The Death of the Grown-up: How America’s Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization
By Diana West
(St. Martin’s Press, 272 pages, $23.95)
Relaxing on my deck, I can hear them approaching from a mile away, their constipated machines roaring, rumbling and farting like the coming of the Apocalypse, the opening bars of “Born to be Wild” doubtless echoing through their empty heads. They are the Benefiber Rebels, the Permanent Adolescent Angels, the Technology-challenged Pagans — Harley-riding geezers not so much terrorizing as annoying the heck out of everyone, revving up their unmuffled engines like they were the teen rebels in The Wild One (Brando and his Black Rebels, by the way, rode Triumphs). Is this any way for Grandpa and Grandma to behave?
Some would call it a sickness, and whether you label it the Peter Pan Syndrome, the Forever Young Syndrome, or Permanent Adolescence all suggest the refusal or inability of adults to act their age. The phenomenon has been well documented of late, but nowhere more thoroughly than in Diana West’s new book, The Death of the Grown-up: How America’s Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization. The title may smack of hyperbole, but West makes a convincing case that big babies make lousy citizens. My grandparents’ generation, for instance, could appreciate St. Paul’s meaning when he wrote, “when I became a man, I put away childish things”; nowadays we would consider Paul of Tarsus a wet blanket and a preachy bore. No doubt a Republican too. What is to account for this generational shift?
West begins with the birth of the teen-ager, a historical event that occurred some time round mid-century. Prior to World War II, a clear line of demarcation divided childhood from adulthood. Upon entering puberty most children were pulled out of school and made to pull their weight. In exchange you received room and board and the family staved off starvation for another winter. (That is how it was for my grandparents on their southern Illinois dirt farm, and, so far as I know, that is how it has always been.) Naturally, few adolescents had much in the way of disposable income, nor was there anything even resembling a teen market. All of that changed in the 1950s, as more teen-agers stayed in school — sometimes through college — and fewer kids were expected to help with the family finances. Postwar affluence more than trickled down, it showered disposable income on record, magazine and hairspray-buying adolescents, and Hollywood and Madison Avenue took notice. Youth culture was commercialized, capitalized, and institutionalized and overnight a whole low-brow culture grew up round the teenybopper.
The general population, however, was still a long way from to the idea that growing up was too limiting, that father did not in fact know best. Even in the mid-1950s, a film like Rebel Without a Cause could still portray teens in search of a father figure — and do so without irony. But by the late Sixties a decade-long temper tantrum was well underway. Leftist intellectuals blamed their parents for racism, sexism, segregation, poverty, war, colonialism, Vietnam, the whole “Air-conditioned Nightmare.” The maturation process was not only too restrictive, it seemed to turn human beings into something dark and sinister. Only the young remained untainted by the original sin of Western Civilization. The Sixties Generation’s aesthetic could be summed in the refrain of the rock anthem “My Generation”: “Hope I die before I get old,” or the Free Speech Movement’s slogan “Don’t trust anyone over 30.”
With the triumph of Youth Culture, the traditional virtues of adulthood — “forbearance and honor, patience and responsibility, perspective and wisdom, sobriety, decorum, and manners — and the wisdom to know what is “appropriate,” and when, were deemed passe. Even those virtues that shaped liberal democracy — like rugged individualism — were radicalized or infantilized. As the wild flower children morphed into the Me Generation the worst excesses of the adolescent were mainstreamed. Rebellion became cool. Self-absorption was the new religion. Within a generation behaviors once seen as anti-social (instant gratification, irresponsibility, anger, narcissism, dependency, manipulativeness, and nonconformity) became acceptable behavior.
Arrested development was liberating, and it never had to end. Not even after your second hip replacement surgery. Marriage — with all its attendant responsibilities, sobriety, mortgages, kids — was for people in their 50s. Even in your 60s you could still dress like a teen in “No Boundaries” jeans and “Porn Star” T-shirts, maybe even afford Botox, a facelift, and a tummy tuck. Then all you have to do is put what is left of your hair up in a ponytail under your Harley rider helmet and you are good to go.
The permanent adolescent was a boon to leftist intellectuals and politicians who were able to take advantage of the adolescent mindset in their march to undermine the “corrupt” foundations of Western society. In a 2004 Weekly Standard cover story Joseph Epstein put forth a similar argument:
Political correctness and so many of the political fashions of our day — from academic feminism to cultural studies to queer theory — could only be perpetrated on adolescent minds: minds, that is, that are trained to search out one thing and one thing only: Is my teacher, or this politician, or that public spokesman, saying something that is likely to be offensive to me or members of any other victim group? Only an adolescent would find it worthwhile to devote his or her attention chiefly to the hunting of offenses, the possibility of slights, real and imagined.
Left on its own, the adolescent mind even invaded the corporate boardroom: “The trouble with Enron is that there weren’t any grown-ups,” noted one former Enron employee.
IN MAKING HER CASE, West offers up some disturbing — or what should be disturbing — statistics. What to make of the fact that more adults 18-49 watch The Cartoon Network than watch CNN? Or the obscene popularity of toys and video games among “kidults”? Then there are the more visible manifestations of prolonged adolescence: the sloppy, childlike fashions (our Sunday best has become cargo shorts and tennis shoes), and the parroting of the teenager’s argot and vulgarisms. But these trivialities pale besides the serious societal issues that occur when twenty and thirty-somethings are unwilling to live up to their adult responsibilities and honor their commitments (pace deadbeat dads and overly permissive mothers), and when our culture begins to resemble one long high school party punctuated by “an infantile lack of behavioral restraint.”
One major consequence of our permanent adolescence is that Americans have become too self-absorbed and spoiled to understand our many challenges. “Rudderless, the baby boomers developed a values-free, nonjudgmental world view that reached fruition in multiculturalism, a debilitating condition that has left the West virtually powerless to argue for its own interests, to recognize and denounce evil or to resist aggression,” West writes.
West concludes with a stern warning that permanent adolescence puts us at risk before a confident and imperialist political Islam. Not surprisingly her critics have had at her for implying that it takes self-assured grown-ups to recognize and respond to the threats posed to Western Civilization — that immature tree humpers and naked peace marchers are not up to the job. William Grimes of the New York Times dismissed West’s book with the headline “Dress like Your Child, Terrorists win.” Understandably, West’s critics are discomfited. No one likes to hear that his worldview is infantile, and it is all the more unsettling when statistics and research support your thesis.
The permanent adolescent will continue to imagine a Lennon-esque Neverland of peace, plenty and total equality, a utopian dream where there are no borders, no religion, no fascists, no capitalists, no jihadis and no jobs that suck. Most of us, however, have to live in the real world, have families to support, put in 9-hour work days, and in general act our age.
West does not advocate a return to some golden pre-war era, but she does prescribe a booster shot of old-fashioned adult values. Sounding refreshingly like our parents and grandparents before them, West warns that we need to grow up and get serious about life. Preferably before retirement age.