"Why grow up?" is a political question: Our cult of youth is no accident — and it has dire consequences

A philosopher argues that we can't blame our arrested adolescence on the '60s — or even entirely on ourselves

Published July 3, 2015 10:00PM (EDT)

   (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-461077p1.html'>Sergey Nivens</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
(Sergey Nivens via Shutterstock)

Whether you look at superhero-besotted Hollywood, the clothes alleged grownups wear in public, or the spread of video games out of the suburban family room, it’s hard to miss noticing that much of contemporary culture is caught in childhood.

Susan Neiman, an American philosopher who lives in Berlin and directs the Einstein Forum, tries to figure out the causes and effects of all this in her new book, “Why Grow Up?: Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age.” A.O. Scott of the New York Times wrote that “the real virtue of this short, sometimes frustrating book lies in its insistence that thinking for oneself is a difficult and lifelong undertaking.”

We corresponded by email with Neiman, who favors British spelling, from her home in Berlin.

When was it that you realized that our society was caught in an adolescent or childlike stage? Did you have a gradual, slow-developing sense something was wrong, or did it hit you all at once?

It dawned on me slowly, but two experiences were probably pivotal. The first was being told, starting at around the age of 50, that I looked younger than my age. I knew that this was meant in a compliment; but as I finally said to a close friend, the sociologist Eva Illouz: don’t you realise that these kinds of compliments do us damage? If you want to tell me I look good I’m happy to hear it; but by equating looking good and looking young you are not only fetishizing youth, you are also implying we can only look good when we appear to be what we are not, namely young.

The second experience was watching my children enter their 20s, allegedly the best time of one’s life; observing and trying to support them in their struggles has brought back the memory of my own 20s more intensely, and how terribly hard those times are; and how much harder we make them by telling them to savour the best years of their lives. Of course at the time I thought I was the only one failing to savour those years, which made the experience worse.

But very few people who are honest would actually like to repeat those years, and empirical studies show that people generally get happier as they get older. There are good reasons why those years are hard, and they have nothing to do with the financial crisis; young people are making their first independent decisions, they have no experience in doing so, so they experience every decision as fateful, determining the rest of their lives forever.

In thinking about this I realized that, by telling young people they should savour the best years of their lives, we are telling them that everything afterwards will be worse; and the real message is that they should not expect or demand very much from life itself.

How long does that notion go back – that the early years are the good years, the years where the soul is free, that things will only get worse afterwards, etc.? In some ways, the roots may be in the ’50s and ’60s, with the explosion of the Baby Boom, rock music, the development of youth as a market, and so on. But I also hear an echo of 19th-century Romanticism. And perhaps the era you turn to most often, the Enlightenment. Did all of those eras bring us to this point? 

Lots of things get blamed on the ’60s, I think unfairly, and certainly slogans like “Don’t trust anyone over 30” helped feed the idea that the idealisation of youth was the ’60s’ fault. But the idea goes back to the turn of the 20th century. It’s actually quite a new notion, historically, and it doesn’t fit traditional societies still in existence today, as David Lancy’s exceptional book “The Anthropology of Childhood,” shows.  Descartes thought that the reason for human unhappiness was the fact that we begin our lives as children, and no classical author from China to Greece described his childhood as golden or expressed any yearning for it. Things began to change with Rousseau, who is said to have invented the notion of childhood. That’s too simple, of course, but Rousseau — very much in contrast to the practices of his day — was the first to argue that children should be allowed to be children, wear clothes that are made to move and get dirty in, for example. But he didn’t romanticize childhood — he thought it should be made better than it was then, but his goal was to lay the foundations for a free and self-determined adulthood.

The Victorians did some romanticizing of childhood, but I think a real turn was marked by Peter Pan. J.M. Barrie’s novel was published in 1911, and it’s interesting to follow the transformation of that myth, which is less a realistic description of childhood than a picture of how awful the adults are.  In the original novel, the adult is merely dull and conventional. In the film and play that I grew up with, in mid-century, the adult (Mr. Darling) is still conventional and boring, but he’s now so authoritarian that he’s slightly threatening, and could easily be a pirate. By the time Spielberg gets his hands on the story in the late 20th century, in his disturbing but in some ways brilliant “Hook,” the adult (now Peter Panning) has become ridiculous and pathetic. And we have so internalised this myth that some of the most interesting, alive, and grownup people I know can say that Peter Pan is their hero. He isn’t, of course, but what they mean by that is that they continue to rebel against the idea of adulthood presented by that myth. And they should keep on rebelling against that -- not by wishing to remain a child or idealising childhood, but by changing our picture of adulthood.

Susan, you make a good point about the ’60s. You're writing about a subject with deep roots, but that is unfolding today, in the 21st century. Why did Rousseau and Kant, two very different Enlightenment thinkers, seem like the right way to get into understanding this? 

It’s important to look at the history of ideas so we can see how deep the problem goes. The difficulty of growing up is not about the Internet and social media, or the current financial situation, though in some ways they’ve made the problem harder. I have always been drawn to the much-maligned Enlightenment because as the beginning of modernity, it is a way to look at our own (best) roots. Before the Enlightenment, it was hard to imagine growing up as a problem because there wasn’t much choice about it -- your choices were pretty much what your father’s (more rarely your mother’s, since class background was usually derived from the father) had been. It’s no accident that the problem of growing up was central for Rousseau and Kant. Though it would be hard to find two more different characters, they shared something very important: both came from barely educated families of small craftsmen. Rousseau’s father made watches, Kant’s father made saddles, and it’s quite certain that neither ever imagined the lives their sons turned out to live. And while they were different characters, and Rousseau was by far the better writer, their thoughts were deeply connected.

Though Rousseau lived a wild life, and Kant the dry routine of a Prussian professor, Kant wrote that Rousseau changed his life, and the only picture he had in his house was a portrait of Rousseau. It has become common to think of Rousseau as belonging to the Romantics and Kant to the Enlightenment, but that leads to false pictures of both philosophers and of the Enlightenment itself.

Rousseau wrote the world’s first manual for child-rearing, and though it’s actually impossible to follow all his prescriptions, much of the things we take for granted about liberal or progressive child raising comes straight from his book “Emile” — from the idea that babies should be nursed by their mothers and not kept swaddled, to the idea that children should be allowed to play and get dirty, to the idea that education shouldn’t be based on rote learning but should reflect the child’s natural interests and curiosity.

He recognised, however, how hard it is to raise children in a culture that doesn’t really want self-determined, free citizens. Kant, who called Rousseau the “Newton of the mind” after reading the book, expressed the problem succinctly in his most famous essay, “What is Enlightenment?” His answer to the question is that enlightenment is humankind’s emancipation from its self-incurred immaturity:  we are both lazy and cowardly, and prefer to let other people do our thinking for us. This is true, of course, but unfortunately many people stop reading there, which leaves you with a neo-liberal view:  there’s nothing wrong with society that a little effort and courage on your part can’t fix.  What he says just after that, however, is much more powerful:  the guardians of society do not actually want grownups, since infantile crowds are easier to manage than self-determining citizens.

This is a radical political critique. Our inability to grow up is not, or not only, our own fault. The social structures within which we live are constructed so as to keep us childish. The state has an interest in preventing us from thinking independently, and it cultivates and exploits our worst tendencies in order to do so, for grownup citizens are more trouble than they’re worth. The state’s desire for control and our own desire for comfort combine to create societies with fewer conflicts, but they are not societies of adults. Of course, the mechanisms by which states control their subjects is different in a Western, democratic society than they were in the absolutist culture of Kant’s day, but the structure of the problem is quite similar.

It’s remarkable that though we are constantly told to exercise our bodies regularly, we hear very little about the importance of exercising our minds after we’ve finished our formal education. Reading Rousseau and Kant is one way to do so. But more importantly, looking at the point where the question of how to grow up began to be a question shows us what is really at stake.

So clearly the thinkers of the 18th century are important to understanding where we are now in the 21st. But what are the stakes for our extolling of youth and downgrading of maturity? Some people would say a society with youthful values is healthier, more "vital," etc. What price do we pay when we're not able to really embrace adulthood?

I think the price we pay is terrible — and that’s been confirmed for me by the fact that the most enthusiastic readers and reviewers of my book have been under 30, who say the book has given them hope for their futures. We all suffer from the fact that we have no appealing models of adulthood — young people who fear that there’s nothing to look forward to as well as older people who fear they need to resign themselves to being able to do nothing interesting or meaningful after a certain point in their lives. It is this view that is profoundly unhealthy. I am not sure what you mean by youthful values — I know plenty of people who are vital, engaged, able to be surprised and surprising into their 80s, and a society that honors and expects that is surely better for all of us.

But our downgrading of maturity is not just a personal problem, it has a strong political dimension. As Rousseau and Kant teach us, society has an interest in our not reaching maturity. By encouraging our most infantile characteristics, and diverting us from the truly important adult questions, it distracts us from the social problems that need to be solved. We will not be able to solve all of them in a lifetime; but it’s hard to contribute to any solutions without reinventing adulthood, and embracing it.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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