Pediatric Annals

ADOLESCENT BEHAVIOR 

Why Today's Adolescents Behave Differently From Those of Earlier Generations

David Elkind, PhD

Abstract

Any given generation of adolescents can be looked on as a social organism. As such, each generation must necessarily adapt to changes in the social environment. However, the character of those adaptations will vary with the nature of the changes in the society. During the past half century, American society has been transformed, and this shift has required significant alterations in adolescent thought and behavior.

So-called modern American society might have been characterized as provincial, because its values were conservative, its sexual and occupational roles were clearly articulated, and its economy was based largely on manual and factory labor. In contrast, postmodern American society might be described as cosmopolitan. It is worldly in its liberated cultural values, its blended sexual and occupational roles, and its greater dependence on intellect than manual labor.

However, these changes were diverse. The liberalization of values meant simply that one set of more conservative values was exchanged for another set of more liberal ones. The alterations in social roles were different, particularly regarding children and adolescents. Many of the characteristics of modern children and adolescents were subtracted from their provincial definitions. For both children and adolescents, distinguishing markers of growth and development such as clothing, activities, and limitations on information were eliminated without replacement. Children and adolescents were thus forced to replace socially defined markers with those defined by a peer group.

Finally, the movement into the information age presented another form of change - innovation. The technologic inventions introduced by the information age brought forth new intellectual adaptations.

What distinguishes the contemporary generation of adolescents from earlier generations is its adaptations of exchanged values, replaced markers, and new intellectual skills. If is important to see these facets of adolescence for what they are- healthy adaptations rather than evidence of a new immorality, rebellion, or superiority. Before these adaptations are discussed in detail, it is necessary to describe the more general shift from modern provincialism to postmodern cosmopolitanism.

MODERN PROVINCIALISM

Modern American society was built around the belief that there was a common American ethos, or set of values, different from and superior to all others.1 It was assumed that all immigrant groups would accept and strive to incorporate these values to become assimilated into American life. This assumption was embodied in the metaphor of the cultural melting pot. In fact, our educational system was the operative melting pot. Education, it was hoped, would instill the middle-class American values in individuals from all ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds.

Sociologically, a similar set of regularities held sway. The vaunted American cultural ethos, which set the middle-class white family as the model for all parents and children, also set norms for social roles. Mothers were homemakers and fathers were the good providers.2

The roles of children and adolescents were equally well defined. Children were regarded as innocent and in need of protection by adult society. The Hayes office effectively censored the media to ensure that nothing salacious would come to the eyes and ears of children. Child labor laws and compulsory education legislation ensured that all children would have the opportunity to go to school before assuming adult responsibilities. Adolescents were regarded as immature and in need of adult guidance and direction. Although it was recognized that children might get into trouble, this was seen as part of healthy experimentation and a "sowing of wild oats" before settling down to adult responsibilities. To aid children in finding their paths, there were many clubs organized and led by adults in both the schools and the larger community. These organized programs provided both moral and intellectual guidance and support…

Any given generation of adolescents can be looked on as a social organism. As such, each generation must necessarily adapt to changes in the social environment. However, the character of those adaptations will vary with the nature of the changes in the society. During the past half century, American society has been transformed, and this shift has required significant alterations in adolescent thought and behavior.

So-called modern American society might have been characterized as provincial, because its values were conservative, its sexual and occupational roles were clearly articulated, and its economy was based largely on manual and factory labor. In contrast, postmodern American society might be described as cosmopolitan. It is worldly in its liberated cultural values, its blended sexual and occupational roles, and its greater dependence on intellect than manual labor.

However, these changes were diverse. The liberalization of values meant simply that one set of more conservative values was exchanged for another set of more liberal ones. The alterations in social roles were different, particularly regarding children and adolescents. Many of the characteristics of modern children and adolescents were subtracted from their provincial definitions. For both children and adolescents, distinguishing markers of growth and development such as clothing, activities, and limitations on information were eliminated without replacement. Children and adolescents were thus forced to replace socially defined markers with those defined by a peer group.

Finally, the movement into the information age presented another form of change - innovation. The technologic inventions introduced by the information age brought forth new intellectual adaptations.

What distinguishes the contemporary generation of adolescents from earlier generations is its adaptations of exchanged values, replaced markers, and new intellectual skills. If is important to see these facets of adolescence for what they are- healthy adaptations rather than evidence of a new immorality, rebellion, or superiority. Before these adaptations are discussed in detail, it is necessary to describe the more general shift from modern provincialism to postmodern cosmopolitanism.

MODERN PROVINCIALISM

Modern American society was built around the belief that there was a common American ethos, or set of values, different from and superior to all others.1 It was assumed that all immigrant groups would accept and strive to incorporate these values to become assimilated into American life. This assumption was embodied in the metaphor of the cultural melting pot. In fact, our educational system was the operative melting pot. Education, it was hoped, would instill the middle-class American values in individuals from all ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds.

Sociologically, a similar set of regularities held sway. The vaunted American cultural ethos, which set the middle-class white family as the model for all parents and children, also set norms for social roles. Mothers were homemakers and fathers were the good providers.2

The roles of children and adolescents were equally well defined. Children were regarded as innocent and in need of protection by adult society. The Hayes office effectively censored the media to ensure that nothing salacious would come to the eyes and ears of children. Child labor laws and compulsory education legislation ensured that all children would have the opportunity to go to school before assuming adult responsibilities. Adolescents were regarded as immature and in need of adult guidance and direction. Although it was recognized that children might get into trouble, this was seen as part of healthy experimentation and a "sowing of wild oats" before settling down to adult responsibilities. To aid children in finding their paths, there were many clubs organized and led by adults in both the schools and the larger community. These organized programs provided both moral and intellectual guidance and support for children. Thus, there were numerous markers for children and adolescents that signified their progressive passage from childhood to adulthood.3

Finally, the modern economy was based largely on the results of the industrial revolution. The factory and mass production were perhaps the major features of this economy that marked significant progress over the earlier era, when everything was made by hand. The machines of the industrial era were, however, labor intensive. In the automobile factories, men had to run the milling machines, lathes, and drill presses. On assembly lines, each worker had one job that he or she did over and over again. Women working at home using sewing machines did repetitive piecework. Factory, sweatshop, and home sewing work required as much patience and motivation as they did skill. Schools prepared children and adolescents for routinized life. The school bells resembled the noon factory whistles. Courses in machine and wood shop and mechanical drawing for boys and typing and bookkeeping for girls reflected the occupational choices open to most. College was expensive and limited, for the most part, to children of the upper class.

POSTMODERN COSMOPOLITANISM

All of these features of modern society were thrown over by our propulsion into the postmodern world after the middle of the century. Postmodernism challenged the notion of superior values, defined roles, and the importance of manual and factory labor. The Civil Rights Movement revealed the bias and prejudice embodied in the American ethos and spearheaded the battle for the recognition and valuation of minority achievements and values. The Women's Movement effectively rewrote the definitions of traditional roles for men, women, children, and adolescents. Finally, the information revolution transformed our economy from one based on brawn to one requiring, first and foremost, intellect.

The Values Exchange

The once vaunted "all-American" ethos has been replaced by the acceptance and valuation of cultural diversity. As a consequence, our history books are being rewritten to acknowledge the contributions of minority men and women to our science, literature, music, and sports. There is a new recognition of the injustices to Native Americans by the early explorers and settlers. The history of slavery is being rewritten to acknowledge the strong family ties that existed despite the efforts of many slave owners to break or weaken them.4

Other values have also changed. There is now a much greater social acceptance of divorce, gay and lesbian relationships, single parenting, and cohabitation. Young adults are marrying later and there is increasing intermarriage between men and women from different racial, religious, and ethnic backgrounds.

The Rewriting of Roles

As in the case of the common cultural ethos, the solidly defined social roles of the modern era have given way to the more overlapping and less rigid roles of the postmodern era. Women are no longer relegated to the role of housewife and nurturing mother. They are now free to enter all occupations, and approximately 50% of those entering medical school are women.5 Although balancing home and career is a challenge, it is nonetheless an option most women of earlier generations did not have. Male roles have not changed as much, but men today are expected to be sensitive and compassionate, as well as competitive and high achieving.

The roles of children and adolescents have also changed.3 The modern idea of childhood innocence had to give way as the protections for children from the society as a whole, and the media in particular, were replaced by economic expediency. Today, both children and adolescents are regarded as niche markets to whom specific products can be marketed. To accommodate this new economic position, the postmodern child is seen as competent, ready, and able to deal with all of the market's lures and appeals. This new perception of competence helps to explain why parents, schools, and the media tend to treat children as more mature than they really are.

Adolescents are considered sophisticated in matters of technology, sex, and drugs. This new perception accounts for much of the contemporary abrogation of adult responsibility for adolescents.

However, there has not been just an exchange of one role for another. Some facets of the roles of modern children and adolescents have been subtracted without replacement.

From Brawn to Brains

The transformation of our economy from one that was based on manual labor to one founded on intellectual capital has been remarkable. Modern technology (the digital revolution) now pervades every workplace from the gas station to the supermarket. Many different vocations have been all but eliminated by these new technologies. Secretaries are much less common due to office automation, including answering and fax machines. Bank tellers have largely been replaced by automated teller machines. Electronic scanners at retail checkout counters read codes so that checkers no longer have to enter prices manually. Increasingly, a college education, rather than a high school education, is the basic requirement to get and keep a reasonably well-paying job in this economy. Moreover, information technology may call on talents and abilities that were not called on in earlier economies.

THE COSMOPOLITAN ADOLESCENT

Today's adolescents are much like those of earlier generations in many important respects. They still go through the many perils of puberty, the shocks of peer-group exclusion, disillusion, and betrayal, and the struggle to create a sense of personal identity that will provide them with a sense of continuity with the past while offering guidance and direction for the future.6 What is new are the social circumstances that require fresh adaptations.

The Sexual Revolution and Adolescent Sexual Activity

Of the many social values that were exchanged during the turbulent decades of the 1960s and 1970s, sexual values were among the most prominent. Up until the middle of the century, premarital sex was socially unacceptable.7 It was not unknown, but it was frowned upon, even for engaged couples. Nonetheless, premarital sex and unwanted pregnancies did occur. Today, the percentage of unmarried adolescents who become pregnant is not significantly greater than it was during the first half of the century (the number declined in the 1990s due in part to the fear of AIDS and venereal disease). The difference is that in the past, when a girl got pregnant, she also got married. There was social pressure on both the father and the mother to do so, even if it was not what they wanted. So the number of adolescent mothers is not greater than it was in the past, but the number of unmarried adolescent mothers has increased.

Many different events came together to bring about the sexual revolution. The experience of servicemen overseas in countries with more liberal sexual standards was one such contributor. The invention of the birth control pill, which provided safe and reliable birth control, was another.

The Kinsey report8 and the work of Masters and Johnson9 helped make sexual activity a subject for open discussion and education. Up until that time, many young men and women went into marriage without much factual knowledge about sexual activity and its relation to pregnancy. In addition, these studies revealed that women could experience as much sexual pleasure as men, if not more. Kinsey and Masters and Johnson helped change attitudes and values regarding sexual activity. What was long regarded by women as a burden came to be widely understood as a pleasurable act for both parties.

The sexual revolution was publicized in magazines and on television shows that depicted casual sexual encounters. By the 1990s, premarital sex was the societal norm and was a much less prominent part of television programming than it had been.

A major consequence of the sexual revolution was the practice of cohabitation (unmarried couples living together). Cohabitation is the fastest growing form of living arrangement. Indeed, it is unusual today for couples who are getting married not to have lived with one another for months or years. As a consequence, virginity has lost its value. This author believes that whereas virginity on the part of the wife was once traded for the promise of fidelity on the part of the husband, this is no longer the case. Most young women have had several sexual partners before marriage, so virginity is no longer a tradable commodity.

Regarding sexual activity, adolescents follow the adult example. When adults did not engage in premarital sex, at least openly and in large numbers, neither did adolescents. With the widely publicized sexual revolution, however, adolescents were given a new sexual standard and a new sexual license. The results were dramatic. Whereas only approximately 10% of adolescent girls and 25% of adolescent boys were sexually active as late as the 1960s, the percentages are much higher today. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 50% of 12th grade students report that they have had sexual intercourse, and from the llth grade on, the percentage of girls who report that they are sexually active is slightly higher than the percentage of boys.10

We have a clear example of how the larger society exchanged one value (premarital chastity) for another (premarital sexuality). The adolescent generation likewise exchanged its sexual values in keeping with the example set by the larger society. One consequence was, until recently, an increase in adolescent pregnancy and an explosion in the rates of adolescents with venereal disease.11

Vanishing Societal Markers and the Appearance of Peer-Group Markers

Humans are growing and developing beings, and, as such, need evidence of their progress through life. Markers give us a sense of where we stand both personally and socially with respect to other people. Physical markers, such as growth in height and weight and the appearance of secondary sex characteristics in early adolescence, are clear indices of developmental progress. Gray hair, a sagging waistline, and loss of visual and auditory acuity are the physical markers of aging. However, we also need social markers. In the military, there is a hierarchy of ranks that marks both the individual's current station and the higher stations to which he or she may aspire. In the academic field, the hierarchy of lecturer, assistant professor, associate professor, and full professor mark social and vocational progress. Within industry, similar hierarchies of worker, supervisor, vice president, chief executive officer, and chairman are equally, if not more, in evidence.

Children and adolescents who have not yet reached the point where they can enter the occupational ranks nonetheless require markers of their social progress. Early in the 20th century, children were dressed differently from adults. Boys wore knickers, and wearing long pants was a right of passage that was not permitted until early adolescence. Girls were not allowed to wear makeup until they had reached late adolescence. Organized team sports were reserved for high school students, and young children played their own games or played baseball and football with whatever equipment and players were available. Often they made up their own rules. Much information, such as the family's financial affairs and family history, was kept from children because it was inappropriate for them to know. All of these provided markers for children moving into adolescence.

With the new relè definitions of the postmodern era, many of these markers of child and adolescent development were simply eliminated. Preschoolers now wear designer clothes, and there are real makeup kits for girls from 5 to 7 years old. Activity markers have also been eliminated. Dating, which was once an adolescent activity, is now engaged in by children as young as 10 years in some communities. Cliques and dubs once common only among adolescents are now found among children in the second and third grades. Information is no longer a marker either. Bookstores contain many books on homosexuality, AIDS, abuse, death, and divorce that are written for young children.

Many of the markers that adolescents once had to distinguish themselves from children and to mark their passage to a new stage have been eliminated from their role definition. As a result, adolescents have been forced to replace these socially defined markers with their own markers, originating from their peer group. One of these markers is musical groups. Young adolescents are attracted to one group and older adolescents to another.

Other adaptations are not so reflective of new adaptations because they are resurrections of earlier practices put to marker purposes. Body piercing and ornamentation are examples. Body piercing and tattooing have been practiced at least as long as recorded history. These practices have been resurrected by contemporary adolescents in most Western societies.

Three explanations are usually given for these new behaviors. One is the need for regaining the sense of self in the postmodern, mass-market age. From this point of view, body ornamentation gives the individual control over at least part of the self that has been wrested away by a global consumer economy that dictates what young people waTit and need.12 A second explanation is that body ornamentation is a means of social protest.13 It is a way of showing adult society that adolescents are in charge of their own destiny and are able to make long-term decisions, such as having and maintaining a tattoo. A third explanation is that body ornamentation is simply a passing adolescent fad.14

These explanations are not mutually exclusive, and each may have a certain validity. This author's explanation is related but a bit different. Elsewhere, he has suggested that contemporary society has removed many of the markers that adolescents need to symbolize their passage through life and to give them a sense of where they are going and how far they have come.6 Adolescents may have resurrected body piercing and ornamentation, at least in part, as a substitute. Nose rings, hair color, and even tattoos are markers that separate adolescents from children on the one hand, and from adults on the other. Moreover, they can be given up, perhaps with the exception of tattoos, once adolescents reach maturity. This explanation does not gainsay the others, but does speak to the adaptive value of these practices.

Technologic Innovation and Now Skills

Many human potentials are probably never realized simply because there is no environmental demand for them. Other potentials that were realized may no longer be valuable if replaced by technology. Skilled machinists are an example. Running a lathe or a milling machine requires a unique combination of intellectual and manual skills. Today's technology and computers do much of what machinists once did. There is little place for individuals with these skills in today's economy. On the other hand, the information revolution for both hardware and software has elicited intellectual skills and abilities that were never called on in earlier generations.

Indeed, the information technologies bring forth talents in adolescents that allow them to work on an equal basis with many adults. Although these talents contribute to adolescents' feelings of selfconfidence and self-esteem, they can have a dark side. Whereas computer skills may put them on a par with adults, adolescents are still young and need adult guidance and leadership.

CONCLUSION

The move into the postmodern age has had a significant impact on adolescent life. Although today's adolescents are still, in many respects, similar to those of earlier generations, there are differences. The cosmopolitan adolescent accepts the value of premarital sex and has adopted body piercing and ornamentation and choice of musical groups as markers of development. He or she has realized previously latent abilities and skills called for by the information age. If we view each generation of adolescents as an adaptive organism, their unique behavior patterns become understandable as healthy rather than pathological. The cosmopolitanism of contemporary adolescents is their adaptive response to the demands of the postmodern world and is not a reflection of bad morals, rebellion, or superiority.

REFERENCES

1. Carter SP. Civility. New York: Basic Books; 1998.

2. Bernard J. The good provider role: its rise and fall. American Psychologist. 1981:36:1-12.

3. Elkind D. Ties That Stress. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 1994.

4. Genovese ED. Roll: Jordan Roll. New York: Pantheon Books; 1972.

5. Bickel J. Women in Medicine: Getting In, Crowing, and Advancing. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage; 2000.

6. Elkind D. All Groom Up and No Place to Go. Reading, MA: Perseus; 1998.

7. Shorter E. The Making of the Modern Family. New York: Basic Books; 1977.

8. Kinsey AC, Pomeroy VVB, Martin CE, Gebhard PH. Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders; 1953.

9. Masters WH, Johnson VS. The Human Sexual Response. Boston: Little Brown; 1966.

10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Youth risk behavior surveillance. United States, 1999 MMVVR. 2000;49(SS-5):1-96.

11. Cates WJ. The epidemiology and control of sexually transmitted diseases in adolescents. Adolesc Med. 1990;1:409-428.

12. Kingwell M. Dreams of Millennium. Toronto: VikingPenguin; 19%.

13. McCracken GD. Culture and Consumption. Bloomfield, IN: University Press; 1988.

14. Turner BS. Recent developments in the theory of the body. In: Featherstone M, Hepworth M, Turner BS, eds. The Body: Social Process and Cultural Theory. London: Russell Sage; 1990:1-35.

10.3928/0090-4481-20010201-10

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