When we think about adolescence, most people accept that kids are growing up faster than ever. This is not a new critique leveled only at young people of today but something that has been observed for decades. The internet has accelerated this process by giving kids a range of access that has essentially removed the barriers of the adult world. When we factor in societal trends such as teen sexualization and online dangers, the idea of growing up slowly 1950’s style seems laughably naive.
But there’s an alternate narrative and in many ways people are actually growing up slower than before. Prior to the early 20th century, the adolescent period essentially didn’t exist. Kids went from grammar school to immediately working in a factory or on the farm. Most people got married in their late teens or very early twenties and had children shortly thereafter. There were no teen years of hanging out and goofing off. By the time people were 15 or 16 years old, many faced adult responsibilities.
The rise of adolescence and youth culture as we know it today coincided with the rise of high school. In the United States circa 1890 there were only 200,000 students aged 14-17 enrolled in secondary school. By 1920 that number had ballooned to nearly 2,000,000. When our teen years were changed from a period of direct work to a period of education and semi leisure, everything we now think about adolescent culture and teenage habits was born.
With the increasing popularity of college following World War II, the adolescent period was further extended from 18 to 22. Whereas a typical 14 year-old in 1890 could expect to be working full time, modern youth aren’t expected to work full time or be self sufficient until eight years later.
More recently, two additional factors have again expanded the adolescent phase of life, overprotective parents who coddle their children and an inhospitable labor market forcing people to move back home after college. Kids who remain under their parents wing after graduation are finding themselves stuck in a pseudo adolescent role well into their mid-20s.
The problem with such a long adolescent period is, having enjoyed 8+ years with many of the benefits of adulthood but few of the obligations, people are left with no experience and little concept of responsibility. Instead, people are thrust into the adult world following an extended period of semi leisure having never developed the character traits that come from sacrifice or learned the value of work.
Nowhere is this problem more acute than in the tech industry where 23 year old kids who have grown up both fast and slow are given millions of dollars to chase an idea. Whereas most people get hit with the realities of work and adulthood shortly after college, Silicon Valley offers the opportunity to continue living the adolescent fantasy of pursuing dreams without the consequences of failure – fail fast, anyone? The end result is a somewhat irresponsible fantasyland culture of people who have tremendous access and power as a result of growing up fast, but completely lack wisdom and experience as a result of growing up slow.
When critics of the Valley point to our insular arrogance and lack of self awareness, much of it comes from the fact that we are an industry filled with adult children; flush with success, wealth, and knowledge but, having never fully embraced the responsibilities of adulthood, we also tend to behave like presumptuous, know-it-all teenagers. Another byproduct of the fast/slow paradox of modern maturation.
As I mentioned earlier, the contradiction of growing up both fast and slow isn’t limited to the current generation and certainly isn’t exclusive to Silicon Valley. It exist everywhere and has been developing for decades. But only in the Valley can someone fresh out of college, or fresh from dropping out of college, get millions of dollars with the understanding that it doesn’t have to be paid back if they screw up. If this isn’t the ultimate adolescent fantasy, then I don’t know what is. So while there are countless ways in which people today are growing up faster than previous generations, there are also some solid arguments that people are actually growing up slower than ever before. For many in Silicon Valley, there’s no need to grow up at all.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pandodaily]