Youth Culture   /   Spring 2009   /    Essays

Wither Adulthood?

James Davison Hunter

“Les différents dégrés des Ages” (c. 18th century). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been made of the nature, content, and valorization of contemporary youth culture. The transformations in our notions of childhood and the culture that surrounds it have been staggering and worth all the ink that has been spilled on the subject. To a culture fixated on youth, it is not out of place to once again call attention to the fact that the prominence bestowed upon children and the world they inhabit today would have been unimaginable—in ways both amusing and repugnant—to our forebears, not only in the West but in other parts of the world as well. But understanding youth culture is not only an exercise in analyzing its internal discourse, structure, and development; it is also a matter of understanding the transformations that have been linked to it. Perhaps the most important of these are changes in the meaning of adulthood. Indeed, the poignancy of change in contemporary youth culture in the late modern West becomes even clearer relative to the changing nature of adulthood.


Before Age


It is fair to say that in most societies, the nature of childhood made sense only in relation to adulthood, that is, as a prelude to adulthood. And adulthood, in turn, was not just a matter of chronological age. As John Gillis among many other historians has noted, in Western history prior to the industrial revolution, little attention was paid to distinctions between ages.11xJohn Gillis, Youth and History: Tradition and Change in European Age Relations, 1750–Present (New York: Academic, 1974). While the church kept records of birth, baptism, marriage, and death, average people did not know their own age with any precision—there was little to compel them to keep careful track. There were no age limits on entry into most occupations, and by the same token, no mandatory retirement ages. Vocation depended only upon an ability to carry out the task.

The same can be said of military service. The mercenary armies of the early European states cared only about the ability to perform as a soldier. Age was also irrelevant to political power, since political standing was a privilege of the propertied classes. The relationship of property to power spilled over into the practices of early democracy where landholding, religion, and race, along with age—first set at 21—defined the parameters of suffrage.

As to education, schooling was not universal because literacy was unimportant to the economy, and for this reason, education was not graded according to years. For those who enjoyed the privilege of literacy and learning—a small number indeed— younger and older boys sat together in classes.

In short, children and adults lived daily life together with little regard for the distinctions of age. They saw life less as a progression of chronological years or even distinct periods organized by age clusters (for example, infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, middle age, and old age) than as a fairly nebulous chain of being. After the age of seven, children entered the adult world, and maturity within it occurred gradually and largely imperceptibly. In fact, the chronologization of the life-course into set stages that were more or less age specific only really emerged in popular consciousness in the nineteenth century.

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