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It's our fault they can't grow up Add to ...

A lot of friends of mine are worried that their 20-something kids are stalled in life. Take the case of a girl I'll call Jennifer. Jennifer graduated from university and has travelled the world. She lived in Australia for a while, where she worked at a pub, then came back and took some fashion courses. She tried to launch a web-based business (with financial help from dad), but it went nowhere. Now, nearing 30, she seems no closer to settling down than she was at 22. Her parents are covering her rent while she finds her feet.

It's not Jennifer's fault that she can't grow up. Her problem is that her parents won't let her. My friends' basements are stashed with grown men and women with aspirations to be filmmakers and golf pros. I have other friends whose kids have finally moved out, but the parents refuse to sell the house in case the kids want to move back. Another friend of mine told me the other day she wants to take a week off to get her daughter settled into her new school. I was floored. The kid is 23. She has an IQ in the stratosphere. She knows her way around much of the Third World, and her new school is Harvard Law.

The infantilization of our children has reached ridiculous extremes. It's now trite to say that 30 is the new 20 - the age at which true maturity begins. But it's not just the fault of overly indulgent parents. The whole culture is to blame.

We've been brainwashed to believe that succeeding in the information age demands more education (i.e. credentials) than ever before. These days, a BA is simply what a high-school diploma used to be. And a period of extended dependency is the price you've got to pay to become a functional adult in the information age.

But is the price too high? Maybe the postponement of adulthood is a spectacular waste of human potential. A lot of those 20-somethings, trapped in the ever-longer twilight zone between adolescence and adulthood, are aimless, frustrated, a little angry, and mildly depressed. They're not in control of their lives. Instead of plunging into the world of productive work, they spend years piling up more "credentials" as they try to figure out what they really want to do and waiting for just the right self-actualizing opportunity to come along.

As for credentials, it's true that some professions require years of academic training. But many others don't. Dozens of professions (such as journalism) have been "credentialized" without any noticeable improvement to the product.

It's shocking to recall how young the age of adulthood used to be. George Washington was bossing a survey team in Indian country when he was 16. Roman boys were marrying and joining Roman legions when they were 14. Unmarried girls were old maids at 25. Many of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower were in their early 20s. None of them had 18 years of schooling. But they had the fortitude, competence and judgment of full-fledged adults.

Psychologist Robert Epstein argues that we'd all be better off if we could let our kids grow up. In his provocative new book, The Case Against Adolescence, he argues that extended adolescence is bad for everyone.

The affliction known as adolescence is a recent historical development. Many pre-industrial cultures, where teenagers are integrated into adult life, don't even have a word for it. Adolescence exists only in Western industrial countries, where education and laws have isolated teenagers from adults. We all know the pathologies of adolescence - the awful conflicts between parents and children, the drugs and alcohol, the obsession with appearance, the negative peer pressure, the moods, depression and anger, the cheap material culture. It's a miserable stage of life.

The modern education system was created in order to supply the factories of the industrial age with a reliable stream of standardized, skilled labour. Today, the Industrial Age is dead, and the factory system is obsolete. The knowledge that people need for most jobs is specialized and changes quickly. But we still educate our kids in the same old way. "We need education spread over a lifetime, not jammed into the early years," he argues. "Past puberty, education needs to be combined in interesting and creative ways with work."

Yet we still insist that young adults, many of whom are indifferent and unmotivated, stay incarcerated in school until they're old enough to legally escape. Instead of admitting that this model doesn't work any more, our plan is to extend it until the poor kids turn 18.

Mr. Epstein has a far more radical idea: shorter compulsory school hours, mandatory education for basics only, more individualized instruction, and an end to age segregation. He'd also repeal the laws that restrict younger adults from doing adult jobs, owning property, and all the rest.

Mr. Epstein points out that we routinely underestimate what teenagers can do. "Some of them can barely read or write but all of them can get their drivers licence," he says. Our idea that the teenage brain is not fully developed is simply wrong. On competency and intelligence tests, teenagers score pretty much the same as adults. The reason they don't act like adults is because we don't treat them like adults. "We need to give young people incentives to join the adult world and move out of the insane, completely vacuous world of teen culture," he says. "Teens should be learning from the people they are about to become."

Of course this will never happen. Society - in the form of the vast education establishment and much of the entertainment and fashion industries - has far too much invested in keeping kids from growing up. Older workers have a certain interest in delaying the entry of younger, smarter, faster workers into the labour market. And people whom the Romans would have considered old are still living in their parents' basement, waiting to get started.

 

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