Art Carden  

Extended Adolescence: A Possible Austrian Perspective

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Trust, Diversity, Credit Cards... I Would Argue...

You might be familiar with hand-wringing about how people are extending their adolescence into their twenties and not entering "adulthood" until later ("thirty is the new twenty" and all that). This concerns me a bit, too, but should it?

It's easy for me to shake my head about men acting like teenagers or living at home into their late twenties, but I wonder if this might not be what Friedrich Hayek's model of an advancing economy predicts.

Longer life expectancies and better technology mean longer production processes and a lengthier structure of production with far more stages. In Hayek's model of an expanding economy with a lengthening structure of production, we expect to see more resources devoted to "investment" and fewer resources devoted to current consumption. It shouldn't be that surprising that people are spending longer investing in social and human capital. Here are a couple of issues with this explanation:

1. It might be a just-so story: does Hayek's perspective offer a lot of insight here, or am I shoehorning the data into a model I really like?

2. Is a lot of what goes on during extended adolescence investment or consumption? Here we wander into murky waters. It would be easy to dismiss drinking with friends and playing video games as consumption, but I'm not sure that fits as what looks like (and is measured as) consumption spending might be investment in social capital. You might look like you're just getting hammered with your friends, but you might really be investing in relationships that will pay off in future opportunities later. The line between "consumption" and "investment" isn't as bright as the national income accounts would have us think.

I'll (again) put the question to EconLog readers. What's going on with extended adolescence? Should we be worried? Or should we calm down?


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CATEGORIES: Austrian Economics



COMMENTS (17 to date)
dave smith writes:

This is a good perspective. We don't send 8 year old kids into sweatshops because we are rich enough not to need to anymore.

Maybe in 200 years people will think we were cruel to expect 25 year old people to work?

David Craft writes:

Prof Carden writes:

"...You might look like you're just getting hammered with your friends, but you might really be investing in relationships that will pay off in future opportunities later..."

What if there is no pay off? What if we extend "thirty is the new twenty" to "forty is the new twenty"?

My sense is there's some point where "XX is the new twenty" is suboptimal; and I think it's somewhere very close to "twenty".

Bostonian writes:

I've been reading the book "Teen 2.0: Saving Our Children and Families from the Torment of Adolescence" (2010) by Robert Epstein. He cites research showing that fluid intelligence peaks before age 20. We know that people in their late teens and early 20s are also at their peak physically. The labor of the smartest and strongest people should not be wasted.

OTOH, Bruce Charlton has explained delayed adulthood as "psychological neoteny", a longer period of flexibility.

Roger Sweeny writes:

Prohibit anybody from playing professional sports until they are 30 years old, so they can invest in their human capital and become better players.

For the same reason, prohibit anyone from having kids until they are 35.

Pajser writes:

Humanity needs more reason and more morality on the first place. Delaying regular job means people have more time to accumulate some general knowledge, some wisdom relatively early in their lives. It looks as step forward.

johnson85 writes:

I would say there are two problems with this view: (1) Much of the investment is in signals. (2) We're not extending work on the back end of life as rapidly as we are delaying it on the front end. So they're not increasing their productivity that much but want to work less as if they were.

People used to work from say age 20 to 62 while living til roughly the same age. Now people live much longer (I think the average 65 year old will live into his/her 80's now), people still want to quit working at 62, they don't want to really work until 25, and they only want to consume around 94% of their income during those 30 years while they do work. That just doesn't work, and it's amazing that we have entire generations that have convinced themselves it does.

Hadur writes:

So there's two things going on here:

(1) People are not getting jobs straight out of school. I'd argue this is involuntary, because most of these people would prefer to have had a job straight out of school, but are unable to find one in their chosen (or any) field. Their extended unemployment may have some benefit, but it's probably not intended and they didn't select extended post graduation unemployment because they wanted that benefit.

(2) People, even with jobs, are less mature. People used to get married early and have kids early, now they are delaying both. I plead guilty to this: I have a stable job, but my behavior (after work) is not much different from when I was in college, except that because I have a salary my consumption is less crude. Fifty years ago, I would already be married with kids. While to some extent this is because its harder to earn and save money, I think a lot of this behavior is voluntary.

Enial Cattesi writes:

@Pajser:

Delaying regular job means people have more time to accumulate some general knowledge, some wisdom relatively early in their lives. It looks as step forward.

I agree. People shouldn't work until they are in their eighties.

Martin writes:

I don't think that you need longer production processes to explain this. Longer life expectancy with a longer ability to work results in a higher life time income and if leisure is a normal good then we will see people consume more of it. Even if all individuals do all day is gather berries without the use of any capital goods, longer life expectancy simply means more berries.

If leisure also has a quality dimension, then when young individuals will work less, but also spend less because wages are low, and when individuals are old they will work more, but also spend more because wages are high.

NZ writes:

You might have some econ professor reality distortion there. Most 20 year-olds living at home who go out and get drunk with their friends aren't aspiring professionals who had trouble finding a job after they go their masters degrees and are waiting to make that big connection that sets their career in motion.

They're dimwits who spend the rest of their time playing video games and looking at porn.

Only slightly OT: An interesting pattern I've noticed while gassing up in low-income areas is cars pulling up with young tattooed couples in them. The female is driving the car, and the car seems to be hers. I don't see this happening much in higher-income areas.

MingoV writes:

I do not believe that longer life spans have anything to do with extended adolescence. Young adults are not thinking that they can live at home until 26 because their life expectancy is 86.

The number one contributor to extended adolescence is the ill-advised massive increase in college attendance. This extension is worsened when colleges advise students to take low course loads (12 or 13 credit hours). This lengthens the time to a bachelors degree to five or six years.

The number two contributor to extended adolescence is greater wealth. Middle-class families have more money and bigger houses than in past years. It does not strain their budgets or their space to support their adult children. If young adults have to sleep on an old couch in the basement, have no access to a car, have no entertainment hardware (iPods, video games, TV), and cannot go out to eat and drink with friends, then extended adolescence would decline dramatically.

The number three contributor to extended adolescence is reduced job opportunities for college grads and HS grads. This has become commoner since 2008.

I believe that extended adolescence is bad. Properly raised children are ready to handle adult responsibilities when they are teenagers. Staving-off adult responsibilities until the mid-twenties ingrains the idea that responsibility can be assumed by others. When it isn't parents, it will be the state. Do we want a generation of anti-libertarians?

James writes:

Pajser,

People might spend a gap decade doing what you suggest but you provide no reason to believe that they do. Do you have any evidence that delaying labor force participation actually leads to what you call a step forward?

Most businesses struggle to find entry level workers with good ethics and strong critical thinking skills so if people are really spending their gap decade gaining those characteristics, I would expect to find businesses that try to recruit 26 year olds who have never had "real jobs." That doesn't seem to be happening.

Glen S. McGhee writes:

Mingo is right, life expectancy has nothing to compulsory-extended adolescence. But it has everything to do with re-emergence of Youth Culture (Mannheim/Marcuse).

Joel Spring, the 1960s radical education thinker, has an excellent chapter called, Youth Culture in the United States, in Roots of Crisis: American Education in the Twentieth Century (1971). In comparison with the 1920s, the 1960s and now, changes such as Art describes are the results of developments "in the occupational structure and demography of the United States that made youth marginal to productive forces ..."

This marginalization -- also called alienation by other writers -- began prior to World War I, and the town-and-country shift occurred, which "destroyed the general usefulness of the child to the family and community." (Spring 202).

High school itself came into vogue once children became superfluous, at about the same time that juvenile delinquency was invented. Frankly, I am surprised that this has not now become a problem in some form again, resurfacing at the same time these unsocialized cohorts hit the streets.

The overall concern is the generational divide, which must be bridged for the cultural values to survive. Ruby Payne is right, it only takes 3 generations for everything of value to the first generation to be forgotten, and this is part of her approach to understanding poverty.

Glen S. McGhee writes:

Mingo is right, life expectancy has nothing to compulsory-extended adolescence. But it has everything to do with re-emergence of Youth Culture (Mannheim/Marcuse).

Joel Spring, the 1960s radical education thinker, has an excellent chapter called, Youth Culture in the United States, in Roots of Crisis: American Education in the Twentieth Century (1971). In comparison with the 1920s, the 1960s and now, changes such as Art describes are the results of developments "in the occupational structure and demography of the United States that made youth marginal to productive forces ..."

This marginalization -- also called alienation by other writers -- began prior to World War I, and the town-and-country shift occurred, which "destroyed the general usefulness of the child to the family and community." (Spring 202).

High school itself came into vogue once children became superfluous, at about the same time that juvenile delinquency was invented. Frankly, I am surprised that this has not now become a problem in some form again, resurfacing at the same time these unsocialized cohorts hit the streets.

The overall concern is the generational divide, which must be bridged for the cultural values to survive. Ruby Payne is right, it only takes 3 generations for everything of value to the first generation to be forgotten, and this is part of her approach to understanding poverty.

Joel Spring ends with this sobering thought: In the past, "Becoming an adult has meant gaining a stake in the existing social structure ... . What must realized today [1971] is that large numbers of the population will not be required to become adults in this sense." (214)

Shane L writes:

Is getting drunk and playing computer games with friends really less mature than getting drunk and playing poker or gambling on sports? The old-time pursuits of adults were hardly mature either.

I can buy some of this perceived phenomenon of extended adolescence, but not all. I've seen the popularity of the Harry Potter series among adults described as a symptom of an infantalised population. Yet I wonder if it's not more a reaction against snobbish, boring high-brow literature that does not value compelling story-telling. Harry Potter is extremely readable and fun; much high literature now seems to me depressing and dull. Likewise some computer games are astonishing: vast, beautiful worlds created by armies of programmers and artists. Yet these are dismissed offhand while alienating and confusing contemporary art is treasured.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

Continued maintenance of the "common" outlooks of a **supported** adolescence -support is critical- is part and parcel of the trends to "escape" or transfer responsibilities that have been endemic in the developed economies at all age levels.

The conduct is, to some degree, imitative and occurs because "it can." At some levels it occurs because alternatives are lacking or are exceedingly difficult to surmount.

Without examining the strata, as does Charles Murray, you can not interpret the data.

Thiago writes:

"Prohibit anybody from playing professional sports until they are 30 years old, so they can invest in their human capital and become better players."
Maybe not everything is like playing at the NFL. If everything were so, it would make more sense prohibiting anybody older than, say, 30 from voting(after all ,many 50 year-old dotors can overperform 25 year-old dotors, but how many 50 year-old professional football players could overperform 25 year-old professional football players?). We already prevent a class of unfit people from voting on account of age, people younger than 18, we can not allow all those over-the-hill thirtyish oldsters to destroy the country. That said, Robert Epstein's proposal (abolishing adolescence), mentioned by Bostonian, seems a good one.
I recall having read a text by a scientist saying we should abolish high schools (he said the few important things he had "learnt" at high school he had to relearn the right way at college).

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