If we think of adolescence as the span of time between the biological readiness to begin a family and the moral readiness to assume its responsibilities, it might seem that it should be rather short -- a brief and expectant walk down the corridor between the childhood and maturity. Until recently it was; adolescence as such is not new, but adolescence as we know it is historically novel.
Think of a time when the interval between puberty and marriage was much shorter than today. Most people worked the land, but great age is not needed to farm. Other young men of common birth apprenticed at trades or went into commerce. Those of higher birth sometimes acquired various kinds of learning, but not usually at universities. Those who did matriculate at universities were few in number, often began when much younger than students today, and were frequently destined for holy orders, which meant, not marriage, but celibacy. Adolescence, as we know it, barely existed; people passed rather more quickly from childhood to adulthood, and did not expect an extended period of play in between. Various rituals dramatized the admission of the young person into the adult community. That society had problems of its own -- but a long interval between the readiness to marry and the entrance into matrimony was not one of them.
Something has happened. In the first place, the age of puberty is dropping all over the world. No one knows why, although guesses abound. One theory blames it on persistent organic pollutants -- chemicals which mimic estrogen, released by human activities into the environment. Another blames it on what might be called persistent cultural pollutants -- the unavoidable and unremitting deluge of sexual stimulation in words, sounds, and images. Still others blame it merely on better nutrition, although it is hard to see why having sufficient food should be maladaptive.
In the second place, as the age of puberty drops, the age of marriage rises. Though some of the reasons are obscure, not all of them are. Many lines of work require more training than of old; that is plain enough. More puzzling is that apprenticeships have died out, and most training has been exported from the workplace to the school -- where students earn no wages. Schools, in the meantime, have become incompetent, so that the time necessary to learn anything takes much longer than it ought to. What once was taught in secondary school now waits for college; what once was taught in college now waits for graduate school. And let us not forget how much sheer junk is taught, just to provide the teacher with a job. The result is a long period of economic dependence.
Apologists for late marriage consider it good because human beings do not reach full maturity until their mid-twenties. "To marry before this," said the late John R.W. Stott, "runs the risk of finding yourself at twenty-five married to somebody who was a very different person at the age of twenty." Stott was a wise man from whom much could be learned, and I am loath to differ with him. Certainly people should not marry until they are mature. But although the rate of human neurological development seems to be fixed, the rate of maturation is not exactly the same thing. In particular, the age at which people are mature enough to take on the responsibilities of marriage is not a constant; it depends in part on when we do marry, and in part on when we are expected to. If today people are not ready to marry and begin families until twenty-five -- or thirty -- or thirty-five -- then our first question ought to be "Why aren't they?" Are they less grown up than they used to be? Do corrupted understandings of marriage make it more difficult than it used to be? Both, one suspects.
We should also pause to remember how maturity is attained. Men and women do not first become mature, and then accept responsibilities; it is through accepting responsibilities that they become mature. Responsibility itself transforms them, the marital responsibility even more than most others. Matrimony and childbearing shatter, reassemble, and fuse the man and woman into a single organism with two personalities. If you marry at twenty, then you ought to be very different persons at twenty-five -- and you ought to have changed hand in hand. Unfortunately, the older we become, the harder it is to yield to the transformation; the more we have changed by ourselves, the harder it is for us to change together.
The unnatural prolongation of adolescence poses a variety of moral problems. Normal erotic desire is transmuted from a spur to marriage to an incentive for promiscuity. Promiscuity thwarts the attainment of moral wisdom, and makes conjugal love itself seem unattractive. Furthermore, prolonged irresponsibility is itself a sort of training, and a bad one. Before long the entire culture is caught up in a Peter Pan syndrome, terrified of leaving childhood. At this point even the responsibilities of marriage and family begin to lose their transformative character. Men in their forties with children in their twenties say "I still don't feel like a grown-up," "I still can't believe I'm a father." Their very capacity to face the moral life has been impaired.
Tomorrow: Yes, It Is Still Possible to Teach