Having an adolescence was sort of a new thing when I was growing up.
I know that my parents didn’t have an adolescence. They went from school to work. In fact, more accurately they did them both simultaneously. It is possible that other people, perhaps the middle class, had those teen years as depicted by Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, but the poor and working class didn’t get them 50 years ago.
The notions of rebellion and questioning authority that have become so highly associated with teens were relatively novel at the time and certainly not the art form they have become through their commodification in film and television. Most of the young people with whom I went to school had jobs that we actually needed. We had social lives for sure, but these seemed to revolve around work and school friendships with a heavy dose of extended family obligation.
I wonder if the growing experience of actually having an adolescence in the 1960s contributed to the vast differences between World War II and Vietnam. There was a community of teens that had emerged between the wars, a community worth preserving in ways that there had not been seen 20 years earlier. Teens and young adults also hold on to degrees of hope less common among middle-aged people whose hearts are broken.
Adolescence offers huge potential for community and leadership development. Together teens can effectively question the status quo and slow the rush to judgement when adult perspectives are generally the most prominent. Their questioning and intellectual persistence also serves to keep adults on their toes. I have noticed teens and their parents come up with elegant solutions to their personal and interpersonal problems. This ability to generate creative lists of potentially successful alternatives certainly starts earlier in life, but it seems to flourish in adolescence.
This past Saturday I saw a mother and son traveling to a city half a country away from home so that the 19 year old could start his summer internship with a large corporation from which he also hoped to snag a scholarship. At one point, the young man reached behind his mother and slowly brought her to his side. With his other hand, he reached for her head and guided it to his chest. He gently held it there until you could see she gave in to his nurturing of her, the mother who was about to lose her son in a way.
Right then, right in that moment, I got a peak into what we miss when our communities fail to educate, support, nurture, and invest in the lives of adolescents. While I didn’t have much of an adolescence, I am not a very wistful guy. It just seems so obvious that if we pair our appreciation of teens with a the full-out investment in them, everything will go much better.