One time I attended a seminar on today’s youth culture and one of the attendees asked whether how youth were being described was also true for older (and she meant very old) generations as well. Perhaps what we say is true about ‘today’s teens’ is true for the culture as a whole? Seriously, haven’t you noticed how connected to a cell phone senior citizens are too? We already know they watch more television than youth do. What if other aspects or ‘findings’ of research were equally true for older people? The big problem with adolescent research is that it often fails to answer the question, Is it particular to adolescence?”
In my doctoral work at Purdue (go Boilers!), I had the privilege of learning about adolescent research from Dr. Thomas J. Berndt, one of the leading authorities on child development and peer influence. Dr. Berndt ingrained this question into our minds, citing numerous descriptions of adolescence that were equally true for adults.
Any study you read, or even conduct, regarding adolescence has to account for this. For years people said adolescents were concerned with the imaginary audience, as if everyone was thinking about, and looking at them, all of the time. Studies have since shown that this is equally true for adults. Remember when people used to portray teens as highly suicidal and depressed? Adults are more so. Way more so. And teens are displaying more hopeful and confident characteristics now than any teenage generation over the last 80 years – especially the ones you and I were in.
Two implications jump out from this reality:
- We are fascinated by youth and youthfulness. We rush to put youth on a pedestal and hyper-analyze them without doing the same to the larger context. Perhaps the fascination and adulation emerges from our own nostalgia (or the opposite, our pain) during adolescence.
- We still have to make the case that ascribing cultural influences to just one generation within a culture. I know it’s popular among Christian circles, but not all researchers buy into generational theory as quickly as we think. Part of the issue is deciding when a generation ‘begins’ and ‘ends.’ We’ve been shaped by the post- World War II baby boom, a singular event that has not been equaled since.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you think is particular to youth, but not also true about adults.