Coming of Age in the West

Baboon Papio Teenager
Adolescence is hard. Biology tells us we’re adults, but culture tells us that we must wait.

One of the challenges that we face in Western Culture is the gap between when we’re biologically ready to take on adult responsibilities and when we’re culturally prepared and allowed to do so.

Teenage rebellion, so celebrated in Western literature and especially movies, is an artifact of the gap between these two transitions. The whole idea of “adolescence” is really just a way of labeling this gap. But labeling it doesn’t make it go away, and doesn’t explain what it is.

Western culture has great expectations when it comes to adulthood. We ask things of every adult in our culture that are way beyond what has been biologically expected of people; we require every adult to take responsibility for the body politic and to be able to make and follow complex financial contracts. It’s no wonder that we delay the transition.

Puberty might be a biological transition to adulthood, but it doesn’t confer the skills necessary for adulthood in the West.

Early Adulthood

Bedu shepherd family near Palmyra, Syria
When the basis of work-organization is the family, people start as soon as they can be productive.

“Adulthood” is a slippery concept. What does it mean to be an adult? We can say that adulthood is the point in life where we must take responsibility for our own actions and decisions. While we’ve labeled the problem, we didn’t answer the underlying question of what “taking responsibility” means.

In the West, we have a mishmash of ages where we assume various rights and responsibilities. We have rules and laws that say that we’re adults at various ages. According to some traditional Western religious authorities, we’re adults “in the eyes of God” at about 8, or (in different sects) 13 years old.

According to English common law there was a series of ages for criminal liability. To the age of seven, children were incapable of criminal activity, but at 14 and older, the were considered adults. In between, it was a matter of some debate and determined on a case-by-case basis.

Politically, in the U.S., we’re ready to vote at 18, the age of majority. We finish high school at about 18, but college (theoretically) at 22. We’re ready to smoke at 18 or 19, but drink at 21 — though in the U.S., the age is 18 if we serve in the military. We can become the leader of the nation at 35. The age of marriage is generally 18; the age of sexual consent varies in the US but starts around 16. There is no one age when we become adults in Western culture. The transition is a bumpy one.

The Mystery of Adulthood in Western Culture

Coming of Age in Samoa title page
The West has long struggled with questions of adulthood.

What all this means is that adulthood is a gradual process in the West. There is no single day that we can definitively wake up and say, “I’m an adult, now.” Or perhaps more appropriately, that day is not determined by any outside authority.

I remember it was when I was about 24 years old when I first truly felt like an adult. I was standing outside, watching the stars, when it came to me. I’d been finished with college for a couple of years, and was supporting myself in a modest fashion. It was a full decade after the biological transition of puberty!

The difficulty we face comes from the fact that our Western definition of adulthood requires something that few 13-year olds are capable of: total independence from the family unit. When we’re that age, we’re still legally required to be in school, and still learning the basics of how to function as people and citizens.

In other cultures, even when young adults maintain their dependence on others, they still might be considered adults. In a typical patrilocal farming community, for instance, a 15-year old might be married but still live and work with the family.

Part of the challenge of adulthood in the West comes from its neolocal character: adults are expected to move out on their own and start their own families, not just marry and join clan life as full adults. Another part comes from the capitalist model of work: work is not done at the family level, and work done within the family is often not considered “real” work. This applies to “housework” as well as “chores.”

Adolescence is the boundary between childhood and adulthood. As the knowledge, skill, and responsibility required for adulthood has grown, this boundary has also grown wider and more frustrating. The increased complexity of the modern world has meant more education; education that works against the Western requirements of independence necessary for adulthood.

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4 thoughts on “Coming of Age in the West”

  1. Funny, my friends and I were talking about this very subject a few days ago. How the powers that be need to align the ages when people are considered grown ups. It is somewhat unfair for people, for example, have to start paying adult prices on public transport when you are 13, but you are only allowed to vote at 18. Maybe it will help people just to get on and be an adult?

    1. The challenge is that we need so much training to be adults in the West. Years and years of training outside the home.

      Looking at humanity’s past (esp. prehistory) the whole idea of “home” is new, let alone outside training that lasts years and years.

      It’s no wonder that things are a bit inconsistent!

      1. I guess you are right about the training. In terms of the idea of home is new, I get that people moved around loads in prehistoric times, but surely inherently it means that we should then be much more suited to live outside the home then? Or it doesn’t because now we are used to that safety net and comfort?

        Also there are a lot of kids that became adult because the had to, maybe the pushing your chicks out to fly out of the nest thing is necessary, yet we have been spoilt?

        Sorry, I shall stop my random, not based on anything thoughts. Anyway great writing. 🙂

      2. Thanks!

        I probably shouldn’t have said “training outside the home” and should have been more specific with “training outside the kin group.”

        People sometimes seem to think that things we learn at home are somehow “less” than formal education. (Then again, we also believe that work done in the home has “less” value than work done outside.)

        But for the bulk of history and prehistory, that has been the entirety of education. Teaching has been what we learn from our parents, and then what we learn from leaders and mentors.

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