The Rise And Decline of the Teenager

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The physical and sexual development of young people was not, he argued, evidence of maturity. Their body changes were merely armaments in a struggle to achieve a higher state of being. “Youth awakes to a new world,” he wrote, “and understands neither it nor himself.” People in their teens were, he thought, recapitulating the stage of human evolution in which people ceased to be savages and became civilized. He worried that young people were growing up too quickly, and he blamed it on “our urbanized hothouse life that tends to ripen everything before its time.” He believed it was necessary to fight this growing precocity by giving young people the time, space, and guidance to help them weather the tumult and pain of adolescence.

 

It is hard to believe that a book so unreadable could be so influential, but the size and comprehensiveness of Hall’s discussion of adolescents lent weight and authority to other social movements whose common aim was to treat people in their teens differently from adults and children. Among the book’s supporters were secondary school educators who found in Hall’s writing a justification for their new enthusiasm about moving beyond academic training to shape the whole person. They also found in it a justification for raising the age for ending compulsory school attendance.

Hall’s book coincided as well with the rise of the juvenile-court movement, whose goal was to treat youth crime as a problem of personal development rather than as a transgression against society. This view encouraged legislatures and city councils to enact laws creating curfews and other “status offenses”—acts affecting only young people. (A decade earlier women’s organizations had successfully campaigned to raise the age of consent for sex in most states, which greatly increased the number of statutory-rape prosecutions.)

Hall’s findings also gave ammunition to advocates of child labor laws. Their campaigns were for the most part unsuccessful, but employment of children and teens dropped during the first two decades of the twentieth century anyway, as machines replaced unskilled manufacturing jobs in many industries. In the years after Hall’s book came out, manufacturers increasingly spoke of workers in their teens as unreliable, irresponsible, and even disruptive. They had stopped thinking of fourteen-year-olds as young ordinary workers and begun to view them as adolescents.

Each of these movements was seen as a progressive attempt to reform American society, and their advocates certainly had their hearts in the right place. But the price for young people was a stigma of incompetence, instability, and even insanity. Adolescents couldn’t be counted on. Hall even argued that female adolescents be “put to grass” for a few years and not allowed to work or attend school until the crisis had passed.

This was the orthodoxy Mead was trying to combat when she wrote Coming of Age in Samoa. She wanted to disprove Hall’s psychoanalytic assertion that adolescence is inherent to all human development and replace it with the anthropological view that cultures invent the adolescence they need. Maturity, she argued, is at least as much a matter of social acceptance as it is of an individual’s physical and mental development. In Samoa, she said, adolescence was relatively untroubled, because it didn’t have to accomplish very much. The society changed little from generation to generation. Roles were more or less fixed. Young people knew from childhood what they should expect. American adolescence was more difficult because it had to achieve more, although she clearly didn’t believe it had to be quite so horrible as Hall and his followers thought.

Serious questions have been raised about some of Mead’s methods and findings in Samoa, and Hall’s theories have been thoroughly discredited. These two seminal thinkers on adolescence represented extreme views, and adolescence is of course both biological and cultural. The changes it brings are unmistakable, but countless external factors shape what it means to be a grown-up in a particular place and time. In a dynamic society like that of the United States, the nature of adolescence must inevitably shift over time.