Out of Thin Air

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.

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9 Comments

  1. Another excellent essay, Mike. Thanks. Regarding the research you cited about evangelical teen sexual habits, those stats seem to run contrary to a recently released study undertaken by University of Pennsylvania professor John Jemmott III. Girls in this study who received abstinence-only message were far less likely to begin having sex than those given “safe sex” messages (33 percent compared to 52 percent).

    This does not undermine the main idea of your essay and thirty-three percent is still a high number. But there does seem to be some improvement when parents, schools, churches, etc., teach young adults to fully understand why God designed sex only for a marriage relationship. Perhaps churches and parents are only telling the kids to take a vow rather then teaching them about the reasons for God’s design.

  2. As one who has never completely “gotten” [and definitely does not admire] the thick/thin theory distinctions bandied about by Geertz and cohorts, I’m not sure if I follow the subtext in this article, either. But then you seem to move the terminology into a whole new realm? Into one of richness of air. It’s clever as a gesture sketch – but I don’t know that it can be sustained as a theory.

    Yes: interesting to note the changing view of wee adults as opposed to ‘adolescents’. There are many who would argue that part of the problem is children ‘growing up’ too soon. I find it interesting (but again, unsustained) that you appear to argue the reverse.

  3. Thanks Mike, for another inspiring essay and call to action to those of us called to “diminutive adult” ministry.

    We’re finding that more and more of the young adults who attend our events want solid food along with their milk. Thanks for reminding us that a) they are ready for it, and b) it is good for them.

  4. Interesting essay, but I have a hard time believing that initiating children into “diminutive adulthood” by age seven is the key to solving the immaturity problem. I think it would be more helpful if you explain what this initiation into adulthood looks like. Does it involve sending your 12 year old into the woods with a rifle to hunt for the family, as they did in the pioneer’s past? Or how about sending our children to work in textile mills or sweep out chimneys?

    What I find lacking is the distinction between responsibility and adulthood. I think your use of the term adult has this idea of responsibility built into it, but it is assumed, and never made explicit. The mere ability to work and hold a job does not an adult make. Neither does mere exposure to the harshness of reality. Children, even those fully formed 7 year old “diminutive adults” still need instruction.

    You make a good point that helicopter parenting is to be avoided, and I think this is where the emphasis must lie: in parents allowing their children to engage with the harder aspects of life and helping them reason their way through it. Thus parents are still responsible for teaching their children responsibility (one would hope this is to be an important quality of adulthood), and children grow up (or perhaps grow into) the demands of mature adulthood when they are expected to engage with aspects of it.

    I also question the idea that living at home assumes that post-college students have not grown up. This concept appears to me to be built out of an individualistic society that elevates independence to the exclusion of interdependence. This assumes that the communal model of the family is not such a good thing for people after all. There are other cultures, built around the concept of family as being important, that would seriously disagree with this western model.

    I think again, that this is where the importance of wise parenting comes in. It is axiomatic that post-college aged kids who are allowed to remain in their family home without any responsibilities will remain children. Such a relationship is parasitic, unhealthy, and unsuitable for maturation. However, post-college age students who move back to the family home, and then are asked by their parents to support the family is not a bad idea. The children are given responsibility and are in community with their families. Why buy or rent a second accommodation, when the space is already available and the child can still be doing their bit to support the family?

    So, kudos for addressing the kind of parenting that protects children to their own detriment, but I think it may be helpful to explore this topic from other angles. You write well and I most often enjoy your thoughts, but I think this essay needs a little more work.

  5. Peter:

    You are close to truth. In reality, all of my columns need more work! Good words, and I will continue to press this into better and better shape.

  6. Peter:

    I meant, “close to the truth…” It pays to proofread before hitting “submit!”

  7. As always, good and important work, Mike.

    Just one small question (others have done more substantive jobs adding to the conversation.)

    You say that maybe we should return to this medieval notion, helping children become adults, “perhaps at age 7.” I guess I wonder why you presume that the medievals are correct? I intuit that you are on to something, but what if–just asking, in theory–the middle ages were dead wrong, and this is some sort of normative insight, that there is an age and stage between child-hood and adult-hood? The brain theorists seem to argue that, leading to the work of Piaget and Kohlburg and Fowler et al. You seem to just assert that the current social construction of reality is misguided. Who says so?

    There is a stereotype of slacker college kids who won’t grow up moving back in with mom and dad. Again, maybe extended families living together has something normative to it; could be a healthy and happy practice, resisting individualism, etc. Why presume the worst of young adults who live at home? Again, your piece is fabulously interesting, and there is no denying that the ideas and the social realities can be traced (something you really excel at doing for us.) But how do you come to conclude which social construction is correct, which comports with the four story gospel? Your sociological detective work is brilliant, but I’m don’t “see” how you conclude which era or idea is necessarily God’s best intentions.

  8. Byron:

    I’m pretty sure that my piece is not brilliant. It’s borrowed – a translation of better works. I refer you to James Hunter’s brilliant piece, “Wither Adulthood?” And, of course, the age of seven might not be magical. But the sociological data is fairly strong that most youth ministries are not helping people move into adulthood. I do believe a roundtable of people operating in good conscience and a fairly well developed understanding of the “four chapter” gospel could come to some better conclusions than currently hold sway in the modern American church.

  9. Mike,

    More than anything about this particular post, I appreciate your response to Byron and myself. It is rare to find humility on the internet, and rarer to find it from someone in your position. I am most impressed because I know that sort of character does not come “out of thin air”. It comes out of relationship with Jesus.

    Thanks for being a model of this.

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