The Fundamental Changes of Adolescence
Social Redefinition and Psychosocial Development
- Initiation ceremony of females of the Thonga tribe in Africa
- All societies have some way of socially redefining the individual as an
- The transition is less explicit in U.S. than most other cultures.
- The social construction of the transition influences teens' psychosocial
Adolescence as a Social Invention
- Redefinition makes adolescents feel more mature and more self-governing,
and makes them think differently about dating, marriage, and sexuality. It
also gives them the right to enter the workforce.
- Changes in social redefinition bring changes in the kinds of relationships
and behaviors that are permitted and expected.
- In many societies, adolescents are not permitted to engage in certain behaviors
until they have reached the age of majority, or the legal age for adult status.
Changes in Status
- Inventionists argue that, beyond the impact of the cognitive and biological
changes, adolescence as a separate developmental stage is primarily defined
by society's official recognition of an individual's status as a child, adolescent,
- Inventionists argue that the social definition of adolescence contributes
to many of the problems of contemporary adolescents.
- Adolescence as we now know it was "invented" around 1900 in the
midst of the industrial revolution.
- Prior to the industrial revolution, the primarily agricultural society of
the U.S. viewed children as miniature adults.
- When a youth secured ownership of property, that person was then treated
as an adult.
- With industrialization, it became more important for a youth to learn career
skills that couldn't be handed down from parents.
- Parents then encouraged children to focus more on school in order that they
- As a result, youths were more likely to spend their day with peers.
- Industrialization also brought with it the replacement of workers with machines.
- Children and adolescents were cheap labor, but jobs were scarce.
- Child labor laws were thus enacted to protect jobs for adults.
- Compulsory education laws were enacted to keep youths out of the job market.
- Child protectionists helped create child labor and compulsory education
laws to protect youth from harsh working conditions that would impede healthy
- The term teenager arose around the middle of the 1900s, and was used to
describe youth who spent a newfound affluence on frivolous activities and
products, such as cosmetics and cars.
- The term "youth" has, more recently, come to describe 18 to 22-year-olds.
- Very recently, some argue that the extension of the time before an individual
becomes an adult has created a post-adolescent phase of "emerging adulthood."
- With changes in status, adolescents have increased freedoms as well as increased
- Changes in interpersonal status
Changes in political status
- Adolescents are expected to interact differently with their elders and with
- Their "role" in the family changes, e.g, they are expected to
take on more responsibility in the care of younger siblings.
Changes in economic status
- Adolescents are typically given a "voice" in the decision-making
of the culture; e.g., the right to vote in the U.S.
- There is also an increased expectation of service toward others.
Changes in legal status
- Adolescence may bring the right to own property, and control over one's
- Youth can obtain work positions that children cannot.
- With this right comes the responsibility to contribute to the economic
well-being of the culture; e.g., paying taxes.
The Process of Social Redefinition
- Reaching certain ages allows youth to engage in certain "adult"
activities, such as driving, drinking alcohol, and casino gambling.
- While children may commit status offenses, and adolescents may come into
contact with the juvenile justice system, after a certain age youth who
commit crimes will be handled by the adult courts and corrections system.
- Today, youth between ages 16-17 are often faced with adult sanctions when
they commit serious crimes, such as murder.
- Courts have ruled in ways that may seem inconsistent with regard to the
level of decision-making maturity of adolescents.
Variations in Social Transitions
- In the U.S., social redefinition is a long process involving many steps.
- Initiation ceremonies are used to signify the adolescent's transition into
- Initiation ceremonies that involve groups of adolescents facilitate "bonding"
between the youth that participate. College fraternity and sorority "hazing",
Latino quinceañeras, and debutante balls are a few examples.
- The timing of initiation ceremonies varies across cultures, depending upon
political and economic forces.
- There is usually real or symbolic separation from one's parents (extrusion).
- Youth may spend nights or live with other adults or relatives.
- Apprenticeships served this role in the past in America.
- There is an accentuation of physical and social differences between males
and females - in clothing and activities.
- Initiation ceremonies are often performed separately for males and females.
- Some cultures practice brother-sister avoidance; after puberty, a brother
and sister may have no contact until they are married.
- Ceremonies such as Jewish bar mitzvah and bas mitzvah are used in religious
groups to signify adult status.
- Redefinition usually entails the passing on of cultural, historical, and
practical conventions and information from one generation to the next.
- Adolescents are taught the "hows and whys" of being an adult.
- Ceremonies that involve scarification require the youth to receive cuts
or incisions to various parts of the body, which serve to signify one's adult
status to others.
- In modern cultures, more subtle changes in practices signify the passage
into adulthood, such as gender separation when bathing or changing clothes.
- Ear piercing, tattoos, shaving, and using makeup are also used to signify
the transition into adulthood.
- Variations in clarity
- Given the heterogenous nature of religious affiliation in the U.S., initiation
ceremonies are also highly variable.
- If youth crossed all of the status boundaries at one time, and if most members
of a cohort experienced this transition together, the passage into adulthood
would be very clear.
- However, contemporary U.S. society does not have a clear separation between
childhood and adulthood.
- The clarity of social redefinition in contemporary society
The clarity of social redefinition in traditional cultures
- In the U.S., redefinition may be recognized within a family, but little
signifies to the culture that a person has entered adulthood.
- High school and college graduation are the most visible transition ceremonies.
- The lack of clarity can be confusing to the adolescent.
- Kurt Lewin has described the modern adolescent as a marginal man, caught
in transition between childhood and adulthood.
- Jeffrey Arnett has argued that "traditional" cultures differ
from "industrialized" cultures in the definition of adult status.
He argues that industrialized societies are more likely to emphasize the
development of certain traits of self-reliance, place less emphasis on one's
family status (e.g., marriage), and distinguish less between males and females,
in defining adult status.
The clarity of social redefinition in previous eras
- Traditional cultures typically have very clear ceremonies for redefinition.
- Males experience the transition with agemates.
- Females experience the transition around the time of menarche.
- The adolescent's physical appearance is changed, signifying adult status
to the community.
Variations in continuity
- The early 1800s may have been an even more confusing time for adolescents
and their status than today.
- Adolescents often spent time in school (non-adult status) as well as work
- Industrialization excluded many adolescents from the workforce, and many
middle or lower class youths could not find jobs.
- Concern about out-of-work youth influenced the creation of compulsory
education through high school.
- Compared to contemporary trends, youth in the 1800s left home, married,
and established their own home somewhat later, but left school and started
- The continuity of the transition into adulthood can be gradual or abrupt.
- Continuous transitions are those in which the adolescent assumes adult roles
in small increments.
- Discontinuous transitions are those in which the adolescent assumes adult
roles all at once.
- The continuity of the adolescent passage in contemporary society
The continuity of the adolescent passage in traditional cultures
- Today, youth in the U.S. tend to be "thrust" into the adult
world with little preparation.
- The federal government, during the 1990s, instituted a school-to-work
- Other industrialized countries still employ youth apprenticeships, in
which youth are trained for adult occupational roles before they take on
- In Germany, many high school age students spend half of their time in
school and half in a work setting learning a trade.
- The transition into family (spouse, parent) and citizen (voting, civic
service) roles is even more abrupt and entails less training than the transition
into the work world.
The continuity of the adolescent passage in previous eras
- Young people in non-industrialized cultures participate in adult activities
for many years before reaching adult status.
- Children and youth are given responsibilities based on individual skills
and mental ability.
- They are expected to contribute in meaningful ways to the success of the
family (e.g., farming, building, making saleable goods).
- The focus in such cultures is on informal rather than formal education.
- Preparation for adulthood comes from daily experience for a lengthy time
The sexes: Similarities and differences in the transition to adulthood
- In previous centuries, American children and youth experienced a more
continuous transition into adult work roles.
- However, they were also likely to remain under adult supervision through
their early 20s.
- This semi-independence had disappeared, for most youth, by 1900.
- Given that youth left home at a later age than is typical today, they
learned more about caring for infants and children, as well as creating
and managing a livable home.
- In the U.S. and Western Europe today, more people in their early twenties
cannot afford to live on their own, and typically live with their parents
or with financial assistance from parents.
- Many youth in contemporary U.S. society feel little motivation and eagerness
to enter what they perceive to be a job market with little promise.
The scientific study of adolescence: Does leaving home too early cause
problems for adolescents?
- Sociologist Margaret Marini studied the paths men and women followed after
they were in high school in the 1950s.
- In chronological order, individuals typically left school, began working,
married, and had children.
- The longer a person stayed in school, the less likely they were to follow
the traditional sequence.
- Many people since 1950 have stayed in school longer while at the same time
starting a marriage and a family.
- The data show that women are more likely than men to replace the student
role with the marriage and family role.
- Males' continuation of education is viewed as an investment in the family,
while women's continuation in education is seen as a hindrance to the needs
of a family.
The Transition into Adulthood in Contemporary Society
- Researchers in Sweden conducted a longitudinal study of children and youth,
finding that 50% of females left home after age 18, while 50% of males
left home after age 21.
- Correlational analyses indicated that, for females, leaving home early was
associated with earlier marriage, having more children, and lower levels of
- However, females who left home early were different as children than females
who left home later.
- Those who left early had more strained family relations, poorer adjustment,
lower educational aspirations, more impulsivity, aggression, school problems,
and drug and alcohol use, earlier sexual activity and more sexual partners.
- Identity development may be compromised by the discontinuous nature of the
transition to adulthood our youth experience.
- Erik Erikson believed that self-concept, or identity, of youth is created
by growing self-awareness and feedback from society.
- Adolescent specialists believe that today's youth, especially those not
bound for college (the "forgotten half"), may find it extremely
difficult to enter the adult world.
- One estimate claims that perhaps 25% of today's youth may fail to achieve
productive adult lives.
- Social scientists often argue that social problems such as divorce rates,
family violence, youth unemployment, juvenile delinquency, and substance abuse
are related to the difficult nature of transitioning into adulthood in modern
- Special transitional problems of poor and minority youth
- Poverty, discrimination, and segregation continue to hinder the transition
of many minority youth into adulthood in our culture.
- Approximately 1/3 of the youth population in the U.S. are in minority groups.
- By the year 2020, ethnic minority children will account for nearly 50% of
all U.S. children.
- Foreign-born adolescent immigrants have better mental health, exhibit less
problem behavior, and perform better in school than adolescents in the same
ethnic group who are born in America.
- The effects of poverty on the transition into adulthood
The effects of growing up in a poor neighborhood
- Poverty contributes to the likelihood that a person will leave school
early, be unemployed, and have children out of wedlock, all of which make
the transition into adulthood more difficult.
- Such difficulties are particularly common for inner-city youth.
What can be done to ease the transition?
- The conditions that surround one's home have an impact on youth development.
- High neighborhood unemployment, few neighborhood resources (such as parks
and libraries), and high crime rates impede development.
- Poor neighborhoods contribute to teenage pregnancies and school dropout
- Social problems are "contagious" - they spread from individual
- Poverty breeds social isolation, which contributes to harsh, inconsistent,
and punitive parenting and less social support, undermining a neighborhood's
sense of collective efficacy (the extent to which neighbors trust each other,
share common values, and can count on each other to monitor the activities
of youth in the community).
- Daily exposure to community violence causes stress that increases the
risk of emotional and behavioral problems.
- Exposure to community violence is associated with higher rates of aggression,
thoughts of suicide, depression, PTSD, and substance abuse.
- Ideas include restructuring education, expanding work and volunteer opportunities,
and improving community life.
- Some have suggested the need to strengthen families and give adolescents
more contact with adult mentors.