Permanent Adolescents Go Public

Posted: Nov 05, 2007 12:01 AM
Permanent Adolescents Go Public


A popular book published at the end of the '50s, the decade once blamed for everything bad in the culture, examined the young at the mercy of biology, kids needing the counsel of grown-ups en route to competent maturity. The author of "The Vanishing Adolescent," one Edgar Friedenberg, failed to discern exactly what was coming into focus at the dawn of the Age of Aquarius. The baby boomers were packing the bags they would one day carry into their senior years.

But adolescence didn't vanish, it triumphed. The "never trust anyone over 30" generation became the generation that insists everything is due them once they're over 60. They've replaced the illegal pot that eased the psychological pain of growing up with prescription drugs that assuage the aches of growing old. P.J. O'Rourke in the Weekly Standard writes only half in jest of the coming drain on Social Security:

"How can present Social Security allotments be expected to fund our sky-diving, bungee-jumping, hang gliding and white-water rafting, our skiing, golf and scuba excursions, our photo safaris to Africa, bike tours of Tuscany and sojourns at Indian ashrams, our tennis clinics, spa treatments, gym memberships and personal fitness training, our luxury cruises to the Galapagos and Antarctica, the vacation homes in Hilton Head and Vail, the lap pools, Jacuzzis, and clay courts being built thereat and the his and hers Harley-Davidsons?"

The political implications are immense. Expensive braces to straighten crooked teeth are cheap compared to the cost of the new hips, knees, arteries, hearts, lungs and kidneys that will have to be covered by taxpayer contributions to Medicaid and Medicare. But better paid by the taxpayer than the affluent boomer. When Hillary Clinton was overheard by a reporter to say that she would ask wealthy Americans to pay more in payroll taxes to save Social Security, she quickly retreated to cover in the dimly lit cave of "fiscal responsibility."

The free lunch has become the free dinner at the gourmet restaurant. John McCain played gotcha! with Hillary's profligacy by mocking her earmark for a million dollars of taxpayer money to pay for a museum commemorating Woodstock. The Beatles weren't kidding when they sang: "Will you still feed me when I'm 64."

Real adolescents have the excuse of raging hormones and uncontrollable urges. The new PMS is a post-menopausal syndrome demanding the recapture of youth, a kind of boot for the mind behind the wrinkled brow. It was not ever thus. The adolescent of the '50s was mythologized in the movies "Rebel Without a Cause" and "The Wild One." When a perplexed grown-up asked Marlon Brandon, the wild one, "What are you rebelling against?" he replied: "Watcha got?" The baby boomers that followed discovered lots to rebel against, growing up and becoming wise most of all. The teenage temper tantrum worked. The kids got their way as the grown-ups lost theirs.

Some people blamed the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon for leading to the forfeiture of the respect adults had always counted on. My mother thought the introduction of flip-flops as permissible footwear was what started it all. Behavior that was once "good" or "bad" was reduced merely to "appropriate" and "inappropriate." Little girls exchanged their dolls with diapers for Bratz Babyz with fishnet stockings and flimsy tank tops. Little boys learned about pimps and hos from popular music.

Boomers came of age eager to offend everybody but were so indulged that anything that offended them became taboo. The social slights sensitive adolescents always decried were writ large with narcissistic perception codified in political correctness.

Edgar Friedenberg's "Vanishing Adolescent" has been succeeded by books analyzing perpetual adolescence. Charles Sykes, in his "50 Rules Kids Won't Learn in School," looks at what happens to children and grandchildren of boomers who suffered institutional and parental permissiveness. Rule 4 of the rules not learned: "You are not entitled." Examples include "the double latte with cream, Michael Jordan running shoes, a cell phone with limitless text-messaging." "You'll have to work for all of it," he writes, "and then figure out how to pay for it."

Diana West in her book, "The Death of the Grown-Up," says trouble began when children started aspiring to adolescence rather than adulthood. They replaced information with animation: "More adults, ages 18 to 49, watch the Cartoon Network than watch CNN."

An adolescent lurches within minutes from fear and insecurity to self-confidence and bravado. A culture sustains perpetual adolescence at deadly peril. It's our collective identity crisis.