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Just a short piece ...

5 June 2009

NO 1445

Rites of passage

The original notion lying behind both adolescent and adult is "nourishment." The Latin verb alere meant "nourish." ... a derivative of this, denoting the beginning of an action, was alescere, "be nourished" and hence "grow." The addition to this of the prefix ad produced adolesceree. Its present participial stern, adolescent – "growing" – passed into English as the noun adolescent, a youth, not before the 18th century. Its participle, adultus, "grown," was adopted into English as adult in the 16th century. (Ayoto, 1991)

In a culture that has as its fastest growing age group those who are middle-aged, more and more people are being confronted with the challenge of becoming adult, that is, fully grown and capable of nourishing others. People in middle age are beginning to face becoming seniors, becoming elders; as they do so, they are gradually becoming aware that something is lacking. The fulfillment that was promised them as theirs to expect in the post-war era is missing. An entire generation is groping for meaning and discovering that social position and consumer goods provide limited enlightenment. This awakening has been going on for some time, stirred by both feminist thinking about adult life and the men's movement's responses. A cultural identity crisis seems to be underway. It is not restricted to the boomer population that is turning fifty and becoming reflective, although that may be providing a significant portion of the impetus. The "postboomers," Generation X and those after them, are facing growing concerns about the transitions from childhood to adolescence and from adolescence to adulthood. Ironically, the young are becoming adult later even as puberty and the beginning of adolescence comes earlier.

Robert Bly's (1996) book, The Sibling Society, suggests that our collective struggle with becoming adult is tied to our cultural embeddedness in the rivalries of adolescence. We are wedded to being forever young, and we confuse youthfulness with childishness while framing adulthood in adolescent terms. Gail Sheehy (1995), in her book New Passages, explores the second adulthood of the healthy but aging population who face up to 30 years of post-work life. She suggests that as we age, we are faced with the daunting task of continuing to adapt to new and changing roles in a culture with few common markers, unclear borders, and several generations of incomplete transitions, providing an inadequate knowledge base to draw upon.

A collection of essays, Betwixt and Between: Patterns of Masculine and Feminine Initiation (Mahdi, Foster, & Little, 1987), explores initiation and rites of passage as a cultural and psychological form, addressed many of these concerns and has stimulated considerable thinking and discussion, including this article. A number of questions are raised: How are we to assist in the process of passage or transition, or coming of age, for children, youth, and adults in our culture? What roles can we play in cultural formation that would contribute to making adults through recognition, encouragement, challenge, through a passing on of healthy values and respect, through reflection, instruction and nurturing? If the adults are unsure of being adult, who can work with the young to encourage and develop adult behavior and adult life? How can we develop appropriate models, make connections to significant mentors, and foster the making of adults as a cultural concern?


Artz, S., Scott, D.G. and Anglin, J.P. (1998). Rites of passage: A conversation on becoming adult. Child and Youth Care Forum, 27, 5. pp.355-356.


Ayoto, J. (1990). Bloomsbury Dictionary of Word Origins. London. Bloomsbury .

Bly, R. (1996). The Sibling Society. New York. Addison-Wesley Publishing.

Mahdi, L.C.; Foster, S. and Little, M. (Eds.). (1987). Betwixt and Between: Patterns of masculine and feminie initiation. La Salle, Ill. Open Court.

Sheehy, G. (1995). New Passages. New York. Random House.

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