30 March 2012

Men to Boys

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?


  1. II graduated in '94 and I wore a coat and tie, but not everyone did and the south still holds onto some traditions. (Not necessarily all the good, but some.)

    To your question, a large enough number of the Boomers believed or came to believe that by not experiencing years of reckless abandon they missed out. They then thought they were doing their kids a favor by allowing them huge cushions. My own parents mostly cut me off and left me to my own devices, but did again start offering support when I pulled my head out of my ass and returned to taking life seriously. My parents are no hippies or liberals. I think for them it was an investment made to ensure I wouldn't need continuing support.

    So on net, it's probably a bad thing. But if the parents don't actively support it and instead shame it and offer guidance and if they are willing and able to help when the kid decides to grow up, then that can be beneficial.

  2. Increasingly curtailed opportunities to work, whether by a stagnant economy or child labor laws, parental concerns, and extracurricular activities which limit the number of hours worked, limit the exposure of children to the adult world of work and its responsibilities.

    Also, the tremendous push for college and the imagined glory of life in the dorms, free from parental oversight and free to drink and party, is alluring and pushed on lots of kids. Even if a student commutes to community college, the delayed entry into the job market delays assuming any real adult responsibilities.

    And, since I've seen it from the inside, schools are no longer allowing students to suffer the consequences of bad behavior or poor academic performance. Endless second, etc. chances are given to students to make up missed work in the name of Every Kid Succeeds, Every Kid to College! and discipline might seem harsh but doesn't really serve its purpose.

    A high school education is just another stepping stone, not an end-game in itself, and when a student sees no value in the diploma as a terminal achievement, there is no need to take it seriously. The HS diploma is just another delay tactic now, and a useless piece of paper since so many employers are requiring a college degree, or progress towards one, for white-collar jobs filing papers in an office.

    Having "just" a HS diploma signals loser-dom and a life spent earning low wages at low skill jobs, because we've removed any component of real-life training for work from the curriculum (all geared towards college admission) and the economy has precious few jobs that only those with a HS diploma can do. Even skilled laborers must enter an apprenticeship to become licensed or qualified to do what they say they do, usually 5 years for electricians, carpenters, welders, plumbers...nothing new there, except now one is not permitted to start until after the HS diploma and age 18 are achieved.

  3. Might have something to do with college. Once college becomes de rigueur, the very name "high school" becomes inappropriate: these kids are not graduating at all, at least not in any more of a sense than they "graduated" from elementary school or junior high.

    In 1929, in the senior year of high school, a student would be thinking things like: "What will I do to support myself next year, and who will I marry?" Now they are thinking more like: "What college will I go to?"

    If this theory is true, then when graduate school becomes de rigueur, 4-year graduates will appear just as childish as high school graduates do now.

  4. Here's a massive generalization that I facetiously make:
    Boomers were lousy parents.
    Now their kids are themselves parents.
    The cycle is only continuing.

  5. @Ulysses- I too get the feeling that the boomers are responsible for the extended adolescence that plagues today's youth. I noted, when looking at all the class pictures, that the transition from wearing suits to wearing casual clothes didn't really hit until the mid-60s.

    @Cranberry- From what I recall from my time in high school, it almost took more effort to fail than to pass. So yes, the whole "endless second chances" mess that is found in high school is alive and well, and likely contributes to the extended adolescence of today's youth.

    @GFM- Do you suppose that speaks to the watering-down of education, is it a side effect of the college bubble, or is there something else that explains why a HS diploma is seen as more transitory (and thus meaningless)?

    @LordSomber- There is quite a bit of truth to that.