Are we infantilising today’s young adults?

Does childhood now extend until 25 in modern Britain? David Kingman looks at what might lead to such an assertionNostalgia

When do you become too old to stop seeing a child psychologist? A change in the regulations governing this question has recently sparked a flurry of anxious debate. Previously, the age range of the patients seen by child psychologists has spanned from 0 to 18, but according to a new directive reported by the BBC, this is now being extended to 25.

This development raises a host of interesting questions about when adulthood really begins, and whether some of the changes that have occurred in British society over recent decades have led to a fundamental shift in the nature of growing up.

“Three stages of adolescence”

According to the BBC article linked to above, there is a body of scientific evidence underpinning this new approach.

It used to be the accepted wisdom within neuroscience that the brain was fully developed by the early teenage years. However, advances in neurological research have enabled scientists to see that the development of the brain actually continues undergoing significant changes until at least the mid-20s, or possibly even the early-30s. In particular, it is now known that the level of hormonal activity in someone’s brain remains elevated until during their third decade, while the pre-frontal cortex – a vital region of the brain which affects emotional maturity, self-image and judgement – is not fully developed until this later point as well.

As a result, the scientific literature now often divides adolescence into three distinct stages: early adolescence (12–14 years), middle-adolescence (15–17 years) and late adolescence (18 years and older). There has also been greater recognition that not everyone will progress through these stages at the same pace, and that adolescence lasts longer for some people than it does for others.

The problem with these findings is that phases such as childhood, adolescence and adulthood are not defined purely by science: they are also socially, legally and economically constructed. These categories affect what society expects from you, especially in terms of independence and how much responsibility you should be expected to bear.

Therefore, it is unsurprising that a range of commentators has leapt upon the idea of treating people as adolescents up until the age of 25, questioning what it says about maturity and independence in our society. Many have drawn parallels with the increasing numbers of young adults who still live at home with their parents, struggling to support themselves financially or achieve stable romantic relationships, and asked whether this new development is symptomatic of a wider trend towards infantilising our young people.

Boomerang generation

One of experts quoted by the BBC, Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, argued that changes in what we expect from young people today have more to do with us infantilising them psychologically than with more concrete causes such as economics:

“Often it’s claimed it’s for economic reasons, but actually it’s not really for that… There is a loss of the aspiration for independence and striking out on your own. When I went to university it would have been a social death to have been seen with your parents, whereas now it’s the norm. So you have this kind of cultural shift which basically means that adolescence extends into your late twenties and that can hamper you in all kinds of ways, and I think what psychology does is it inadvertently reinforces that kind of passivity and powerlessness and immaturity and normalises that.”

Unfortunately, this narrative of today’s young people being more immature than their counterparts in previous generations has led to damaging stereotypes about today’s younger generation, who some commentators accuse of being feckless and lazy, not wanting to take important steps such as moving out because they have been too coddled to face the challenge of independence in the outside world.

To give one example, earlier this year, the TV presenter and property expert Sian Astley was quoted in the Telegraph accusing today’s young people of being too concerned with affording luxuries to take the mature option of saving up and getting a foothold on the property ladder:

“Many twentysomethings seem to want Hollywood and handbags, rather than pensions and property. They’ve been dissuaded from the idea that hard work reaps rewards… You have to get stuck in, as well as ditching luxuries for a more frugal existence.”

Seeing the bigger picture?

Opinions such as those expressed by Furedi and Astley are not only unfair, they also risk creating a distraction which takes us away from the real problems affecting young people.

Fortunately, other responses to the news that adolescence now extends to 25 were far more balanced, emphasising the role that record house prices, sky-high rents, student debts and the tight jobs market facing new entrants all play in keeping too many of today’s young adults trapped in their family homes, often inhabiting the same bedrooms they have had since they were children.

Writing in the Guardian, journalist Daisy Buchanan argued that today’s older generation needs to do more to try to understand the problems facing their grown-up children, especially as they are likely to have “come of age” in an era when the prevailing climate for young people was far more benign:

“Parents who think their kids are in a state of arrested development would do well to remember that their studies were paid for, they received grants, not loans, and if they couldn’t immediately find a job and pay their rent, the state would support them – they would not be forced to return to their teenage bedrooms and wait for their lives to get going as they watched the dust gather on the Meccano sets sitting on the tops of their old wardrobes.”

Indeed, her article even raises a very interesting prospect. To some extent, could the idea that people now take longer to develop as adults be a response to the behaviour observed in today’s “jilted” generation, rather than a cause? Whether this is really the case or not, the fact that some people have branded today’s generation of young people as immature because they simply can’t afford to move out shows how the rest of society often fails to give the younger generation a fair chance.

Posted on: 19 October, 2013