Older, more angsty...and maybe wiser: the new face of growing up

We can stop worrying about all those twentysomethings still living with their parents, according to Steven Mintz’s The Prime of Life. In an age of profound generational turmoil, they’ll probably do best in the end

2 May 2015

9:00 AM

2 May 2015

9:00 AM

The Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood Steven Mintz

The Belknap Press, pp.409, £22.95, ISBN: 9780674047679

We live in an age of generational turmoil. Baby-boom parents are accused of clinging on to jobs and houses which they should be freeing up for their children. Twentysomethings who can’t afford to leave home and can’t get jobs are attacked as aimless and immature. Both sides of the generational divide should take comfort from this timely, thoughtful work by Steven Mintz, professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin. In Mintz’s view, no one is to blame for these changes, neither the selfish baby boomers nor their Peter Pan offspring. What is happening is a shift in the nature of adulthood, and to understand this we need a historical perspective.

To most of us, adulthood means being able to earn a living, possess a home, get married and rear children, and this implies having autonomy or control over one’s life. In the 19th century becoming an adult was celebrated as a liberation from paternal authority. Today we regard it more as a time of regret and stagnation. It isn’t cool to be adult. Mintz argues for a new understanding of adulthood. It should be seen less as a matter of a steady job and marriage, and more as ‘maturation’ or psychological development.

As Mintz shows, life stages such as adulthood are not fixed and permanent, but cultural and institutional constructs. Childhood was discovered as a distinct stage in the late 18th century, and it was institutionalised in the 19th century by age-segregated environments such as schools. Adolescence was only recognised as a life stage in the early 20th century, when psychologists got down to work.

Today’s generational battle obscures the fact that adulthood is happening later. A new transitional stage has emerged after adolescence: the twenties. Sexual initiation occurs earlier than in the 1950s or 1960s, but financial independence and career entry comes much later. The baby boomers were exceptional in getting jobs and leaving home in their early twenties — the result of the extraordinary economic opportunity of the 1960s. Today, the twenties have replaced the teens as the most risk-filled decade, when young people really do depend on the emotional and financial scaffolding provided by their parents. We criticise helicopter parents for infantilising their offspring by delaying the separation they need to grow up. According to Mintz, however, the young people who do best are the ones who postpone commitment and stay at home in their twenties.

Mintz is upbeat about scaremongers who worry that social networking is destroying people’s ability to interact. It is true that Facebook is no substitute for face-to-face contact. But deeper changes were at work in the 20th century which altered the nature of intimacy. Romantic love came under attack, first from the Freudians and then from the neuroscientists, who said that being in love was a chemical reaction in the brain. Marriage is no longer seen as a lifetime commitment. Nor does it lock couples into an inward-looking relationship where their only friend (or enemy) is their spouse. The result is a boom in friendship. More than ever before, people look to friends — especially of the opposite sex — for intimacy.

This is an American study, and there are obvious differences between the US and Britain. Americans are more likely, for example, to divorce than Brits, and also more likely to remarry — partly because the lack of a welfare state means that they depend much more on family for care. But in Britain, as in America, marriage is no longer seen as a gateway to adulthood. At least among the educated, it has become an optional extra, a ‘capstone’, confirming a live-in relationship rather than beginning one. Hence the fall in marriage rates — though, paradoxically, as heterosexuals retreat from marriage, gays and lesbians are seeking access to it.

Mintz claims that American parents are the most anxious in the world, but they don’t seem all that different from their British counterparts. Childhood has become fraught. Parents panic about cot death and autism, about television and online porn. The result is a generation of bubble-wrap kids, protected by parents who are overly risk-averse. It’s not the children who have changed but their parents. This, says Mintz, is partly down to scans in pregnancy, which were meant to reassure the parents but actually make the foetus the focus of anxiety. More important is the fact that middle-class families project adult expectations of success on their children.

Adulthood has become much more angst-ridden. But for Mintz all the stress and inability to cope is a positive thing. It’s the result of the breakdown of the old, restrictive idea of being grown up, and the shift to a new state of adulthood which, in Nietzsche’s words, is ‘a work of art that we ourselves create’.

As you might have gathered from this review, reading this book is hard work. It is densely packed with information and argument, and at times Mintz loses sight of the adulthood theme. But it is a great book, and a triumph of historical writing; it shows that the past really can explain the present.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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  • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

    But Mintz is a professor of American history.This a book about America. It has no relevance in the UK as our babyboom was 1957 to 1972.

  • Roger James Michael Sutherland

    “A new transitional stage has emerged after adolescence: the twenties. Sexual initiation occurs earlier than in the 1950s or 1960s, but financial independence and career entry comes much later. ”

    Yes, a calamity. “Sexual initation” starts earlier, yet our people still have a woeful replacement rate. A large number of people now view pregnancy as an undesirable side effect of sex, rather than its obvious natural function. If it continues at this rate, hedonistic infantilism will destroy this nation – and we’ll deserve it.

    I hope that’s just a gloomy Sunday afternoon response and that things are not as bad as I think.

    • Callipygian

      Is it possible that the unwillingness to reproduce is tied to a feeling of financial insecurity? It costs so much to raise and especially to formally educate a child these days. The old idea of a job or career for life, with a pension at the end of it, has gone. It’s a competitive job market. I for one wanted to be sure that I could comfortably feed and house myself, with some left over for fun and future, before I could ever consider providing for someone else. As it happened, I’ve only recently reached the security I wanted — and now it’s too late.

    • rtj1211

      Well let’s see shall we: you are tested to oblivion at school yet the right wing press says you are all illiterate rude oafs. Your politicians invite the whole world to work here and tell you lot that you’d better be world class without proper work experience, work-related training or financial management skills. Your parents sneer and deride you for not having the same attitudes as them, despite the UK being totally different now to 1945 (no Empire, a vassal state of the EU etc etc).

      Housing costs are terrible and salaries for most are abysmal. Those needing benefits to be able to afford children, even if in work, are derided as ‘workshys’.

      Would you bring a child into the world knowing your private landlord will hike rents every six months and kick you out if you can’t afford them any more? Would you take on a 25 year financial commitment knowing that your boss sees you as an expendable piece of meat who’d shift his business to the Philippines at the drop of a hat?? Well would you?? Because you’d better hope for a hefty safety net if so.

      Globalisation is anti-security before 30 years of age, anti-stabiiity and anti-inter-generational networks.

      In other words, those three glues which make family life workable for the many not the few are the chief victims of globalisation.

      But we’re not allowed to challenge globalisation. So we’re not allowed to say: ‘I want a society which promotes stable families for the many, not for the rich few’.

      But you won’t hear Boris Johnson challenged about that at any rallies, and if you do, he won’t answer truthfully.

  • Precambrian

    “in Britain, as in America, marriage is no longer seen as a gateway to
    adulthood. At least among the educated, it has become an optional extra,
    a ‘capstone’, confirming a live-in relationship rather than beginning

    I suspect that a huge part of that is the infantilised society itself; committment is a mature rather than a juvenile act. The juvenile are fickle, and flit from obsession to obsession. The mature are steady, and build together in a less intense manner.

    The loss of marriage (a few gays holding weddings, but unproven in the long term as of yet, does not change this) is part of a trend in society towards the instant and the disposable.

    • Callipygian

      Good comment. Though in my experience, building together and staying together through the ups and downs can be quite intense itself.

    • rtj1211

      I believe that commitment is something granted to those who grew up feeling a part of society.

      If you grow up being taunted and bullied, sneered at and derided, the emotional security simply isn’t there to trust people when all your life’s experiences tell you that people, including your family, simply aren’t to be trusted……

      I am more emotionally mature than most my age, but I knew aged 25 that I simply had had none of the experiences necessary to feel comfortable in marriage. Despite spending two more decades trying to get those experiences, I still don’t.

      That’s a mature evaluation, rather than conforming to society’s mantras whilst not having had the inputs necessary to justify them……..

  • Callipygian

    I think that the explanation of why Americans divorce more is a bit mistaken. Firstly, it must be understood that Americans, besides being vastly more numerous than Brits, are also more varied as a people: the residents of a small Southern town may have quite different resources and attitudes to life than the residents of New York City, for instance. America also has more religious belief, mainly Christian, side by side with vehement atheism. One should be wary about generalizing.

    The other important point is that marriage is financially risky — but so is divorce. Perhaps Americans divorce more readily because, being wealthier on average than Brits, they can afford it. They can also more readily take the risk of trying again — and possibly divorcing again. I have never got the sense in this country that Americans marry because they need the security. Obviously, partnership always confers benefits. But I think that’s a misreading of how American life works.

  • rtj1211

    I do think that the definition of ‘adulthood’ requires at its core ‘the ability to distinguish one’s own ego from the distinct aspirations, values and drives of other human beings’.

    By that definition, I have known those in their seventies and eighties who are still children or, at best, adolescents.

    I have known children far more adult than their parents.

    I have known adult offspring parenting their juvenile creators.

    I have known egotistical children believing themselves worthy of FTSE directorships.

    Very little correlation between physical maturity and emotional maturity in my experience……

  • Whitey McPrivilege

    The author claims the 1960s offered ‘extraordinary’ economic circumstances, allowing couples to own property and have a family in their early 20s. What has changed to make them so extraordinary? Could it be the decisions ‘we’ have taken since then, which have made it near impossible for middle-class families to start while women are young enough to be at peak fertility, causing a dumbing down of the population and a moribund birthrate, amongst other maladies?

    “Romantic love came under attack, first from the Freudians…”

    A Jewish movement pathologising a foundational element of white Christian culture? Surely not.

    “More than ever before, people look to friends — especially of the opposite sex — for intimacy.”

    Translation: more and more beta males in a feminised culture are getting friendzoned by women who prefer manly men, but are taught by the monopolised Marxist mass media to say the exact opposite.

    “in Britain, as in America, marriage is no longer seen as a gateway to adulthood. At least among the educated, it has become an optional extra,”

    Is there much point in a man marrying, with careerist women who don’t care for being women anymore and feminist-inspired legislation such as no-fault divorce, alimony and child support requirements set to purge him of all he has should she decide – as many do – to up and leave?