If you believe what you read in the papers, you would have good reason to feel that society is rapidly going to the dogs. Young people are trapped in permanent adolescence, failing to grow up and take responsibility for themselves and others. They won’t buy houses and they live at home until well into their 30s, sapping their ageing parents’ financial resources.
The rise of the ‘kidult’ or ‘adultescent’ is the social commentator’s topic du jour. And it is with this media hype and name-calling that Sydney-based academic Kate Crawford takes issue in her survey of modern adulthood, Adult Themes.
Criticisms levelled against young people (grouped arbitrarily into Generations X and Y) tend to be based on a failure to live up to culturally mediated perceptions of maturity. The trio of marriage, home ownership, and parenthood are held up as the final determinants of a willingness to accept adulthood.
Unfortunately for the critics, nothing is ever as simple as generalisations would have it. Over the main chapters of Adult Themes, Crawford addresses each major issue in turn: popular culture, marriage, home ownership, and child bearing. At each turn, she identifies several flaws: the generalisations do not apply to all young people but to broad trends, these trends are often more the result of changing cultural and economic realities rather than choices, and when choices are made they are often as sensible and legitimate as when opting for more traditional options.
Crawford’s greatest contribution to the debate on the decline of modern civilisation is her call for a reasoned, well-developed ethics of adulthood, rather than the shallow focus on external signifiers. The essential character traits that these signifiers are presumed to represent are still present and correct in the young people of today—merely expressed through different choices. Just as there are immature homeowners and parents, Crawford is at pains to remind us that there can be mature renters and singles.
Think young people don’t take marriage seriously enough? Crawford suggests that today’s 20- and 30-somethings may actually value the institution more than their “marry early, marry often” parents. Believe that young people are less political than their elders? Look at the explosion of non-institutional activism—political blogs, culture-jamming, and anti-capitalist protests. For a generation growing up in a world where traditional two-party democracy offers little variety or alternative, these expressions are sensible and pragmatic.
This is an important distinction to make and a welcome reminder to political and social commentators to look behind marketing trends to see the broader forces and realities in play. Calling out the younger generation for immaturity and idiocy has been a favourite pastime since Plato and it’s well past time that the cascade of criticism stopped.
While this is a potent premise, Adult Themes is at heart a polemic, with some of the problems of the genre. Single-mindedness may lead to a coherent structure (and Adult Themes is without doubt coherent) but the weakness of some arguments dents the credibility of others. The views and arguments Crawford is refuting are hardly subtle and well reasoned, but as with most generalisations, there is a kernel of truth to some of them. It may have been to Crawford’s advantage to acknowledge these elements; conceding some ground to take other ground more decisively.
This is most apparent in the chapter “On Culture”, in which Crawford addresses no less than Paris Hilton, Big Brother, Harry Potter, and the iPod. All are taken by critics as proof of the infantilisation of adult culture and a growing love of the disposable, the vapid and the superficial. Crawford’s response is on-target—today’s adults, like those who have gone before, are omnivorous. The attribution of ‘high culture’ to past generations and ‘low culture’ entirely to today’s young is simplistic in the worst kind of way. People who read the Harry Potter books are not doing so to the exclusion of Dostoyevsky (unless they have only read six books in their lifetime) and people who watch Big Brother may also watch opera. A diet of only ‘low culture’ may be cause for concern, but the critics are making a false assumption about the full extent of young people’s consumption habits.
Unfortunately, Crawford makes almost the opposite mistake. While some people may view Big Brother as a fascinating case-study in the performance of everyday life, there are undoubtedly large numbers merely keen to see which housemate gets her tits out this week. For every person entranced with the irony of Paris Hilton’s fame-without-talent, there are young women who are actually envious of her charmed life. Sadly, there are some young people who are genuinely infantile.
Crawford makes the counter-claim that every generation has had its blind spots and disposable culture. This is undoubtedly true and the fact that almost any cultural form becomes legitimate with enough time (witness Adorno’s post-war condemnation of all jazz music and Finney’s 19th century damnation of the theatre) makes one ponder what of today’s ‘trash’ will be tomorrow’s art-form. Nevertheless, this is not the primary point of the chapter and almost feels like an after-thought. A stronger case could have been made by recognising from the outset that while we cannot all be tarred with the same brush, there are some members of the new generation who are prime candidates for a tarring.
This is a small criticism and Crawford makes a strong case overall. After all, while it may be hard to justify some of the consumption and lifestyle choices of Generations X and Y, in many ways these are no worse or less considered than those of their parents and grandparents. Each generation becomes the self-appointed cultural arbiter for the next—ready to legitimise its own choices and disparage others.
It is unlikely that Adult Themes will make much difference to a trend that is millennia old or find its way into the offices of tabloid columnists. Nevertheless, it is reassuring to see a spokesperson rise up in defence of new expressions of adulthood. That is, until we find Crawford writing crotchety newspaper articles about the appalling habits of Generation Z.