The perils of prolonging adolescence

David Kingman explores whether people find it harder to grow up today than they used to

Human society has always made a big thing of marking the point at which someone “comes of age”.

In Japan, where the age of majority is 20, everyone who reached this milestone in the previous year is invited to a special ceremony called a “Coming of Age Day” held on the second Monday in January. There, they are addressed as a group by government dignitaries who remind them of the responsibilities they now bear as adults, before presenting them with money and awards. To mark the big occasion, families will usually hold a party in the evening afterwards.

Some societies treat coming of age as such a serious responsibility that they make their members go through ritualistic trials which could endanger their lives. In many Native American cultures, adolescents have to undergo “vision quests” where they must subject themselves to days of fasting and meditation in an inhospitable environment away from the rest of their tribe, until they have successfully communed with an “ancestral spirit”, who offers guidance on how they should live as an adult. Only then are they allowed to return to their families, having proved they are ready to enjoy the responsibilities of adult life.

Here in Britain, young people should find it easier to cross the mythical line that marks the beginning of “adulthood”, and yet many people are complaining it has become harder than it once was.

We’re entitled to ask, is this really the case? And, more importantly, how has it come about?

Prolonged adolescence: a universal problem

As Shiv Malik laments in Jilted Generation, the book he co-wrote with Ed Howker: “Quite simply, young people aren’t allowed to grow up… We work in jobs and live in homes secured on short-term contracts; the steps of our lives are constantly meandering. We’re not settled. Indeed, for many of us our childhood home represents a fixed point, a permanent address, and so we return to them constantly and sometimes permanently. And all this holds back the start of our own lives, the forming of stable relationships and the mastering of our own destinies.”

A similar observation was made by another journalist, Harriet Sergeant, in an article for The Spectator about the recent riots. She reflected on her experiences of interviewing white and Afro-Caribbean young men belonging to gangs in South London – people who otherwise have a very different set of problems to university graduates like Shiv Malik – and drew a similar conclusion: “The young men I interviewed had very obviously failed to make the transition to manhood and a successful adult life. Their failure leaves them disengaged from society and its values. The majority find themselves trapped in an extended, semi-criminal adolescence well into their 20s and 30s.”

Taken together, these quotes indicate there is something of an existential crisis around coming of age in modern Britain, a series of systematic flaws that unite young people of all social backgrounds.

This is too widespread to be a question of mass fecklessness on the part of the young people it affects. Rather, there are problems suffered by everyone that have contributed to make this transition much harder than it used to be.

Of course, it isn’t easy to pin down exactly what “coming of age” means in British society. For different people, it signifies different developments, which everyone achieves at his or her own pace.

It probably has little to do with the official milestones, which in any case only demonstrate the rather baffling way a person’s level of responsibility is viewed in the eyes of the government. In the UK, people are considered responsible enough to legally decide if they want to conceive a child at sixteen, but aren’t considered ready to marry (without parents’ permission), vote, drink or smoke until two years later.

Forty per cent of those in the armed forces join when they are sixteen or seventeen, potentially risking their lives for a government they supposedly aren’t yet mature enough to influence through the ballot box.

Children who fatally stab someone the day before their tenth birthday aren’t responsible enough to be tried for their crime; yet if they do so the day after, they are suddenly believed to have known exactly what they were doing. This kind of government-regulated maturity remains as perplexing as it always has been; but to “come of age” in reality refers to something subtler.

Stations of maturity

In effect, people mature in three related areas, each with its own thresholds: in the home, in their working life, and in their relationships, although the same pace of development is not necessarily maintained in all of them.

In their domestic life, most people start off living with their parents and the rest of their family, initially having almost everything done for them, but then taking on a gradually larger share of the responsibilities as they grow up. Eventually they will move away into accommodation of their own, usually rented, before one day perhaps buying their own property and adopting the position of ultimate responsibility once occupied by their parents.

Both the fact that your right to vote once depended on being a property owner, and the famous Margaret Thatcher aim of creating a “property-owning democracy” imply that the ownership of property is a key characteristic of your very citizenship; it is something that gives you a long-term stake in the continued success of society. Therefore, the moment when people finally takes possession of their own property is one of the most important thresholds of responsibility they will ever cross; but for many today, this keeps being moved further into the distance by rising property prices and poor access to credit.

The average age of a first-time buyer who doesn’t receive help with the costs (usually from a parent or relative) is now 38. As a result of this, and the consequent high cost of renting, many adults are living for much longer with their parents, where their path towards the full responsibilities of adulthood can stagnate. According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), in 2009 nearly a fifth of graduates in their late twenties still lived with their parents, compared to only one in eight twenty years before. This has a knock-on effect on their ability to cross key thresholds in their personal lives: when polled, 2.8 million people between 18 and 44 said they were delaying having children because they couldn’t find affordable housing, while 7% of 18-30 year olds were delaying getting married for the same reason, according to Shiv Malik and Ed Howker (Jilted Generation).

The instability in peoples’ accommodation is mirrored by changes to their working life. In the past, someone would have had greater expectations of being able to spend their entire career in the same job or organization, but now the picture has become more fragmented: they are more likely to do unpaid internships and take short-term contracts, switching between different sectors and working in a variety of roles, while the overall rate of long-term unemployment has steadily grown.

This too makes it harder for young people to sustain their adult relationships: research conducted in America using the US National Survey of Households and Families suggests being unemployed makes men more likely to get divorced. By extension, the implication is that, whereas in the first half of the twentieth century, long-lasting marriages were still the norm, the way people now have to switch between addresses and jobs has made it harder for them to stay together.

More difficult than it used to be?

It can be argued convincingly that previous generations found it easier to make the transition to adulthood, at least in a practical, if not emotional, sense. Baby boomers who reached the age of eighteen in 1965 might have been expected to take on adult responsibilities much faster than they would be in 2011, but the economic set-up made it easier for them. If they wanted to, they could have gone on to university free of charge, and then entered the adult workforce without being weighed down by huge debts – in an ideal position to take advantage of a benign housing market featherbedded by measures like Mortgage Interest Relief at Source (MIRAS), part of a range of government policies that were specifically designed to encourage home ownership.

Even those who didn’t go to university were also relatively well cushioned: they could leave school at 16 even if they didn’t have any qualifications and go straight into the factory, mill or mine, where aggressive trade unionism would guarantee long-term employment at a high salary and decent working conditions. Best of all, they could get a house on one of the large municipal housing estates that local authorities were still building, and be in an excellent position to buy their council house when Margaret Thatcher swept to power in the 1980s.

Contrast this with today, when upon reaching 18, the person who would have gone into manual work now finds the mills and mines standing empty, the council houses sold off. Even modern unskilled work, available mostly in the service sector, is now overwhelmingly organized on short-term, minimum-wage contracts. This can be attractive to seasonal migrants from abroad who are prepared to live in substandard accommodation in order to take a few pounds back home with them, but such low-paid work is often not even a sensible option for their British counterparts because they can receive comparable incomes from benefits – an effect Harriet Sergeant’s research particularly highlighted..

For those who go to university, all change as well. Now, they have to pay the state for the privilege of studying there ,leaving them with average debts of over £20,000 by the time they graduate (projected to rise to over £40,000 after the tuition fee increases in 2012). Entering the job market, they find that many professional occupations now require them to undergo  an uninspiring grind of unsalaried internships for up to two years,– which only the offspring of the wealthy can afford to undertake.

The fallout

Society should be wary of the consequences of this. Harriet Sergeant is not alone among commentators in arguing that the recent riots were partly the product of having a generation of young people who do not feel they have any responsibilities towards the areas they inhabit:, a childish aggression erupted because society has not allowed them to progress towards adulthood.

The problem is that in modern Britain, we still expect people to take on the responsibilities of adulthood – restraint, discipline, reliability, hard-work, honesty etc. – while making it harder for them to enjoy its privileges: the opportunity to earn a living, home-ownership and stable relationships. We can already see this is unfair; now the question to ask is whether such an arrangement can be sustained in the face of mounting unrest.