The Growth of Childhood

   Posted by: Robert   in Uncategorized

One of the long term progressions of Western society is the increasing length of time in which people are considered to be, in important ways, children.  Although there remains a robust and healthy debate over when a person ought to be considered to have changed from a child into an adult, the progress of society has increased the age significantly regardless of our opinions as to what the age ought to be.  While the Millennials are not unique in finding themselves bound to a longer childhood than that of their parents, the amount of the change is more dramatic than it has been at any other point in history.

Increasing the age of adulthood has been a trend in Western society for centuries.  As anyone who watches Game of Thrones will discover, people as young as thirteen were once able to hold positions of importance and leadership in the medieval world.  As life expectancy increased to the point that people were no longer “over the hill” at age twenty, so too did our understanding of childhood.  By the time of America’s founding, leadership was generally not given to teenagers, although many held jobs and participated in the militia and other armed forces.  Over time, society would settle on an amalgamation of ages each of which represents certain aspects of adulthood; common “adulthood” ages in the US are sixteen (age of consent in many states), eighteen (legal adulthood in most jurisdictions and the approximate age of high school graduation for most students), and twenty-one (drinking age).

Those three most common ages of adulthood came about in roughly that order.  Age of consent is particularly challenging because its contours vary widely between jurisdictions, interacting with marital age (which can often be as low as 14), consent between minors, and differences between state and federal law.  Legal adulthood largely maps to the fact that people aged 18 years or older are able to serve in the military and vote, thus giving them the legal ability to decide their own fate.  The drinking age came as a result of federal legislation in the 1980s which uprooted drinking ages in many states which tended to extend as low as 18.  High school graduation, of course, is about as close as America has to a cultural “rite of passage”, although its occurrence at the same time as the age of majority is most likely a historical accident.

More recently, however, the goal posts for adulthood have been moving again.

By some measures, twenty-two is becoming a new demarcation of adulthood for America’s youth.  As young Americans are increasingly pushed into college, high school graduation has become a less significant event than it once was.  Instead of marking the transformation from being a student to being a worker, completion of high school is increasingly becoming a much smaller transformation from the world of mandatory education to the world of nominally optional education that everyone is told that they need to have.  Individuals making the march from 18 to 22 are now expected to do so on a college campus, where they may live farther away from their parents, but are still largely unable to support themselves.  College graduation today is becoming what high school graduation used to be, but it does so four years farther down the line.

Then, of course, there’s Obamacare, which took the unprecedented step of defining childhood all the way up to 26 years of age.  That change extended childhood once again past one-third of the average American life expectancy by adding a full five years to the previous highest adulthood measurement defined by law.

Socially, it’s becoming increasingly common to view college students as children despite many being older than when their parents would have been seen as adults.  Society has not yet accepted 26 as being so child-like, though it’s possible that this recent legal innovation has simply not had time to work itself into the fabric of society.

For the Millennials, the growth of childhood presents significant immediate problems which may have serious long term consequences.  Whatever their age, the opinions of people perceived to be children are generally considered less valuable than the opinions of people considered to be adults.  In a world where people stop being children after their teens, such an attitude makes some logical sense.  Most ten year old children simply lack the experience or the maturity to hold well founded opinions on important matters.  Most eighteen year old individuals are not so disabled, although they still lack a great deal of experience.  Thanks to college, many 22 year olds are little better off than they were at 18.

As a result, the older and more experienced generations are largely able to have their way because the Millennials are unable to effectively argue to the contrary.  Even into their higher twenties, the Millennials are still treated as if they have no understanding of how the world works, and as if they need the kind guidance of the older generations to make all of their decisions for them — decisions which, naturally, benefit the older generations far more than they benefit the Millennials.  Disturbingly, the younger generation seems to not even realize that this is happening.  Having been indoctrinated for years through the media and through their government sponsored educations, the Millennials have been deprived not only of their adulthood, but also of their ability to notice the deprivation.  The result is that the Millennials, in too many cases, still act child-like, reinforcing the belief that they are still too young to be taken seriously.

The ever expanding domain of childhood needs to be understood as a problem for the future of America.  Older generations naturally and inevitably give way to the young, and it is up to the children to be able to take over when the time comes.  For the Millennials and for the generations that come after, each generation is being given progressively less time to prepare.  In the vocabulary of the skilled trades, we should be journeymen in our development by now.  Increasingly, however, we would be lucky to even be acknowledged as apprentices.

This entry was posted on Thursday, April 11th, 2013 at 7:00 am and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

4 comments so far


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