This week I’ve been travelling for work. One of the jobs I’ve worked on is painting a school in a small town. It’s a small school, combining primary, middle, and high school into one building. I’ve had a little bit of time to explore the school, usually during lunch breaks or trips to the janitor’s closet to clean out equipment, and one thing I noticed was the pictures lining the hallways of each year’s graduating class.
The first graduating class was the class of 1929, and there are pictures of every year through 2011. Most of the classes have fewer than 50 graduates, and the earlier classes had around 25 graduates each. One of the more striking things about these pictures is the social change that occurs from the late 50s to early 90s.
From the first class pictures in ’29 to the late 50s, pretty much all the grads look like adults. By this I mean that the grads look like fully mature adults, not only in physical appearance, but also in how they carry themselves. All the
boys young men were dressed in suit and tie for their pictures, and most look like they would be perfectly able to work as, say, an accountant or stockbroker right after they graduated. The girls young women are dressed a little more trendily (you can, for example, see traces of the flapper style in ’29 and the early 30s), though they also look like adults, ready to work and do adult things.
By the time the 90s roll around, though, the graduating classes start to look considerably more childish. By this I mean that grads look more like overgrown children than soon-to-be adults. There was a particularly terrible period of the mid-00s where grads had their senior pictures taken in decidedly childish clothing (like t-shirts and jeans), and it wasn’t until 2009 or so that grads started wearing coats and ties again.
I’m not sure what this indicates about American culture, but I’m sure it doesn’t bode well. It seems to me that there has been a tendency, particularly in the last decade or so, to shield teenagers from the adult world and, as a result, there is now a generation of rather childish adults. Some anecdotal evidence to support this claim would be the ludicrous drinking age of 21 (instead of a more reasonable 18 or, as I would prefer, to make this a matter for parents to decide without any state interference), the recent tendency of some states to continue raising the age minimums for driver’s licenses, and the new regulations in health insurance laws that allow parents to keep their children on their policy until the age of 26. It seems that teenagers are becoming more infantilized because expectations for them have been diminished. I know that’s quite a conclusion to draw from a couple of pictures, but when you see 83 years of social change compressed into two hallways of pictures, the change becomes more striking.
Anyone have any other ideas or reasons why it might seem that more recent generations of teens seem less adult than the generations of teenagers before them? And is this a good development, bad development, or does it even matter?