This is an edited version of an article published by Maggie Hamilton on LinkedIn.
Something unprecedented happened in 1950. Almost a third of the world’s population were 14 or under. After so much pain and loss, suddenly the air was spiced with the seductive joie de vivre of youth.
Suddenly the emerging generations held much-needed hope in a world so needing hope. Being young mattered – it was the space to be. In subsequent decades – with the explosion of pop culture, social media and cosmetic surgery – being (and staying) young has assumed increasing importance. And, for many, it is now imperative.
Adolescence is exhilarating. But it has a shadow side – in its determination always to be right, to be seen as exceptional, in its constant need of assurance – in its excessive (sometimes vicious) tribalism.
Desperate to remain forever young and carefree, too many are failing to grow up. Experiencing all the vulnerabilities of adolescence, they remain fragile – forever dependent on others to pick up the pieces, to join the dots, to reassure, to bail them out.
As the adolescent world becomes ever more tenuous, Peter Pans retreat into blaming and complaining, and chasing novelty wherever it is to be found. Perpetually dissatisfied and always on the move, such immature individuals are affronted by those with experience and good advice. Much preferring shortcuts and quick fixes, they continue to demand centre stage, to agonise over what they’re meant to be doing with their lives.
‘When people experience the world in child mode, they feel powerless and at the mercy of others, as well as overpowered by their own feeling reactions,’ psychologist Robert Firestone reflects, reminding us that in a child’s world ‘the child is helpless and totally dependent.’
Like Peter Pan, many shrink from responsibility and are openly disdainful of those who are mature. Yet for Peter Pans to thrive, they need a Wendy – someone (willing or otherwise) to resource and reassure them, to prop them up, to clean up their mess.
It’s helpful to note how this dynamic plays out in those who fail to ‘launch’ into adulthood. ‘I am so hell-bent on finding someone to “rescue” me… that I just seem to be completely stuck and unable to move forward on my own,’ admits Sean. ‘I just ruin friendships by burning people out, always needing too much.’
Steph agrees, ‘I definitely have the fantasy of being rescued! I just want an “angel” to swoop down, heal me and save me without any more struggle. Especially with relationships. I am tired of being hurt and hurting people.’
When we’re adolescents, we have limited tools to tackle life’s challenges, and limited ways to negatively impact those around us. What happens though, when we take our immature ways, our vulnerabilities, our tribalism into our adult relationships – at home and at work, into the community – and into political life? Here the fallout is far greater and, in some cases, catastrophic – creating unhappy homes, toxic workplaces, fragmented communities and ineffectual political leaders.
Psychologist Jensen Arnett defines adulthood as the point where we’re able to make our own decisions, be responsible for ourselves and be financially independent. There’s something solid and reassuring about a fully-fledged adult. Operating beyond the need to compete, genuine grown-ups are grounded and strong and well able to nourish others. We never need question if these people have our best interests at heart.
Genuine adults are not afraid to tell the truth, and when they listen, they listen deeply and kindly.
They’ve also learned the subtle skill of seeing into the heart of things – and are willing and able to take the time to look more closely and compassionately at what’s going on, before drawing their conclusions.
Adulthood is about empowerment and courage – a willingness to be wrong, to stand alongside others, to work towards worthy goals we mightn’t personally benefit from – to be a safe and wise space for those in need of wisdom and safety.
To achieve this, we need to nip adolescent ways in the bud – to dare to recognise when these tendencies play out in our own lives – and to gently, but firmly call them out when they play out in the lives of others. Our job is to dare to do the difficult things, so they become easy and we become strong, and to then show our emerging generations the way.
Social researcher Maggie Hamilton gives frequent talks and lectures; is a media commentator and keen observer of social trends. Her books, published in over a dozen countries, include What Men Don’t Talk About, the lives of real men and boys; What’s Happening to Our Girls? and What’s Happening to Our Boys? the current issues boys and girls face; and When We Become Strangers on loneliness.
Maggie’s latest book What Happens to Our Kids When We Fail to Grow Up? looks at how to equip ourselves, and our kids, for a better future. Out now!