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Perpetual Adolescence Revisited

Oct 7, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 05 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Alfred Duff Cooper, the British writer-politician-Lothario, once divided the stages of human life into three-decade increments: youth up to 30, middle age until 60, and old age thereafter. For Cooper, who died at the age of 63 on New Year’s Day 1954, this pattern made a certain sense.

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But much has happened in the six decades since then, and not just the dramatic improvements in medicine and life expectancy which, as the saying goes, have made 60 the new 40. Since Duff Cooper’s lifetime, “youth” has acquired an increasingly grandiose definition, and a youth culture and youth market have emerged—in music, film, literature, dress, mode of living, even vocabulary—which Duff Cooper and his fellow Bright Young Things of the interwar era could scarcely have imagined.

The Scrapbook thought of all this the other day when we read, in the London Daily Mail, that psychologists in Great Britain are beginning to redefine the boundaries of adolescence: It “no longer ends [at] 18, according to updated guidelines being given to child psychologists.” In the contemporary world, reports the Mail, adolescence continues until about 25—and “it is hoped that the initiative will stop children being ‘rushed’ through their childhood and feeling pressured to achieve key milestones quickly.”

This news both gratifies and puzzles The Scrapbook. It gratifies us because, as long ago as 2004, The Weekly Standard ran a perceptive essay by Joseph Epstein entitled “The Perpetual Adolescent,” defined as a creature (probably familiar to most readers) who refuses to grow up, clings to the various accoutrements of youth without embarrassment, puts off adult employment as long as possible, and probably lives with his/her parents. We even see some variant of this—indeed, official recognition—in Obamacare’s extension of children’s coverage within their families until age 26.

We’re puzzled, however, by the notion that ending adolescence at age 18 somehow “rushes” children through childhood, and requires them “to achieve key milestones quickly.” The point of the Perpetual Adolescent, of course, is exactly the opposite: Post-adolescents in our culture feel very little pressure to begin behaving like adults, much less achieve “key milestones” in their lives. One need only attend a pop music concert, or consult Facebook, to see that. Perhaps this is an essential difference between Britain and America, the land of Miley Cyrus and prematurely sexualized behavior, where the boundaries of adolescence have been pushed backwards rather than forward.

Indeed, in The Scrapbook’s non-professional opinion, a little pressure on post-adolescents to achieve some “key milestones” in life—or decide, at the very least, what those milestones should be—might not be such a bad idea. It’s annoying enough that the Baby Boomers are still hanging out at Woodstock, 44 years later. 

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