Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Permanent adolescence

It's obvious that adolescence in America has become prolonged: that thirty-year-old adolescents are epidemic, that entire ghettos of pre-adult, post-teen hipsters exist in many cities (especially where there is a college), that more and more bourgeois twenty-somethings seem more and more reluctant to have families of their own and thereby begin the process of socially reproducing their class. Typically when the trend is noted, this Toys R Us generation is condemned as lazy and spoiled for refusing to want to grow up, and their concerns (often characterized as revolving around pop cultural ephemera and the careful maintanence of their own image) are trivialized as juvenile and unserious.

This seems unfair. Permanent adolescence, while it may be condemned by moral pundits, is at the same time the ideal depicted in a great deal of advertising, the never-ending youthfulness combined with unlimited discretionary income. And it's natural that in a child-centric culture like ours, we should want to cling to childhood, which is set up as the natural, authentic, spontaenous, uncorrupted, inherently good alternative to the greedy, money-grubbing world of adulthood we're compelled to participate in to survive. As Zaretsky points out in Capitalism, the Family, and Social Life, adolescence was invented by education theorists G. Stanley Hall at the beginning of the 20th century to describe a transitional stage that partook of both the purity of childhood and the moral confusion and social antagonism of adulthood. Zaretsky argues that "as childhood came to be understood less and less as preperation for adult society and increasingly as a period of unspoiled virtues opposed to it, the transition from child to adult became problematic." The pure qualities of childhood -- the natural spontaneity, the impulsiveness, the openness -- seem to have no place in adult social life, and thus today's permanent adolescents have no sense of how to conceive of maturity as anything other than capitulation, surrender. There is no sense of how contribution to social life can be anything other than permitting yourself to be ground uner the boot heel of a boss, doing work that is personally meaningless, while submitting to wage slavery without end. As permanent adolescents, they can see their work as part of establishing their personal image, which is still allowed to be a matter of importance, and may be the only way one is permitted in contemporary society to hold on to the concept of meaningful work -- once you are an adult, mainstream ideology demands you to see your family (the agency of social reproduction, allowing the cycle to repeat in the next generation) as all important, not your personal satisfaction. As an adolescent, you can privilege meaningful work (in the guise of it being cool, it being a glamor job of some sort, or affording a great deal of independence) over social reproduction. If possible, the permanent adolescence can be reconfigured and dignified as a kind of counter-cultural stance -- the permanent adolescent as bohemian hipster. But because the counter-culture has been entirely engulfed by "cool," one inevitably reaches the point where one's adolescence can no longer masquerade as hipsterism -- you become bald, heavy, visibly old, vaguely embarrassing to the youth whose stance you seem to be appropriating (rather than defining, trail-blazing, as you might have had just a few years previous). Then you are in danger of falling out of society altogether, becoming one of its invisible sufferers, one of those people who are too unremarkable to every make it on reality TV, one of those people universally ignored in public, one of those people utterly insignificant to all but the most predatory advertisers, those whose stock in trade is the insecure and the desperate.

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