The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen — Robert Epstein

The Case Against Adolescence should be a better book than it is, much like Sex at Dawn. The central argument is that we create the contemporary adolescence experience (angst, nihilism, penchants for bad TV shows, temper storms) through social and legal restrictions on teenagers that deprive them of any real ability to be or act like adults. I’m inclined towards it, but the book would’ve been greatly helped by peer review.

Epstein is not the first person to notice. In “Why Nerds are Unpopular,” Paul Graham says that “I think the important thing about the real world is not that it’s populated by adults, but that it’s very large, and the things you do have real effects.” This means that teenagers have no real challenges—high school is so fake a challenge that a lot of people find that it poisons education for them—and that they become “neurotic lapdogs:

As far as I can tell, the concept of the hormone-crazed teenager is coeval with suburbia. I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think teenagers are driven crazy by the life they’re made to lead. Teenage apprentices in the Renaissance were working dogs. Teenagers now are neurotic lapdogs. Their craziness is the craziness of the idle everywhere.

“Coeval” is correct, but it would be more accurate to say that being a teenager was enabled by growing economic wealth more than anything else. Once young people didn’t have to start working immediately, they didn’t. This started happening on a somewhat wide scale in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It accelerated after World War II. By now, laws practically prevent people from becoming an adult. The question of why and how this happened, however, remains open.

The Case Against Adolescence offers a dedication: “To Jordan and Jenelle, may you grow up in a world that judges you based on your abilities, not your age.” Unfortunately, we’re not likely to get such a world in the near future because bureaucratic requirements demand hard age cutoffs instead of real judgments. Should you drive when you’re “ready” to drive? How will the DMV decide? It can’t, so laws make 16 the magic age. Based on what I’ve seen at the University of Arizona, most students are “ready” to drink in the sense that they make the choice to do so on their own free will—despite the nominal legal drinking age of 21. But “ready to” can’t be readily gauged by a cop looking at a driver’s license, so we have to choose arbitrary cutoffs.

Many students appear to feel done with high school by the time they’re 16—but high school continues to 18, so, for the vast majority, they stay—not “based on [their] abilities,” but on their age. Without those bureaucratic requirements, judgment based on abilities might be more possible. In some realms, it is: this might be why the image of the teenage hacker has become part of pop culture. In computer programming, one can judge immediately whether the code works and does what its author says it should. There isn’t really such a thing as code that is “avant garde” or otherwise susceptible to influence and taste. In addition, computers are readily available, and posting work online lets one adopt personas that may be “older” than the driver’s license age. As such, working online may alleviate problems with age, sex, race, and other such issues. Online, no one automatically knows you’re a teenager. Offline, it’s obvious.

One reason why contemporary teenagers act the way they do might simply be the “role models” they have—who tend to be each other. As Epstein says, “Because teens in preindustrial countries spend most of their time with adults—both family members and co-workers—adults become their role models, not peers. What’s more, their primary task is not to break free of adults but rather to become productive members of their families and their communities as soon as they are able.” But the term “preindustrial countries” sounds wrong: countries didn’t really coalesce into more than city-states until after the industrial revolution. A lot of contemporary political problems arise from imposing European “countries” on territories with diverse tribal or clan identities. Furthermore, I’m not sure that hunter-gatherers and agrarian societies can be lumped together like this. And I don’t think most agrarians would think of others as “co-workers,” an idea that comes from modern offices.

That’s one example of the book’s sloppiness. The other is simpler: our economy increasingly rewards advanced education, which means that the economic productivity of people without it is going down. So we might have a very good reason for forcing teenagers to attend school for long periods of time, namely that most won’t be able to accomplish much without it. The keyword is “most:” there are obvious exceptions, and the kinds of people likely to be reading this blog are more likely to be the exceptions. Epstein observes that for most of human existence, people we now call teenagers were more like adults. He’s right. But there’s a problem with his argument.

Early on, he says, “For the first time in human history, we have artificially extended childhood well past puberty. Simply stated, we are not letting our young people grow up.” The reasons for this are complex, and Epstein suggests an evolutionary narrative for greater capability earlier in history than we might now assume: “our young ancestors must have been capable of providing for their offspring. . . and in most other respects functioning fully as adults” because, if they couldn’t, “their young could not have survived.” This is true, but most of human history also hasn’t occurred in industrial and post-industrial times. We’re living in a weird era by almost any standard, so the reason teenagers are treated like teenagers might be an economic argument.

They can’t produce much until they have a lot of education, and productive adults don’t usually have time to train them. As Graham says of schools, “In fact their primary purpose is to keep kids locked up in one place for a big chunk of the day so adults can get things done. And I have no problem with this: in a specialized industrial society, it would be a disaster to have kids running around loose.” Teens might have use for adults, but not a lot of adults have much use for teenagers. In my parents’ business, Seliger + Associates, employing me was probably a net drag until I was 17 or 18, and even then I was only productive because I’d been working for them for so long. Epstein underestimates what a “specialized industrial society” looks like. The larger point that young people are probably going to be more capable if we let them be is true. But the flip side of positive capability is the negative possibility of failure.

Epstein does anticipate part of Graham’s argument:

[. . .] in most industrialized countries today teens are almost completely isolated from adults; they’re immersed in ‘teen culture,’ required or urged to attend school until their late teens or early twenties, largely prohibited from or discouraged from working, and largely restricted, when they do work, to demeaning, poorly paid jobs.

But he doesn’t elaborate on why this might be. Delaying adulthood can have a lot of reasons, and he sometimes confuses correlation with causation: just because men and women marry later than they used to, as Epstein argues on page 30, doesn’t mean that they’re delaying adulthood: it means they might want fun, they might not need marriage for economic purposes, and they don’t need marriage for sex. Disconnecting sex from marriage probably explains as much of this as anything else does.

He does notice institutionalized hypocrisy, which is useful. For example, “Whether we like the idea or not, young people who commit serious crimes are indeed emulating adults—adult behavior, adult emotions, adult ideas. They see adults on the streets, on TV, in movies, and in newspapers and magazines doing heinous things every day. What’s more, when a young person commits a crime, he or she is demonstrating control over his or her own life.” A sixteen year old who commits murder can be tried as an adult; a sixteen year old who has sex still has to be protected like a child, even if it’s the same sixteen year old. A twenty year old sends a naked picture of herself to her boyfriend, but a seventeen year old emulating the twenty year old’s behavior can’t.

I think a lot of this has to do with parent desires: they don’t want kids having sex because the economic consequences of pregnancy are severe and because parents are often left to clean up the financial and emotional messes in a way they don’t have to with, say, 21 year olds. Part of this is because of social expectations, but part may still be because of economics, which is the great missing piece of The Case Against Adolescence. Robin Hanson notes the labor component of the child / adolescent argument. I think he’s missing one major component of his argument: parents on average probably don’t want their offspring to leave school because they associate school with higher eventual earnings and economic success that will translate to social / reproductive success. So I don’t think it’s just other laborers who don’t want kids in the workforce—it’s also probably parents as a whole.

You can find more about judicial and sexual hypocrisy in in Judith Levine’s book, Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, which should probably be better known than it is. As she says:

This book, at bottom, is about fear. America’s fears about child sexuality are both peculiarly contemporary […] and forged deep in history. Harmful to Minors recounts how that fear got its claws into America in the late twentieth century and how, abetted by a sentimental, sometimes cynical, politics of child protectionism, it now dominates the way we think and act about children’s sexuality.

We’re probably afraid of sexuality because we’re afraid of the costs of pregnancy and because of the United States’ religious heritage. Those “fears about child sexuality” are unlikely to go away in part because there is some level of rationality in them: we’re unhappy when people reproduce and can’t afford their offspring. So we call people who mostly aren’t economically viable “children,” even when they’re physiologically and psychologically not. It’s dumb, but it’s what we do.

Furthermore, we don’t really know why adolescence, if it didn’t really exist until the twentieth century, didn’t. Epstein cites a 2003 New Yorker article by Joan Acocella called “Little People: When did we start treating children like children?“, which notes, “If, as is said, adolescence wasn’t discovered until the twentieth century, that may be because earlier teen-agers didn’t have time for one, or, if they did, it wasn’t witnessed by their parents.” Notice the tentativeness of this sentence: “as is said,” “that may be,” “or.” We don’t know. We might never entirely know. Contemporary adolescence might, like being overweight and having a 60″ TV, be a condition of modernity, and earlier peoples might have developed it too if they’d been rich enough.

This is the part of the post where I’m supposed to posit some solutions. Problem is, I don’t have any, or any that are practical. Eliminating middle school and having “high school” go from seventh to tenth grades might one, followed by something more like community college or a real university, would be a good place to start, along with letting people enter contracts at sixteen instead of eighteen. The probability of this happening is so low that I feel dumb for even mentioning it. Not all problems have solutions, but being aware of the problem might be a very small part of the start.

3 responses

  1. Thanks for saving me some time with this book; I’ll stick with Graham’s writing on this matter (as it motivated me to get more involved with High Schoolers).

    Three things stand out to me:
    1) The spread of HS curriculum (and never-discouraged extra-curriculars) and lack of focused mentoring results in harried, shallow kids. We don’t teach them to follow an interest to a reasonable conclusion, we refuse to teach them to prioritize their interests, and when a student does focus on an interest (one of mine let a paper go on for over 100 pages) the stock teachers who have to deal with over 100 kids respond with exasperation (she had to cut it to 30 before the teacher would even look at it).

    2) Adults don’t want to make time in their plans to deal with the consequences that kids don’t realize they’re risking. This obviously applies to sex, but also applies to the general meniality of the jobs available to kids, and can be cross-applied to keeping curriculum shallow and broad so that kids in the classroom don’t have time to go out on a limb.

    3) And while kids are becoming more techno-socially connected, we still insist on trying to keep them academically isolated from their intellectual peers. This may be partially tradition/values (individualism) based, more likely based on a lack of capable/willing/appropriate mentors, and generally another symptom of adults who don’t believe that they can keep up with the kids while living their own life. But I take a look at some of my students and can’t help but think “Can you imagine having a Beowulf cluster of these things?” (Also, the Davidson Institute recommends maneuvering kids to develop with their intellectual peers rather than chronological peers — see book “Genius Denied”)

    Fixing this would require allowing kids to exhaustively develop their interests, and society’s not configured to guide that kind of thing. We’ve got few enough brilliant minds, rather fewer of them are well adjusted to social responsibility, and the education system does a better job of looking like a behemoth-sized bureaucracy than trying to put cognitive surpluses (on either side of the fence) to focused use.


  2. Thank you for this review! I just read the book and am considering writing a lengthy response because I found it such a confused and intermittently hypocritical argument that skips over a lot of crucial points–some of which you’ve pointed out here.

    Regarding schools: I did some studying of educational policy in college and have done a bit more on my own time since–including seeing the effects, in the research study where I work, of the transition from K-5 to 6-8 school on boys’ criminal activity and mental health. There is an excellent book, The One Best System by somebody Tyack, that explains how the United States adopted some of the ideas that are now almost universal in K-12 education; a lot of it is founded on shoddy theories from around 1900. If it were up to me to reform the system, only K-8 would be compulsory, with a focus on completing all the most basic education needed by all citizens (civics, financial management, basic cooking, etc.), students completing the grades as they’re able rather than by age, and all grades in one building. Then high schools would be available to those who choose to go. Anyone who’s completed 8th grade would be allowed to take the GED test. Every high school would offer basic courses for people (of any age) who need further learning before they can get a GED. Beyond that, high schools could specialize, as magnet schools do and as high schools do in most other first-world countries: some are very academic, some are vo-tech, some offer a lot of fine arts, etc. What courses one takes would be determined by individual interests and the requirements of whatever college one plans to attend.

    I think that a more gradual introduction of legal rights makes sense, rather than having most things begin at age 18 or 21. Epstein’s idea of competency testing makes sense only for some things, like voting. For others, like drinking, we ought to set a minimum age based on science about its effects on the body and brain (an issue Epstein totally ignores) and the age at which people typically begin doing it even if they’re legally forbidden.

    Overall, though, I think teenagers can function much better than the stereotype without any change in laws or school policies–many teens do, in fact! What Epstein is missing, despite having read The Continuum Concept, is that a healthy transition through adolescence is built on a healthy childhood connected to one’s family and society–not a childhood isolated in child culture in front of the television–and on relationships with adults both inside and outside the family that are established before and continue through the teen years. These are things people can facilitate on their own. It is wrong to treat adolescence as a totally separate stage of life, but it’s also wrong to claim that there is some point at which a child suddenly becomes an adult, rather than a transitional learning phase.


  3. Pingback: Routing around network failure: public schools and community colleges « The Story's Story

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