The Nation's Pulse

The Cult of Adolescence

Obama cultivates the backing of the something for nothing generation.

By 12.16.11

Never underestimate the human proclivity for wanting more, and wanting it for free. President Obama is building his re-election campaign around that theme. "Obama money" doesn't exist, but our 44th president will do everything in his power to convince Americans that everyone deserves the trappings of a middle-class lifestyle, only achieved if we return to a 90-percent tax bracket for the wealthiest among us.

It's a cult of adolescence. Teenagers demand the privileges of adulthood without paying for it. Parents provide a car, and teenagers wreck it; parents hand over a credit card, and teenagers spend like profligates. It's human nature. By the same token, a large share of voters in the United States feel entitled to the fruit of their neighbors' labor, and they select public officials accordingly.

The cult of adolescence is seen most abundantly among Millennials, many of whom are languishing in their 20s without a clear direction in life, either personally or financially. Not to be outdone by their Baby Boomer parents, Generation Y is supplanting the midlife crisis with a massive quarter-life crisis.

Some Millennials don't want to be stuck in neutral, but a poor economy and poor upbringing have set the stage for it. The rest are content to lull through their 20s, continually in search of the next drink, party, and thrill.

It's a demographic and generational shift never before encountered in the United States. In past generations of the 20th century, the average man in his mid-20s already had the responsibilities of adult life: A job, and a wife and child to support. That was good for society, because a man's natural aggressiveness was tempered and channeled toward nobler ends.

Not so anymore. Robin Marantz Henig, writing in the New York Times Magazine in 2010, writes about the shifting landscape in the West:

We're in the thick of what one sociologist calls "the changing timetable for adulthood." Sociologists traditionally define the "transition to adulthood" as marked by five milestones: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child. In 1960, 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men had, by the time they reached 30, passed all five milestones. Among 30-year-olds in 2000, according to data from the United States Census Bureau, fewer than half of the women and one-third of the men had done so. A Canadian study reported that a typical 30-year-old in 2001 had completed the same number of milestones as a 25-year-old in the early '70s.

Sociologist Michael Kimmel echoes that research in his book Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. He writes:

The passage between adolescence and adulthood has morphed from a transitional moment to a separate life stage. Adolescence starts earlier and earlier, and adulthood starts later and later. This stage — call it "the odyssey years" as does New York Times columnist David Brooks, or "adultolescence," or "young adulthood" — now encompasses up to two full decades, beginning at puberty and ending around one's 30th birthday. Everyone knows that 30 is the new 20. But it's equally true these days that 12 is the new 20.

There are legitimate reasons for the dawn of perpetual adolescents. One is rising education expectations. With the advent of graduate school becoming a near necessity for young adults, many college students won't graduate until their mid-20s. Even students who only get an undergraduate degree tend to spend five or six years earning it, putting the finishing point in the same range.

That fact of life aside, modern changes, mixed with the unparalleled wealth of the United States, have allowed twentysomethings to enjoy a second adolescence in a way that past generations could not. But it's a pandemic of immaturity that our society can scarcely afford.

From an economic standpoint, men in their 20s who languish in unending boyhood severely damage their future earning and career prospects. From a social standpoint, such men harm women, and the children produced by their often out-of-wedlock relations, by shrugging off the responsibilities of adulthood.

That lack of coming-of-age fits in nicely with the Obama paradigm, however. It's little wonder, then, that Millennials are among Obama's most loyal supporters. The allure of getting something for nothing is too great a temptation.

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About the Author
David N. Bass is a journalist who writes from the Old North State. Follow him on Twitter.