G.L.Piggy [at] gmail.com
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Children today spend fewer hours in the company of adults than they used to:
Until the Great Depression, the majority of American adolescents didn’t even graduate from high school. Once kids hit their teen years, they did a variety of things: farmed, helped run the home, earned a regular wage. Before the banning of child labor, they worked in factories and textile mills and mines. All were different roads to adulthood; many were undesirable, if not outright Dickensian. But these disparate paths did arguably have one virtue in common: They placed adolescent children alongside adults. They were not sequestered as they matured. Now teens live in a biosphere of their own. In their recent book Escaping the Endless Adolescence, psychologists Joseph and Claudia Worrell Allen note that teenagers today spend just 16 hours per week interacting with adults and 60 with their cohort. One century ago, it was almost exactly the reverse.
Christopher Lasch wrote on this in The Culture of Narcissism:
The “transfer of functions,” as it is known in the antiseptic jargon of the social sciences – in reality, the deterioration of child care – has been at work for a long time, and many of its consequences appear to be irreversible. The first step in the process, already taken in some societies in the late eighteenth century, was the segregation of children from the adult world, party as a deliberate policy, partly as the unavoidable result of the withdrawal of many work processes from the home. As the industrial system monopolized production, work became less and less visible to the child. Fathers could no longer bring their work home or teach children the skills that went into it. At a later stage in this alienation of labor, management’s monopolization of technical skills, followed at an even later stage by the socialization of childrearing techniques, left parents with little but love to transmit to their offspring; and love without discipline is not enough to assure the generational continuity on which every culture depends. Instead of guiding the child, the older generation now struggles to “keep up with the kids,” to master their incomprehensible jargon, and even to imitate their dress and manners in the hope of preserving a youthful appearance and outlook.
On fathers, in his book Iron John, Robert Bly expounded on the tension bubbling into the father-son relationship due to the father’s coming home from work to bring his family the parts of his personality that were a residual of the long, distant work day. In other words, children, and sons in particular, saw a discontinuity between the provision of the father and his discipline. The workplace got his productivity and input; the homestead got his unwinding. Bly’s phrase was “temperament without teaching”.
These changes…have made it more difficult for children to form strong psychological connections with their parents. The invasion of the family by industry, the mass media, and the agencies of socialized parenthood has subtly altered the quality of the parent-child connection….According to another observer, the “immature, narcissistic” American mother “is so barren of spontaneous manifestation of maternal feelings” that she redoubles her dependence on outside advice. “She studies vigilantly all the new methods of upbringing and reads treatises about physical and mental hygiene.” She acts not on her own feelings or judgment but on the “picture of what a good mother should be.” [ed: does this predict the rise of mommy blogs?]
In Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, Frances McDormand’s character says “adolescence is a marketing tool“. The people who sell popular culture have segmented the market. Previous to the rock and roll era, music and other cultural touchpoints were all cut from relatively similar cloths. No TV and fewer TV channels meant everyone was listening to the same thing. Certainly kids liked different music than their elders, but there was never enough of a difference for wholly developed and widespread personalities to develop around these music styles.
Teens and adults are very different in a lot of ways, but marketers combined these maturity differences to consumption. This horizontal marketing strategy diversifies the consumer base, and the beauty of it is that it pits the different segments against each other. It is its own ready-made consumer base, and these two compartments of people with now completely disjointed daily functions have developed needs that lie on two different planes rather than one. Whereas a marketer previously fought a one-man war against the consumer’s pocketbook, by carving out an adolescent niche adolescents team up with the marketers to divorce parents and elders from their money. Under the guise of kids having special needs due to their stage in life – either in terms of the need for government services or styles of clothes and music and different uses of leisure time – an overall larger sum of money is spent by people seeking happiness, leisure, and identity.
Lasch’s point was that something like the concept of adolescence as a stand-alone arose from an overreach of progressivism. “Progress” must drill down and differentiate and seek to improve. Social workers wanted to “do it for the kids”; this was all as part of an effort to sap the family of its importance. Since children are assets of all of society, according to them, it stood to reason that the government and their agencies had a vested interest in making sure they were provided for. This led to a different taxonomy, and taxonomies are labels. And marketers are all about labels.