quickly embraced; sociologists and psychologists had been recognizing something similar for some time. Today, there is a Society for the Study of Emerging Adulthood, with over 400 members. While Hall’s theories gave adolescents time to gain an education free of work and find some understanding for the emotional and physical stress of the life phase, Arnett’s concept admits that emerging adults may need to spend more time exploring the possibilities and move more gradually toward making enduring choices.
What do young adults do if they are past the point of emerging adulthood and they still feel like kids trying on their parents’ shoes? In Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps, reporter and columnist Kelly Williams Brown offers a humorous but practical survival guide for inept, dysfunctional late twentysomethings like herself who feel ambivalence over whether they have indeed grown up. Twenty-seven-year-old Brown demands that she and her cohort take action and grow up; after all, “lots of decisions are up to you.” She proclaims that young people can act like adults even if they do not feel it inside. Simply playing the part can eventually train young people to be grown up. She argues, “Adult isn’t a noun, it’s a verb. It’s the act of making correctly those small decisions that fill our day.” Rather than waiting for that “I am an adult” feeling, she encourages her readers to take action and argues that action requires practice.
Adutling is loaded with advice for navigating adulthood. Is it always good reading? That depends on the age of the audience. For those of us past thirty, we might already have learned many of the lessons Brown offers. When she moves away from the systematic how-to format and provides tough, straight talk, Adultinghits its stride. About love, she employs a light touch, saying, “It is great except when it’s awful.” She warns that heartbreak is inevitable but being brave in love is what makes us fully human. At the same time, we should remember that it is cool to be single and that every successful adult is good at being alone. After offering a sweeping breadth of life lessons from the mundane to the profound and reminding us that life may seem at times too complicated and difficult, she concludes, “You are already more of an adult than you think you are. Truly. Be good, be decent, be responsible, and be kind.” While it is received wisdom, it is a message that stands repeating, as does her sentiment that if you are unhappy, no one is going to fix it for you. You are truly in charge of yourself.
This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto against Ageism is sixty-three-year-old author and activist Ashton Applewhite’s attempt to make peace with aging and her own mortality. After all, she points out, it is a battle no one wins. Frequently confronted with the question “When are you going to retire?” she began to talk to her peers and noticed a disconnect between what she was witnessing and common assumptions. Where were all the “doddering ancients”? Even the “oldest-old,” ages eighty-five and up, go about their daily activities without the need for assistance. According to Applewhite, only 10 percent of people eighty-five and older live in nursing homes, while the vast majority of older Americans live independently until they are beset with whatever will kill them. She also dispels the myth that old people are depressed about being old. Not so. It turns out that older people often enjoy better mental health than the young and middle aged.
Applewhite also takes on the mythical “kids vs. canes” social problem portrayed in the media. This “gray tsunami” as some like to call it, is going to drain public coffers, swamp the healthcare system, and suck the wealth of future generations. Repeatedly, gerontologists have debunked these claims. She contends that medical expenses are highest in the days before we die, but that is true whether we die at eighteen or eighty. How long we are sick affects spending more than how old we are. Moreover, people are not just living longer; they are living healthier and with fewer disabilities than previous generations.
Applewhite believes that we should begin to let go of damaging prejudices about aging: that the aging body is ugly, that old people are incompetent, and that it is simply sad to be old. She questions why visions of late life are so negative and discordant with reality. Dr. Robert Butler defined ageism as “a combination of prejudicial attitudes toward older people, old age, and aging itself; as well as discriminatory practices against older people.” Applewhite effectively argues that America’s “olders,” as she calls them, are treated like second-class citizens and taht unless we challenge the stigma, we are doomed to perpetuate it. Ageism is the last socially sanctioned prejudice, despite the fact that if we are lucky to live long enough, we all become a member of the group. The wiser of us should look at an aging population, the longevity boom, and rejoice.
Applewhite offers an interesting statistic: “people who are positive about aging actually live longer—a whopping 7.5 years longer, on average—in large part because they’re motivated to take better care of themselves.” Editor and journalist Bill Gifford makes a similar point in Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (or Die Trying). Wallowing in middle-aged self-pity, he reminds himself that young middle-aged people with positive feelings about growing older enjoy better health later. He also offers the latest research on the science of aging.
Philip Roth said, “Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.” Gifford seems to agree. No one outraces old age, but that has never stopped scientists and their followers from trying. Gifford opens Spring Chicken with humorous anecdotes of the “rejuvenation craze” in the 1920s when implanting fresh goat testicles into the scrotum of worn out middle-aged men was all the rage. He fast-forwards to the practice of parabiosis, hooking up a young animal to an older one so they share a circulatory system, or the recent trend of human growth hormone injections, which recent studies suggest accelerates aging rather than retards it.
Like most of us, as a young man Gifford believed that aging was something that happened to old people—our parents and grandparents. Then, at his fortieth birthday party, his coworkers gave him a cake shaped like a tombstone and adorned with a single candle and the words “RIP: My Youth.” His mother had pronounced him “no spring chicken,” and his annual medical exam revealed he was fifteen pounds overweight with too much belly fat and bad cholesterol numbers. He was at what doctors call the “tipping point,” where the damage of aging has begun to outpace the ability of the body to repair itself.
Is there a cure for aging, or at least a way to slow it down? What can we do to improve our span of healthy years? The good news is that we are indeed living longer. We are in what Gifford calls the “age of aging.” He writes, “Today males enjoy a life expectancy of about seventy-seven years and another five bonus years for women.” This explosion of longevity has no precedent in human history. Medications and medical procedures, cleaner water, cleaner air, better housing, and fewer mass epidemics have enhanced life expectancy. Like Applewhite, Gifford lets us know that not only are we living longer than our ancestors; we are living healthier. “Those bad five years at the end of life are now occurring at age eighty or eight-five instead of seventy.”
After watching his grandfather and great-uncle, and his dogs from the same litter age at noticeably different rates, he turned his attention to the aging process. While random chance does play a significant role, much about the rapidity with which we age is relatively unknown. Nevertheless, there are factors under our control. For example, two of the major diseases of aging—cardiovascular disease and diabetes—are largely avoidable through diet and exercise. Two good ways to shorten your life expectancy are by becoming obese, a factor that in some poor and rural areas is decreasing life expectancy, or by shunning exercise, a behavior which has tripled since 1994 from 19 percent to 60 percent.
Not content with his research, which revealed standard findings, he volunteered for something called the Baltimore Longitudinal study of Aging (BLSA), the world’s longest-running study on human aging, conducted by pioneering gerontologist Nathan Shock, who believes that aging is hiding in our bodies. Prior to his research, scientists simply had no idea how people naturally grow old. Rather than study old people, Shock starts with young healthy people and tracks them over their lifetime. He has more than 1,300 subjects between the ages of twenty and 105. Collecting over 6,000 pieces of data on these people every few years, he measures their biological age versus their chronological age. Shock believes that some aspects of aging begin in the womb and that these changes accelerate at twenty and really speed up at forty. The most important domain of aging is the question of energy—how we store it and how we use it. Our basal metabolic rate seems to be a good predictor—how much energy we use while resting. If we use a lot, we have less energy left for other needs. Shock, along with others in the field, believes that there is a window of opportunity for everyone to do what they can to delay aging. Nutrition, exercise, social support, and meaningful work all play important roles. The potential to age well is there for everyone; it is not a deterministic trajectory. Gifford leaves us with the simple wisdom “Use it or lose it.”
Montaigne observed that the real cruelty of aging is not that it kills an old person, but that it robs a young person of his or her youth. At fifty-three, at the brink of what I call “late-late-middle age,” my youth is long gone. Getting here was a nearly imperceptible process, marked by the loss offriends and family to cancer, suicide, and accidents. While youth dies, life moves us through these life stages, and, if we are fortunate enough to look back, we appreciate the unique trials and blessings of each life period, gaining the wisdom that happiness will always be tinged with sadness. Time will indeed eventually run out, which influences the motivation to savor day-to-day experiences and appreciate the fragility of life. We also appreciate that society has become more enlightened regarding what it means to be young, old, and perhaps for the longest period of our life, somewhere in-between.
Looking back on my first crush at age ten, I recall it as if it were yesterday. The details are crisp and clear. On a warm evening during late summer, when I sat on the bottom step of the front porch, watching lightning bugs blinking in the front yard, Tom peeled out in the gravel of my driveway. “Want to go for a ride?” he asked. Nervous, I swung my leg over the banana seat and grabbed on to the metal bar on the back, too timid to hold him at the waist. He stood as he peddled down the street, the light seeming to fade into a sunset as if on cue. I may have only been ten and swooning at his closeness, but I knew an important journey had begun, and I felt strangely brave and ready to go where it would take me.
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