Monday, 23 January 2012

The first society in history to abolish the need to become an adult

Throughout the vast majority of human history, the most important life change has been the passage from adolescence to adulthood. The reasons for its importance are obvious – it meant another member of the clan could go out and hunt bison and/or kill enemies, and that girls could find a mate and start spawning, thereby ensuring the viability of the clan. The same proved even more true of farming communities (except that kids could make themselves useful well before puberty).

The importance attached to attaining adulthood is obvious from the ubiquity of ceremonies to mark the event. Christopher Booker, in The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories argues convincingly that much of our literature has always been concerned with the vital need for youths to become truly adult.

It used to be a very big deal.

Some people find the change an easy one. One minute they’re spending their pocket money on sweets and cheeking teachers and thinking about sex for 98% of their waking hours. The next, they’re working, getting married, taking out a mortgage and thinking about sex for a mere 97% of their waking hours. Many of us, though, find it difficult to adjust - I didn’t start acting like an adult until my late twenties (and only fitfully since then).

Being an adolescent basically means dependency: other people pay your way, make major decisions for you, tell you you can’t go out dressed like that, help you out of scrapes, forgive you for occasionally doing breathtakingly dumb things, and generally try to show you what it means to be an adult. Then the training wheels are removed, off you go, and good luck!

But there’s been a huge, accelerating change during the past forty years or so. In the past, many people managed to extend their adolescence indefinitely by a variety of methods: by staying tied to their mother’s apron-strings well into adulthood; by becoming well-paid pop or sports stars in their teens; by using their sexual appeal to get other people to cosset them: or by becoming criminals – lying, cheating and stealing to get what they wanted, then spending long periods in jail, not having to fend for themselves. Those who simply couldn’t be arsed to work for a living – and didn’t have enough energy to beg or start a criminal career - starved to death or ended up in the workhouse in Victorian times, or, later, eked out a pitiful existence on the dole, sneered at by other members of the community.

Now, of course, families in the last category – whether or not they’ve paid a penny in tax or national insurance and whether or not they're British – can sit on their big fat bottoms and wait for the state to give them regular sums of money which often outstrip what their hard-working neighbours could possibly earn.

Society – that’s you and me – still sneers at these perpetual teenagers. The trouble is that many of our political and religious leaders don’t. When the likes of Paddy Pantsdown and Rowan Williams object to a benefits cap of £26,000 for an individual family, what they’re basically saying is that anyone who doesn’t much fancy being an adult (presumably because it means taking responsibility for yourself and your children and not expecting surrogate Mums and Dads to automatically pick up the tab for your breeding habits and general fecklessness) won’t have to face the consequences of their actions, and are  therefore free to remain in a state of perpetual adolescence.

I wonder if our society is the first in history in which the majority of those in the religious and political sphere see becoming an adult as more of a lifestyle choice than a necessary and fundamental part of the human experience.

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