To readers in the 1950s, Holden Caulfield’s angst came out of thin air. Published in 1951, J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was prescient in predicting 1960s teenage anxiety. The fact is, angst does come out of thin air. It’s the product of a relatively recent phenomenon called adolescence that asphyxiates youth rather than maturing them.
Catcher begins with a bang: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
Holden Caulfield is the embodiment of adolescent angst. He narrates the story of a couple of days in his sixteen-year-old life, just after he’s been expelled from prep school. He’s suffocating. It’s the angst anyone feels when breathing thin air. It is the asphyxiation of a culture called adolescence—an idea literally pulled out of thin air.
According to medieval theology, children became diminutive adults at the age of seven, the age of reason and accountability. Before that, they only required the thin responsibilities of children. After seven, children sat with their parents in church and breathed the thicker air of adulthood. “After the age of seven, children entered the adult world, and maturity within it occurred gradually and largely imperceptibly. In fact, the chronologization of the life-course into set stages that were more or less age specific only really emerged in popular consciousness in the nineteenth century.”1
The process began with the word “adolescence” being pulled out of thin air in the 15th century. As John Gillis has noted, in Western history prior to the industrial revolution, little attention was paid to distinctions between ages.2 Prior to the 17th century, young people between the ages of seven and fifteen were generally not seen as children but rather as diminutive adults. This picture of pint-sized adults was based on a definition of reality rooted in the “four-chapter” gospel. All human beings are made in the image of God with rational capacities and moral responsibilities that blossom early.
The air got thinner in 1904 when psychologist G. Stanley Hall popularized the “discovery” of adolescence. In 1921 the word “teenage” came into use and in 1941 the word “teenager” became a popular term. These words derived from an earlier word, “teener,” but even that was not in use until the 1890s. Seven years was stretching into 17, and beyond. By the 1950s, adolescence was seen as an elongated run of “teenaged” years that went beyond 20. The problem is that adolescent air is too thin for adults. Adulthood postponed by adolescence is asphyxiating, what Caufield felt in his tight chest.
“The recognition of childhood as a distinct period of life, its prolongation, and the culture of sentimentality that arose with it, marked an important shift in Western culture,” writes Hunter. This transformation of adulthood can be seen in the delay in marriage. The median age of marriage in 1960 was 22.8 for men and 20.3 for women. Nearly a half-century later (2006), the average for men was 27.5 and 25.9 for women.3 At the same time, cohabitation rates increased. From 1960 to 2006, the number of cohabiting unmarried couples increased 1,357 percent, from 439,000 to 6.4 million.4
Postponing adulthood accounts for the number of young adults, aged 25 to 34, living with their parents. One recent survey found that 65 percent of all college graduates expected to move back into their parents’ home upon graduation.5 Maturity and adulthood are being postponed. It’s the Matthew McConaughey Model: never grow up.
The irony is that Caufield found adolescence asphyxiating while the modern American church found it to be intoxicating. Beginning in the 1950s, faith communities formed youth programs with “youth” pastors. They catered to the chronologization of life in set stages rather than prepare diminutive adults to experience the responsibilities and accountability of the adult world. These programs did build large congregations since many religious parents prefer programs that protect their kids from harsh reality.
There are dozens of studies on how protective religion does not protect youth from reality. In fact, it retards them. For seven years, researchers at Columbia and Yale University studied 12,000 churchgoing teens who took a pledge to wait until marriage before engaging in sex (a total of 2,400,000 teens took the pledge). In March 2004, they reported 88 percent of them had sexual intercourse before marriage—only 12 percent kept the pledge.6 “Evangelical teenagers don’t display just average sexual activity patterns, but rather above-average ones,” concluded Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas, Austin.7 He reports that evangelical teens are more sexually active than other faiths and, on average, make their “sexual début”—to use the festive term of social-science researchers—shortly after turning 16.8 These teens have a narcissistic “take” on reality and love.
“Too many modern parents have made the mistake of idealizing their children instead of truly loving them,” writes Jean M. Twenge in The Narcissism Epidemic. Narcissism is an infatuation with self, the result of programs where youth are the center of the universe. In Scandinavia, narcissism is known as “curling parenthood” and describes parents who attempt to sweep all obstacles out of the paths of their children. In America, it’s “helicopter parents” who hover closely overhead to protect their children from harsh reality. It creates angst and delays adulthood. Such an atmosphere asphyxiates an adult but is sustained by the thin air of ra-ra.
This can be fixed. But it requires youth becoming increasingly aware of adult realities and responsibilities (probably beginning after the age of seven) rather than being entertained by youth pastors.
1 James Davison Hunter, “Wither Adulthood?” The Hedgehog Review, Spring 2009.
2 John Gillis, Youth and History: Tradition and Change in European Age Relations, 1750–Present (Academic, 1974).
3 Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens Through the Twenties (Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 5.
4 “The State of Our Unions 2008: The Social Health of Marriage in America,” The National Marriage Project (2009): http://www.virginia.edu/marriageproject/pdfs/2008update.pdf. (PDF download)
5 As cited by Alexandra Robbins, “Statistics on the Qarterlife Crisis, Twentysomethings, and Young Adults,” Quarterlife Crisis (2005): http://www.quarterlifecrisis.biz/qc_stats.htm.
6 Lawrence K. Altman, “Study Finds That Teenage Virginity Pledges Are Rarely Kept,” The New York Times, March 10, 2004, A20.
7 Mark D. Regnerus, Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 205.
8 Margaret Talbot, “Red Sex, Blue Sex: Why do so many evangelical teen-agers become pregnant?” The New Yorker, November 3, 2008, p. 64.