Miércoles 5 de Septiembre de 2007, Ip nº 206

Perpetual Adolescence
Por Jennie Yabroff

In her book “The Death of the Grown Up,” writer Diana West argues that recent generations have lost the ability to behave like mature adults. We live in a state of suspended adolescence, she says, dressing, acting and thinking like teenagers in need of authority figures. As for those in positions of authority, West, a columnist for The Washington Times, sees a nation of parents and educators who have traded indignation at youthful misbehavior for abdication of responsibility. She spoke with NEWSWEEK’s Jennie Yabroff about what she sees as cultural regression.

NEWSWEEK: First, can you clarify how you are defining the term “grown-up”?

Diana West: What I’m mostly trying to define is the change in attitudes toward growing up. Reading Lionel Trilling, I was struck by what he saw. He noted the complete eradication of the notion of making a life with a beginning, middle and end. That would be the sea change, that aspiration has disappeared. It used to be a reflexive action to reject your growing years. People were expected to grow out of adolescence and lose certain traits such as the self-absorption, lack of identity and striving of a young person to find himself. We as a society no longer expect to find ourselves, it’s become an open-ended process.

NEWSWEEK: Can you give an example of how you see adults behaving like adolescents?

Diana West: Recently, the New York Times Style section’s lead story was about how “The Boys in the Band are in AARP” [American Association of Retired People], about retired men starting garage bands. It’s like a morphing of what was once considered countercultural with the most mainstream, middle-class, stalwart members of the community. That kind of image really encapsulates the phenomenon and shows how society thinks that it is completely unremarkable.

NEWSWEEK: So are we really talking about the death of the adult male?

Diana West: Where womanhood stands today is deeply affected by the death of grown-up. I would say the sexualized female is part of the phenomenon I’m talking about, so I don’t think they’re immune to the death of the grown-up. Women are still emulating young fashion. Where sex is more available, there are no longer the same incentives building toward married life, which once was a big motivation toward the maturing process.

NEWSWEEK: You write that “it was during the period of peace, prosperity and bright futures that followed World War II that the adult began to ape the adolescent.” Do you think the experience of war is necessary for the maturing process?

Diana West: I wouldn’t say war is a necessary experience, though it certainly is a transformative experience. The question is, what is the formative experience to make a perpetual adolescent? When you talk about the postwar period, the vast new affluence is a big factor in reorienting the culture to adolescent desire. You see a shift in cultural authority going to the young. Instead of kids who might take a job to be able to help with household expenses, all of a sudden that pocket money was going into the manufacture of a massive new culture. That conferred such importance to a period of adolescence that had never been there before.

NEWSWEEK: Hasn’t there always been a culture clash between generations?

Diana West: The main difference is that the counterbalance has been lost. When you come up with the latest outrage that seems to shock people—something like kids freak-dancing at the prom—the adults tend to retreat, talk amongst themselves, wring their hands, but never exercise the power they have as mentors and parents and teachers. They never instruct kids in basic civility, in basic male-female relationships. You lose your power when you don’t exercise it. The adults today have no confidence. I remember being at a high-school party, and at 12 o’clock the mother comes into the middle of the room and blows a police whistle and says, “Thank you for coming, goodnight.” What parent would do that today? It’s the same thing with the spring-break syndrome, where kids are planning expensive trips, going out unchaperoned, they are drinking, debauching, absolutely running amok, yet the parents say, “I can’t do anything about it.” Parents have abdicated responsibilities to give in to adolescent desire.

NEWSWEEK: You quote the cultural critic Neil Postman (“Amusing Ourselves to Death”) saying that prior to literate adulthood, “everyone shared the same information environment.” Could we be seeing a return to that today, with the Internet allowing everyone access to the same information?

Diana West: I think the Internet comes late to the game. It magnifies the ideas. The Internet is not a cause of the death of the grown-up, but maybe an extension, in the sense that it opened up the boundaries of accessibility to information. But so much of what we consider to be sophistication is just exposure, not really experience or achievement. This sort of exposure can be jading but not enriching.

NEWSWEEK: What I hear you saying is that kids have become more adult in their behaviors just as adults have become more childlike. Is it the death of the grown-up, or the end of childhood?

Diana West: It’s kind of like a blending that ends up yielding neither one nor the other. There is this sense of wanting to stay young, wanting to stay open, unformed, not wanting Lionel Trilling’s shaped life. You see quite a number of men and women aping the young in terms of everyday clothing, 10-year-olds and 50-year-olds are wearing chunky athletic shoes, T shirts and shorts, and they’re looking the same. It used to be a mark of passage when boys stopped wearing short pants. There’s not really a popular culture that’s geared toward adults. Will it stay with us forever? Will it be something we look back on as a funny blip? I don’t know, but I think it is something new.


  30/08/2007. Newsweek Magazine.


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