Adolescence, the period of life between childhood and adulthood, is popularly defined as beginning with puberty and ending with social and financial independence. On this basis, adolescence can begin as early as ten years old (in girls especially) and continue into the mid-twenties. This means that, as Professeur Laurence Steinberg points out, “… adolescence is three times as long as it was in the 19th Century and … twice as long as it was in the 1950s.”
A host of factors are thought to have contributed to this trend of lengthening adolescence. Within Western society, the increased occurrence of child obesity is frequently suggested as a possible contributor to the earlier onset of puberty, but there is no real consensus that this is the only, or even the major, contributing factor. At the same time, people are generally living longer and this, in turn, has lessened the pressure for adolescents to become financial contributors within the family, a powerful propellant towards adulthood for earlier generations of young people. A lack of affordable housing for young people has increased the financial pressure for many to stay within the parental home, further delaying the move towards financial and social independence.
As adolescence has lengthened, there has been more emphasis on the need for enhanced educational qualifications, which has seen a large increase in the proportion of teenagers attending university or college, increasingly to pursue both Bachelor and Masters degrees in the quest to secure the level of job that might bring about their elusive financial independence. Additionally, the ageing nature of the population has led to more people remaining in the workforce for longer and for societal power to be focused increasingly in the hands of the older generations, often robbing adolescents, in the process, of the opportunity to enter and rise within the world of work. Governments, anxious both to control the number of younger people included in jobless statistics and to manage the affordability of caring for an increasingly elderly population, have colluded in the development of these societal trends.
I have referred already to the increase in the number of teenagers and those in their early twenties who are engaged in college or university education. For some, this provides an opportunity to experience a more independent lifestyle outside the family home for at least part of the year. However, increased financial pressures on families and on student funding has led to more students attending a local college or university so that they can continue to live at home and so keep costs down. Even for those who live away from home in student accommodation, there remains the question of what happens after the completion of their educational course(s), and for those who do not immediately secure a place in the world of work, there is often the prospect of returning to the family home as a matter of financial necessity. Additionally, those able to find training within the workplace, often find that apprenticeships and internships provide insufficient financial reward for them to do other than continue living in the parental home.
It has been interesting over the past decade to see the emergence of what might be termed “star value” as a route towards independence. Some families invest heavily in a particular sport in the hope that their teenager will emerge into sporting stardom and so become independent. It was particularly interesting recently to witness the large proportion of teenage participants in the Winter Olympics. These young people represent the top few percent of those involved in the pursuit of sporting stardom, those who might make it, but there are many more whose years of training and commitment do not yield anything like the return of the initial investment, let alone a route to financial independence. Similarly, the rise of a plethora of talent shows might provide a route to independence for a few, but for most, such speculative routes to independence will provide little more than heartbreak.
Brain research has made considerable advances in recent years and, as well as providing valuable insights into a number of aspects of teenage behaviour, has shown that the full development of the adult brain is not complete until the mid-twenties. However, rather than simply seeing this as providing unqualified support for the delay of adulthood outlined above, I believe we should ask how we can create the optimum conditions for teenagers and those in their early twenties to gain from the period of increased brain elasticity and so to maximise the development of their potential for the future.
Advice for parents
There was about a decade between the departure to university of our oldest and youngest children, and one feature of their relative experiences during the first year at university underlined for me how society had changed in the intervening period. Our eldest experienced weekends at university as a time for relaxation and socializing, much as I remember my own experience at university. Ten years on, our youngest had a different experience due to the large number of students who spent virtually every weekend at home, only to return on Sunday evening, often with a pile of Tupperware boxes containing pre-cooked meals for the entire week ahead! Whilst I suspect parents were seeking to lessen the pressures on their teenagers, such a pattern of student life robbed them of the opportunity to take an important step towards independent living! To me it spoke more than a little of parent concern at the level of pressure on teenagers in today’s world but also of parental insecurity about the move of their teenagers towards independence.
Create a structure for letting go. Starting in the early teenage years, I recommend parents negotiate with their teenagers a structure for letting them go. Through the years of adolescence, there needs to be a staged process of allowing teenagers increased social and financial independence, within which they can experience increasing independence and carry more responsibility for their own lifestyle, choices and decisions. If their ultimate attainment of social and financial independence is delayed as outlined above, then a strategic approach to increased responsibility at home could allow them to assume responsibility for the administration and running of areas of the family home. This may not be the complete social and financial independence they require to bring their adolescence to a conclusion but it could represent a meaningful experience of independence within other constraints that are beyond the control of the family.
Advice for Teachers and Schools
Seek to promote real student independence. There are many different aspects to education, some of which are more in vogue than others at any given time. In the context of this post, I would appeal to those involved in education to make the promotion of real student independence a priority. This can take a myriad of forms and each school will want to consider their own context before developing their approach to this area of education. As stressed in the advice to parents above, there needs to be an approach that develops from year to year so that students can grow in their sense of independence as they move up through the school. Many schools already have forms of student government within their structure, though sometimes I fear this is more for the sake of appearances than for the development of real responsibility. I would encourage in the first instance the establishment of a working group of students with one or two carefully-chosen adult advisors at the most. Give such a group the task of planning how the school can best encourage the development of real student independence, and see what they come up with. Once the ideas have been formulated, let the students drive the implementation, deliver the programme, advertise the opportunities across the school, report on their progress to the Board. In short, let it be their programme and their responsibility. I would love to hear how it goes!