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Adolescence: Not just for kids

Adolescence: You thought it was over at 18. Not so fast. For those who study adolescence as a stage of life, treat it as a disease, sell to it as a market, entertain it with songs and shows that make it seem the greatest time of life, it is growing and growing, providing ever new opportunities for grants, fees, jobs and changing how we think about kids.

The Society for Adolescent Medicine, a physicians' organization, now says on its Web site that it cares for persons "10 to 26 years" of age. A National Academy of Sciences committee, surveying programs for adolescents, discussed extending its review to age 30. (To which one committee member and mother of three gasped, "Oh my God, I hope not.") The MacArthur Foundation has funded a $3.4 million project called Transitions to Adulthood, which pegs the end of that transition at 34.

The new theories also mean that plenty of Americans who vote, fight wars, buy houses and alcohol and serve in Congress can be branded as adolescents.

Not all of the experts agree with adolescence inflation.

Frank F. Furstenberg Jr., professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, says, "Adolescence has been stretched so much it's becoming an obsolescent term."

Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, professor of developmental psychology at Columbia University, says, "It's very disrespectful. Twenty-year-olds aren't teenagers. Cognitively, emotionally, they're like adults."

The young Marines stationed in Afghanistan don't think of themselves as adolescents. "We're suffering in the cold together, defending our country together. We're all men," Lance Cpl. William Isaac Jones, a 20-year-old Californian, tells a Post foreign correspondent.

"Adolescents are children" says Lance Cpl. Kevin Ihm, also 20, and "children stay home. That's who we protect."

Powerful lobbies are at work to stretch adolescence as far into the third decade of life as they can.

One of these groups is retail merchandisers. The number of adolescents in the United States is greater today than ever before, 60 million if you start at age 10 and continue to 24, 80 million if you count all the way to 30. Or should we count higher? Once the different ages wore different styles. Now a 60-year-old can wear the casual clothes of a 20-year-old.

Much of today's youth is a pampered population, beneficiaries of a robust economy and parents obsessed with giving them a leg up on everybody else. One amusing measure is this: Adolescents today have received four times as many toys as the generation before them, according to the industry newsletter Retail Merchandiser.

In America's past, teenagers dug coal, stitched boots, plowed the plains and picked cotton, turning their money over to their families. The majority of today's teenagers work as well, but for fewer hours at low-skill jobs, with most of their money going to pay for clothes, cars and entertainment.

Their role has deteriorated, according to historian Thomas Hine, author of "The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager," from contributors to consumers. Marketers expect them to spend roughly $600 billion next year, dubbing them "Generation Market Clout." They have every reason to want these boomer offspring to stay as young as possible as long as possible.

So, of course, do their boomer parents, themselves obsessed with staying young. If your kid becomes an adult at 18, what does that make you? Grandma?

Those who work with, treat and study adolescents have seen their budgets increased substantially by donations from federal agencies, foundations, local and state government and the private sector. They're hoping for more: The Younger Americans Act introduced in Congress this year would fund youth development programs to the tune of almost $6 billion over five years.

To date, the federal government's efforts have been limited to those under the age of 19. Not so that of doctors.

Thirty-two years ago, a group of pediatricians formed the Society for Adolescent Medicine (SAM); 25 years later, adolescent medicine became a board-certified sub-specialty of pediatrics. A year after that, in 1995, SAM passed a resolution defining adolescent health care as lasting till age 26.

"Our patients were getting older and we wanted to continue to treat them," says SAM President Manuel Schydlower, assistant dean for medical education at Texas Tech University School of Medicine. Schydlower personally cuts two years off the SAM model, however, pegging the end at roughly 24.

Of course, this notion disturbs those who note that the word "adolescent" is often synonymous (wrongly) with irresponsible, even dangerous people; think L.A. slacker Jody in John Singleton's "Baby Boy" or Columbine High School's real-life Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. It's also synonymous with childishness. To foist such images on young biology researchers or Marine infantrymen makes these people seem at best irrelevant and at worst infantile. It deprives them of the right to be proud of themselves as adults.
The men and women of science have reasons for their conclusions, some more logical than others. The defining of adolescence has a long history filled with the theories of well-meaning thinkers.

Once, it hardly existed at all, at least among the lower classes. Farm children took huge responsibility at early ages and behaved like adults by the time they were in their teens. The "breaker boys" of mine company coal chutes were frequently crippled for life before they'd even be allowed to flip burgers nowadays. Child labor was once such an issue that a Constitutional amendment against it passed Congress, but failed to be ratified by the states.

Then the idea of public high school for the masses took hold. Later, as white-collar jobs began to outnumber blue-collar ones, it became clear that even a high school diploma was not sufficient to secure a well-paying job, and so many adolescents were sent off to college, further delaying their entrance into the adult world.

Educators like to boast that more high school graduates enter college now than ever before, about six out of every 10. But only about half of them complete four years of college, according to Jeffrey Arnett, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland. This means that the majority of young adults are in the workforce. In fact, whole industries and institutions depend on our low-paid young. Fast food service is one. Another is the U.S. military, which has resisted pressure from other Western nations to outlaw the drafting of anyone under the age of 18.

From Camp Rhino in Afghanistan, Marine Cpl. Ralph Clark, 23, of Annapolis says he realized he was an adult in 1996 when Marines evacuated 846 Americans in Albania. "When I first stepped on that land, I realized that was what I had trained to do. For the first time, someone was relying on me to do something to help them."

* * *

We have an eccentric American psychologist, G. Stanley Hall, to thank for the popular understanding of adolescence.

At the turn of the last century, drawing on the works of Freud and Darwin, Hall described a period of life between puberty and maturity that was rife with tempestuous behavior brought on by rapid physical growth and a natural inclination to separate from one's parents. The process was inevitable, in Hall's mind, as was maturity, which arrived once the barbarism was over.

Hall focused entirely on the psyche, especially its negative manifestations. Half a century later, psychoanalyst Erik Erikson both softened and enlarged that focus to include social development. Adolescence is primarily a search for one's identity that ends, Erikson said, when the adolescent finds the right occupation and the right spouse.

Both Hall and Erikson assumed that once you achieved maturity, you left home. Thus the end of adolescence came to mean getting a job, leaving home and having a family, and its endpoint fluctuated not because of any biological changes – boys and girls still reach physical maturity, on average, at about age 18 – but for reasons of the economy and social custom.

This helps explain the current push toward lengthening the time frame. Young adults now marry about four years later than they did in 1970 (at 25 for women, 26.8 for men). More of them are moving in and out of jobs, or going to college, hoping to prepare themselves for a workplace that is constantly changing.

Larger proportions of young, unmarried adults are living at home with their families, even after living independently for a while. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than one-half of men ages 18 to 24, and almost one-half of women that age, lived with their parents last year.

More significantly, the proportion of college graduates 24 and younger living with their families is rising, to more than one-third. These are largely the sons and daughters of the middle class, the group that researchers study most frequently, the group into which their own offspring fit. They defy traditional descriptions but, like earlier generations of youths, have to be labeled so that, in the view of historian Hine, their elders can keep their awesome potential power in check.

But is "adolescent" the ID they should assume? Jon Biegel doesn't think so.

Biegel, 25, graduated from Boston University three years ago with a major in psychology. He didn't know what to do next. So he returned to work as an instructor at Meadowbrook Stables in Chevy Chase, where he had taught riding during high school. He quickly was promoted to office manager, overseeing the accounts of 400 clients. This fall, he left the stables for a job as an insurance and financial agent for Mass Mutual Financial Group.

He's an earnest, hardworking guy who dresses in well-tailored suits, keeps his blond beard carefully trimmed and never travels anywhere without his portfolio, cell phone and Ford Explorer. He bought it used.

He also lives with his parents, rent free. "I'd like to have a stable financial base before moving out," he says. "I think of 'child' when I hear the word 'adolescent,' " he continues. "Do I feel like a kid because I'm living at home? No, I don't. We have different hours. I cook, clean up, try to be responsible."

By the standards of his parents' generation and the generation before that, Biegel's choice to work and live at home are unusual. But he would feel right at home in present-day Spain, Poland and other industrialized countries where young people tend to live at home even longer than their colleagues in the United States. (In Italy, the average age to leave Mom and Dad is 34 years, according to the William T. Grant Foundation, which supports research on youth issues.)

The Society for Research in Adolescence is forming a group to look at the years 18 to 29 – and the lives of people such as Biegel.

The smaller group's organizer, Jeffrey Arnett, has discarded the term adolescence in favor of "emerging adulthood." Arnett, the University of Maryland psychology professor, argues that it makes no sense to call young people in their late teens and twenties adolescents or even late adolescents. Boys and girls between the ages of 10 and 19 "have in common that they live with their parents, are experiencing the physical changes of puberty, are attending secondary school and are part of a school-based peer culture," he writes in the May 2000 issue of American Psychologist. "None of this remains normative after age 18."

Arnett argues that society needs a better understanding of what it means to be an adolescent and an adult. The MacArthur Foundation's Transitions to Adulthood project aims to come up with new descriptions.

"We're about to ask the questions of when adulthood starts, why it starts when it does and how the timing of adulthood has changed," says sociologist Furstenberg, who will direct the research. Investigators "may conclude that virtually everyone regards themselves as an adult by their mid- or late twenties; nonetheless, many people are continuing to contend with adultlike transitions."

So why not call them young adults, as we used to? Do we really want them to continue to think of themselves as dependent on their elders?

Another question: Is an adult someone who is capable of being on his own, not necessarily a person who is in fact on his own? "The point should be how an individual functions, not where," says Michael Kerr, director of the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family in Georgetown.

With housing costs rising faster than food costs and insurance premiums going through the roof (especially for the young), it's tough to fly solo and, in fact, few young people do. Some seek support from their parents, others from the military service or social services. That doesn't mean they can't – or don't – shoulder some adult responsibilities.

If you ask them, assuming responsibility for themselves, and especially for others, is what separates men and women from boys and girls.

* * *

Mikesia Jackson was 16 when she took her first steps in that direction. The mother of 1-year-old DeAmonte, she was living with her grandmother, who became seriously ill. She tried moving in with her mother and, in Jackson's words, "ended up taking care of her, too." Eventually she got herself declared a ward of the District, which provided her with a social worker and the financial support to move out on her own. Catholic Charities USA agreed to help subsidize her housing.

She found a job as a cashier at a Bread & Chocolate shop in Southeast. There, she befriended the manager, "who taught me the do's and don'ts of being a good employee." She was promoted to assistant manager, then moved, at 18, to another company, Mail Boxes etc., to make more money.

Her first job at Mail Boxes was to keep an eye on employees suspected of theft. She eventually put together a solid case against two workers, who were fired. She became assistant manager. "It got tough at times, because people didn't want to look at me as a boss," she remembers. One employee in his thirties asked her boss, "Why should I listen to this little girl?"

At 20, Jackson now makes loans and cashes checks at America's Cash Express in Oxon Hill. She saves most of what she makes, knowing that in a year she will be too old to qualify for assistance from the city or Catholic Charities.

She likes her work – "It's the job I've been looking for, with benefits, a 401(k) plan" – and has asked to be promoted to district supervisor. She also likes being a mom to DeAmonte, now in kindergarten. She even grooves on PTA meetings.

When she first started going to the meetings, she says, a couple of the other parents, who were older, talked to her like a child. "They'd say things like, 'Now, dear, once a year we have something we call a fundraiser.' "

She laughed it off, having learned that adulthood is also about attitude. "You can't sit around saying, 'Oh, my life is so bad.' You have to get over it because if you don't you'll be stuck. As my friend at Catholic Charities says, 'Shake it off and step up.' "

"The hardest thing is having no one to depend on day to day. If I have a cold, I can't go home and lie down. There are dishes to be washed, groceries to be bought, books to be read to my son.

"When you're an adult, you don't get a day off. Maybe that could be the definition."

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