What Happened to Adolescence? | Teachers College Columbia University

Skip to content Skip to main navigation

What Happened to Adolescence?

According to Washington Post writer, Laura Sessions, adolescence is not over at age 18. Jeanne Brooks-Gunn comments.

According to Washington Post writer, Laura Sessions, adolescence is not over at age 18. Sessions writes, "For those who study adolescence as a stage of life, treat it as a disease, sell to it as a market, entertain it with songs and shows that make it seem like the greatest time of life, it is growing and growing, providing ever new opportunities for grants, fees, jobs and changing how we think about kids."

The Society for Adolescent Medicine, a physicians' organization, now says on its Web site that it cares for persons "10 to 26 years" of age. A National Academy of Sciences committee, surveying programs for adolescents, discussed extending its review to age 30.

"It's very disrespectful," said Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, TC's Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor and Professor of developmental psychology. "Twenty-year-olds aren't teenagers. Cognitively, emotionally, they're like adults."

The new theories may mean that plenty of Americans who vote, fight wars, buy houses and alcohol and serve in Congress can be branded as adolescents. Professor Brooks-Gunn and others including Frank F. Furstenberg Jr., Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, says, "Adolescence has been stretched so much it's becoming an obsolescent term."

According to the Washington Post, the young Marines stationed in Afghanistan don't think of themselves as adolescents. "We're suffering in the cold together, defending our country together. We're all men," Lance Cpl. William Isaac Jones, a 20-year-old Californian, told a Post foreign correspondent. "Adolescents are children," said Lance Cpl. Kevin Ihm, who is also 20, "and children stay home. That's who we protect."

Powerful lobbies are at work to stretch adolescence as far into the third decade of life as they can.

One of these groups is retail merchandisers. The number of adolescents in the United States is greater today than ever before, 60 million if you start at age 10 and continue to 24, 80 million if you count all the way to 30.

"Much of today's youth is a pampered population, they are beneficiaries of parents obsessed with giving them a leg up on everybody else," said Sessions, a Post reporter. "One amusing measure is this: Adolescents today have received four times as many toys as the generation before them."

The adolescent role has deteriorated, according to historian Thomas Hine, author of The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, from contributors to consumers. Marketers expect them to spend roughly $600 billion next year, dubbing them "Generation Market Clout." They have every reason to want these boomer offspring to stay as young as possible as long as possible.

Published Monday, May. 20, 2002