John Leo: Blame the '60s for America's perpetual adolescence? Nah, blame the '20s.

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Leo edits Minding the Campus, a Web site on universities sponsored by the Manhattan Institute.]

In the 1990s, most people who played video games were teenagers. Now the average gamester age is nearly 30. Cultural products aimed at tots and preteens capture the attention of adults. "SpongeBob SquarePants," intended for the 6-to-11 age group, draws almost 19 million viewers from the 18-to-49 crowd. Some famous museums, uncomfortable with their adult role as guardians of historical memory, have gone adolescent, staging exhibits on motorcycles, hip-hop and "Star Wars" movies. Many college courses, even on major campuses, make rainy-day activities at summer camp seem profound.

Such examples of America's descent into perpetual adolescence populate Diana West's provocative "The Death of the Grown-Up." Ms. West, a columnist for the Washington Times, argues that the country is suffering a case of arrested development, with teen tastes and desires eclipsing traditional adult conduct and values. A good deal of evidence supports her. An obsession with play and self-expression and a resistance to limits--conventional hallmarks of adolescence--are increasingly strong "adult" themes too....

Ms. West's principal claim is convincing, but her argument, at times, shades into nostalgia and conventional culture-war rhetoric. She quotes Frank Sinatra at a 1945 performance telling his screaming fans to pipe down--they were bothering the grown-ups. (Those were the days.) ....

Though she deplores the 1960s, Ms. West maintains that the countercultural rebellion of the young was actually set in motion a decade before. She writes: "The revolutions of the 1960s begin to look like a mopping-up operation, a rearguard action to eradicate an already doomed ancient regime: the adults." And again: "It was in the 1950s that the adult was pushed aside even before most baby boomers were even out of diapers." It is true that '60s rebelliousness didn't spring into existence overnight: Tensions over conformity mounted during the 1950s, and civil-rights unrest began then. But adults had not yet been "pushed aside." Having grown up in Teaneck in the 1950s, I can attest that New Jersey's ancient regime was in sturdy shape throughout the period. The Ike era was no revolutionary time.

The 1920s is a far better place to begin detecting the seeds of adolescent revolution, but Ms. West thinks not. She finds "no mention of teen-age problems" in the famous Middletown studies done in Muncie, Ind., in the '20s and '30s by Robert Lynd and Helen Merrill Lynd. But in fact the Lynds noted the rising conflict in Middletown between parents and their young. Arguments about too much drinking (this was during Prohibition) and staying out too late were common. The automobile, mass produced and available to ordinary families, offered the young the means of forming peer groups and a place to have sex.

The Roaring '20s were a shock that did much to loosen parental controls. A familiar argument holds that the rebellion of the 1960s might have occurred decades earlier if the Depression, World War II and the recovery period of the 1950s had not intervened. By not noticing the forces unleashed in the '20s, Ms. West misses a chance to analyze the 1930s youthquake that might have been....

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Jason Blake Keuter - 8/27/2007

I don't really see this as a problem. What passes for adult and mature is more often than not simply killjoy in practice. As a matter of fact, following proper social rules is a sign of immaturity, indicatiing an inability to cope with complexity, demanding of others that they conform to a predictable kind of conduct that provides the immature with the illusion of stability. The adulthood spoken of so highly in this article is really repression.

If, on the other hand, the author is really talking about a sense of entitlement, then we are in agreemment. Restraint has its place, but it is not a categorical imperative. Absent the kind of safety nets the left insists are moral imperatives, the individual can learn on their own the kind of judgment that tells them when restraint and seriousness are needed and when they are not.

Last, I think the author is exaggerating the maturity of past entertainment - most of it was arguably less sophisticated than the Simpsons or SpongeBob...with the exception of Dr. Seuss. For a scathing attack on the moral peril wrought by rigid insistence on propriety and social convention see Seuss, Dr., Who, Horton Hears A......

vaughn davis bornet - 8/27/2007

What I thought as I read this was: there may well have been an Urban 20s and a Rural/Small Town 20s. I lived through the 20s from age 2 to 12-13. My sister's enormous Lower Merion scrapbook is full of printed invitations, boy's cards, dressed up youths as for a party, and generally conventional scenes. The Boy Scouts flourished where I was (Bala Cynwyd), the Library was busy, Friday and Saturday movies were busy. We had lots of fun and companionship. I heard no swearing. It was SAFE, both in my town and in downtown Philadelphia (don't know about slums). I wonder sometimes if "The Twenties" described in, say, Prosperity Decade was an upper class thing and severely limited. I don't doubt the drinking, but I'm certain it was not "up front" where I lived.
The Fifties are a Long way from the 20s. The 30s and 40s were just as long as any other decades. By the end of the 30s we were wrung out and couldn't recall Anything about the 20s. After WWII, we didn't look back. Looking back is a modern luxury, with our dead friends and relatives long gone and our tears, too.

I was knee deep in youths at Univ. of Miami in the late 40s. They were Serious! But happy, too, for with war gone the Future looked bright. As a young Instructor of History I sat with them daily on the grass at lunch. We were Alive! They and I had Plans!

I am always suspicious of neat decades that bear names with a Zero. There was no decade of the 40s. Just the First Half and the Second Half/Plus Fifties. All Memory....


Michael Green - 8/24/2007

Or was it the "Gay Nineties"? Or maybe the societal forces let loose by Reconstruction and its cause, the Civil War. Or ... or ... or .... The point is, when commentators on either side of the political spectrum start complaining about social degeneration, or what they see as social degeneration, they have to pick a historical moment they can blame. Sigh.