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Talk-ED: Who needs to grow up?

Stuart Middleton
3 October 2011

It seems a slight reach and is perhaps a bit removed from the actual study, but I was amused and surprised at a piece in The Australian[1] last week that claimed that the increased interest in proceeding to postsecondary education and training was prolonging the transition into adulthood. It seems that those who interpret the report believe that getting into the labour market is the marker of adulthood. This equation of lengthening pathways from school into the workforce with reaching adulthood seems to me to be quaint, misguided and in defiance of the evidence.

It is quaint because there has never been an association between work and adulthood although adulthood is generally more characterised by work rather than being at school. But if we are to say that the full flowering of adulthood requires a spot in the labour force we run a danger of disregarding the large proportions of young people in both Australia and New Zealand who never complete their secondary schooling let alone get into the business of postsecondary education and training nor ever get into the workforce.

To all the pressures that are placed on this group we now seemingly are going to add prolonged-childhood. Well, it is a pretty bizarre view of the actualities of the lives led by these disengagers – it is not one of blissful innocence spent in some enchanted garden. Rather it is too often a harsh and brutal existence fought out in the toughest and most unforgiving adult environments – tough living conditions, crime, drugs, abuse and so on. It is also a bizarre view of many postsecondary students!

It is misguided because it fails to recognise the wasted potential of both groups, the disengaged and the engaged. If young people are to be sent into some zone of immaturity and therefore not seen for the potential contribution they could make, we simply add to the social and economic problems that already cluster around them.

It defies the evidence – the actual lives of young people of many kinds live (see above), the responsibilities they have (many disengagers are young parents with responsibilities that are greatly in advance of those who are allegedly prolonging their childhood at university) and these disengaged students are almost certainly required to show personal skills of self-sufficiency, toughness and resilience that might well eclipse the skills-sets required to remain in education and training. Furthermore, the evidence suggests that young people are maturing more quickly and are continuing the secular trend that has characterised the development of young people for several centuries.

What this report of the report is saying is that we see prolonging education and training as prolonging the childhood / adolescent status of young people and this is possibly important to how we develop justifications of the ways in which we treat young adults in educational settings. As a secondary school principal once upon a time, it was a case of trying to identify increased ways in which the adulthood of the student can be nourished and respected and reflected in what we did.

Perhaps there is even a need for us to see young people as non-adults in order to justify our treating them as non-adults. The attempt to put young adults of 18 and 19 years of age into a uniform is paralleled only in the armed services of most countries. The lack of freedoms to be at school when they need to be there and to make good use of their time when they are not lags well beyond that realities of young peoples’ maturity.

There was recently a suggestion by one commentator in the USA that there was emerging a fifth stage in young peoples’ lives – infanthood, childhood and adolescence was then followed by a clear post-adolescence that was a precursor to adulthood. Well, this tells us more about the adults and the commentators than it tells us about the young people.

Adolescence is in some respects is a middle class indulgence invented in the USA in the post-Second World War era. Now those adolescents are parents and in the USA there is the emergence of the hover-parent, the parent who just can’t let go. When I spent some time at UC Berkeley is was obvious that even though the students had left home to go to college the home was dead intent on following them.

This then might be behind the reading of the Longitudinal Survey of Australian Youth briefing paper that The Australian made of it.

It just doesn’t make sense. Who needs to grow up?

[1] The Australian, Friday, 30 September 2011

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