Contributor Post Created with Sketch. The Mature and the Immature: Our Real Two Americas

 

Just when I was prepared to abandon two-Americas analysis for good, I, like Emily, gravitated to the long and wearying Big Story in the New York Times called “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” We’re told what on page two:

Just as adolescence has its particular psychological profile, Arnett says, so does emerging adulthood: identity exploration, instability, self-focus, feeling in-between and a rather poetic characteristic he calls “a sense of possibilities.” A few of these, especially identity exploration, are part of adolescence too, but they take on new depth and urgency in the 20s. The stakes are higher when people are approaching the age when options tend to close off and lifelong commitments must be made. Arnett calls it “the age 30 deadline.”

Anyone who has followed my writing for the past five years knows that this basket of experiential contingencies and their attendant pathologies — right down to the primacy of possibility and the transformation of all things into mere senses of themselves — was my analytical point of departure from the very beginning. What a glum validation this is. I had just finished reading Elizabeth Wurtzel’s pretty persuasive requiem for teenhood. Now I am told that teenhood is not only still alive but that it was merely a prelude to the next big sociological stage: “emerging adulthood.”

The issue of whether emerging adulthood is a new stage is being debated most forcefully among scholars, in particular psychologists and sociologists. But its resolution has broader implications. Just look at what happened for teenagers. It took some effort, a century ago, for psychologists to make the case that adolescence was a new developmental stage. Once that happened, social institutions were forced to adapt: education, health care, social services and the law all changed to address the particular needs of 12- to 18-year-olds. An understanding of the developmental profile of adolescence led, for instance, to the creation of junior high schools in the early 1900s, separating seventh and eighth graders from the younger children in what used to be called primary school. And it led to the recognition that teenagers between 14 and 18, even though they were legally minors, were mature enough to make their own choice of legal guardian in the event of their parents’ deaths. If emerging adulthood is an analogous stage, analogous changes are in the wings.

I’ve got news for you — they’re already here. I alluded to them earlier in suggesting that the desire to expand marriage to fit any voluntarily formalized love-oriented arrangement is sure to erect a vast new legal and administrative apparatus dedicated to managing the social, economic, and psychological fallout from the (at least partially) voluntary undoing of those arrangements. We can extend that insight, with alarming ease, to the broader situation captured in the too-poetic and too-scientific term “emerging adulthood” — because we are already seeing the outlines of a stark choice come into view.

That choice? On the one hand, a costly, cumbersome, ubiquitous, and intimate legal and administrative system obliged to manage the achievements, setbacks, and failures of a vast class of Americans defined above all by their immaturity; on the other, a partnership between small government and self-government, where a vast class of Americans defined above all by their maturity emancipates policymakers from the technical and therapeutic burdens of the Human Resources state, leaving politics an affordable, modest, focused, and thoroughly grown-up affair.

Down the first road is the death of maturity itself as an intelligible category. Americans will either be relatively younger or relatively older, with separate and shifting emotional, intellectual, social, physiological, and physical ages. Generations will become muddled and increasingly meaningless, with the window of reproductive (to say nothing of non-reproductive) sexual activity expanding to embrace five decades, and the collapse of the authoritative relationship between parents and children replaced by the legal relationship between individuals of all ages and the state entities assigned to manage their pathologically unstable and pathologically chronic personal situations.

We’re not there yet. But, as Ross and Reihan hinted in the most pregnant and evocative portions of Grand New Party, we’re sliding purposefully in that direction, across multiple fronts and in multiple classes of American life. Maturity still means something, and there are still enough Americans who want to fight to preserve the kind of public life and political liberty characteristic of a mature citizenry. Yet there are also plenty of Americans who more or less think that maturity is a quasi-aristocratic luxury or an imposition at odds with a vision of justice in which the state helps ensure that even the worst off are ensured a fair shot at success in their everyday lives. It might be a touch too rhetorical to cast this contrast as our real Two Americas. But on the other hand, it might be the jolt we need to fully understand the cultural changes we face, and what’s at stake in the choices we have to make.

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There are 9 comments.

  1. Mel Foil Inactive

    I remember watching a sitcom, maybe the Cosby Show, where the son expressed to his father the satisfaction that “we’re rich.” His father reminded him “no, I’m rich, you’re poor. And you need to start acting like someone who’s poor, ’cause you’re really really poor.”

    • #1
    • August 19, 2010, at 9:35 AM PST
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  2. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    An understanding of the developmental profile of adolescence led, for instance, to the creation of junior high schools in the early 1900s, separating seventh and eighth graders from the younger children in what used to be called primary school.

    Nothing good has ever come out of Junior High. “Mean Girls” has nothing on the average junior-high brat.

    What a stupid idea! — putting this age group into a little bubble where they don’t have to behave themselves for the sake of younger children, nor are they kept in check by older teens, who at least sometimes act sensibly.

    There’s a reason why prospective teachers generally hate the idea of teaching Junior High. It’s a shame, because if the kids behaved, they’re at the age where they could learn like sponges — but they don’t behave, and why should they? Junior High is its own little twisted world.

    I’d rather home-school children at a junior-high age, or send them out into the fields to pick beans, than send them to a typical junior high school.

    • #2
    • August 19, 2010, at 9:43 AM PST
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  3. Scott R Member

    Adam: “Social science claptrap” is right. And a human life is a zero-sum game, so all these new “stages” come at the expense of that ever-shrinking stage: adulthood.

    • #3
    • August 20, 2010, at 6:17 AM PST
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  4. Jimmy Carter Member

    Love the title.

    I’ve been referring to the “two Americas” as the “responsible and the irresponsible.”

    • #4
    • August 20, 2010, at 7:12 AM PST
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  5. Mr Tall Inactive

    The NYT article’s ‘money quotes’ — and I use that phrase intentionally — come way down toward the end, at the point at which normal decent contempt for its wearisome premise has presumably been worn down by the waves of ‘social science claptrap’ (thanks Adam and Scott):

    “It requires only a bit of ingenuity — as well as some societal forbearance and financial commitment — to think of ways to expand some of the programs that now work so well for the elite, like the Fulbright fellowship or the Peace Corps, to make the chance for temporary service and self-examination available to a wider range of young people.”

    “But it’s a reflection of our collective attitude toward this period that we devote so few resources to keeping them solvent and granting them some measure of security.”

    God forbid that young adults be asked to go out and make their way in the world without lavishly-funded government ‘programs’ that would create vast numbers of administrative jobs for the kind of people who believe everything the NYT says.

    • #5
    • August 20, 2010, at 7:21 AM PST
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  6. Profile Photo Member

    The newer research on junior high schools indicate disaster. Yanking kids out into their own lord of the flies universe at the age is the worst thing you can do — they are neither setting a responsible example for younger kids as elder statesmen, or looking up to older kids for examples of responsible behavior…

    But what I really wanted to say — prompted by your Slurpee post James — was that you were the one that made us older folks aware of the appalling practice of getting people to chug some sickly sweet Vodka beverage in odd public places including Congressional committee hearings. Makes me think we need minimum (and maximum) ages for everyone working in Congress.

    • #6
    • August 20, 2010, at 10:10 AM PST
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  7. James Poulos Contributor
    James Poulos Post author
    Trace Urdan: […] what I really wanted to say — prompted by your Slurpee post James — was that you were the one that made us older folks aware of the appalling practice of getting people to chug some sickly sweet Vodka beverage in odd public places including Congressional committee hearings. Makes me think we need minimum (and maximum) ages for everyone working in Congress. · Aug 20 at 10:10am

    GOP Youth Outreach Strategy 2012: Don’t let Obama ice you, bro!

    • #7
    • August 20, 2010, at 11:05 AM PST
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  8. Adam Freedman Contributor

    “Emerging adulthood” strikes me as — how shall I put this? — social science claptrap. People in their 20s have always struggled with residual immaturity. Once upon a time, we had a guilty little voice inside of us saying “okay, time to grow up!” But now, social scientists tell us it’s all normal — we’re supposed to be dreamy, unfocused and self-centered. And doesn’t this “research” dovetail nicely with policy developments like “kids” being able to stay on their parents health insurance until age 26 (even later in NY)?

    • #8
    • August 20, 2010, at 12:06 PM PST
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  9. The Mugwump Inactive

    Midget: “I’d rather home-school children at a junior-high age, or send them out into the fields to pick beans, than send them to a typical junior high school.”

    There is some merit to this suggestion. Clinical psychologists are now aware that when children reach puberty the brain begins to pare away braincells for a period of 12 to 18 months. During this “down time” the brain is almost completely incapable of new language acquisition. The window eventually opens again around age 14 or 15 allowing for normal learning. Testing data from my school indicates nearly every kid in the 8th grade made no progress in reading and vocabulary last year.

    The twin problems of adolescent hormonal rage and the inability to acquire language would seem to indicate that kids undergoing puberty need a break from the classroom. I’m all for putting them to work. They need to develop manual skill and work discipline anyway. Seems to me this is an ideal time to try.

    • #9
    • August 20, 2010, at 12:25 PM PST
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