New Sherwood

The Death of the Grown-up

There will be no cultural recovery, no restoration, until America gets over its infatuation with perpetual adolescence. In this Michelle Malkin interview with Diana West, the author of “The Death of the Grown-up” argues that the decline of adulthood (and the resulting erosion of childhood) really began in the 1950s – not the 1960s as many conservatives like to think. I have a theory about that. The 1950s are inextricably tied to the birth of rock music, which is one of the primary forces responsible for “the death of the grown-up”. Conservatives who have a “hands off” attitude about the 1950s are usually motivated by their addiction to rock-n-roll.

Anyway, enjoy the interview:

Courtesy of Man With Black Hat.

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September 26, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized

15 Comments »

  1. Interesting theory about rock-n-roll, Jeff. The 1950’s sit nearly a generation past the protestant capitulation on contraception, and the I don’t think the Beaver had many siblings. Personally I expect that the loss of adulthood goes back further than the 1950’s; but your theory of what makes them untouchable has the ring of truth to it.

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    Comment by Zippy | September 26, 2007 | Reply

  2. A thought about rock-n-roll:

    When I was in high school and college, I was a big fan of Buddy Holly’s music. As you know, he was one of the original 1950s rock-n-rollers. Then, for many years, I stopped listening to Buddy Holly (not a conscious choice to avoid him – I just didn’t have the time). Finally, after having been married for several years and having had a few kids, the fancy struck me and I put one of his CDs on the stereo.

    It only took a few songs before I grew deeply uncomfortable with a realization that had eluded me when I was younger: all of Buddy Holly’s tunes were about “feelings,” and the “love” he sang about was little more than “puppy love.” There was no substance to it. Everything was ephemiral. He had absolutely nothing to say to me, a married man who was learning that mature love means self-sacrifice and saying “no.”

    But only after reading your post did I realize something else: Buddy Holly’s vision of “love” (and that of many of his musical peers) likely had a profound impact on how a whole generation came to think about “love” in the 1950s.

    And I haven’t listened to a Buddy Holly CD since.

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    Comment by Chris | September 26, 2007 | Reply

  3. +JMJ+

    I was born long after the 1950s (and don’t really care for Rock-n-roll), but I understand how very hard it is to let go of the music of one’s youth. :(

    Was the twentieth century the first time we started thinking of time primarily in terms of decades? It has certainly stunted our growth past adolescence. Look at everyone who is said to be “stuck” in a particular decade: there’s no moving on, just never ending nostalgia.

    It is also ridiculously difficult to find common ground with people who had (what passes for) their coming of age a decade earlier or later. It doesn’t help that there are now very few classics that everybody reads and traditions that everybody experiences. Imagine your most life-changing experience having taken place at a now-forgotten pop star’s concert. Whom can you share that with outside your generation? There is no torch being passed. What is merely new becomes merely ancient very quickly.

    Jeff, I know I’m rambling here, but I can’t help but be reminded of a passage from A Separate Peace by John Knowles (which is, of course, one of those insidious coming-of-age novels):

    Everyone has a moment in history which belongs particularly to him. It is the moment when his emotions achieve their most powerful sway over him, and afterward when you say to this person “the world today” or “life” or “reality” he will assume that you mean this moment, even if it is fifty years past. The world, through his unleashed emotions, imprinted itself upon him, and he carries the stamp of that passing moment forever.

    It’s persuasively beautiful prose, isn’t it? One almost doesn’t realise that this passage and your post have the exact same theme–though very different attitudes towards it.

    Perhaps we can find more foreshadowing in the 1940s, in the early years of which A Separate Peace is set. Knowles’ narrator makes a big deal about being a sixteen-year-old boy during wartime. In a year’s time, one becomes old enough to enlist voluntarily; in two years’ time, one may be forced to enlist by the draft. All the boys in the book know it and try to make the most of their last year of innocence and peace. This sense that one is as good as dead when adolescence is over has been echoing dully in every decade since then.

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    Comment by Marissa | September 26, 2007 | Reply

  4. The ’20s were just as bad and there was no rock music then.

    There’s a very simple reason things went south during the ’50s. There was no war. No Great Depression. Only hard times tend to improve people.

    You can see it even in literature tastes. As George Orwell wrote during the dark days of England during the Blitz, in 1942:

    The average book which the ordinary man reads is a better book than it woudl have been three years ago. One phenomenon of the war has been the enormous sale of Penguin Books, Pelican Books and other cheap titles, most of which would have been regarded as impossibly highbrow a few years back. And this in turn reacts on the newspapers, making them more serious and less sensational than they were before. It probably reacts also on the radio, and will react in time on the cinema.

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    Comment by TSO | September 26, 2007 | Reply

  5. In the realm of literature, it is also interesting to note that the “Beat” poet generation was spawned during the 1950’s. Jack Kerouac, Allan Ginsberg (can there be anything more vile than Howl), William S. Borroughs, just to name a few.

    Anti-conformist youth…rebels without a clue.

    Kerouac, a Catholic, and the first to coin the term “Beat Generation”; after a life of drugs and debauchery, returned to the Church and was given a Catholic burial.

    The general consensus of his compadres? Poor, Jack…he really did lose his mind. We always knew he’d “kiss the cross in the end.”

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    Comment by Kimberly | September 27, 2007 | Reply

  6. Great discussion!

    I would tend to view rock and roll as one of the earlier modern manifestations of adolescent culture rather than the cause. I agree with TSO and Zippy about contraception, war, and economic security. If one were to put a date on the beginning of the ascendancy of adolescent culture, perhaps it would be 1930 (at the Lambeth Conference) or perhaps August 6, 1945, a day of which Fulton Sheen said: “Somehow or other, from that day on in our American life, we say we want no limits and no boundaries.” Certainly the 50’s were not all they are cracked up to be, imo. The 60’s didn’t happen by chance.

    As much as I hate to admit it, I certainly can look within myself and still see a 42 year old selfish adolescent It appears I’ll spend the rest of my life digging out of the pit of immaturity. I’ve got a lot of self-emptying to do.

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    Comment by Brian Crane | September 27, 2007 | Reply

  7. +JMJ+

    TSO:

    Now you’ve done it! The 20s may not have had Rock-n-Roll, but they had that other *favourite* music genre of Jeff’s: Jazz! :P

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    Comment by Marissa | September 27, 2007 | Reply

  8. True, Marissa, Jeff doesn’t much like jazz either. But even if one accepted jazz as horrible it merely suggests that music reflects what’s going on in the culture rather than causing it, as Brian pointed out.

    It is interesting to try to pick a date when things went south although it’s an exercise in futility since these things are cyclical. (Read the OT and the constant repentance and rebellion of the Israelites isn’t too much unlike Christian history.)

    But…perhaps we could point to the writings of Nietzsche, who helped encouraged that a Darwinistic mentality that led to the First World War. The war demolished European civilization and by doing so also gravely injured European Catholicism.

    Nietzsche’s “god is dead” and ubermensch writings led to a false hubris in the period of the 1890s-1914, making nations “touchier” and quick to aggression (especially Germany). The war was the beginning of the end of a healthy Europe. The lack of a spiritually healthy Europe was felt in America by the 1920s. There was a brief resurgence of piety during the ’40s due to the 2nd World War. By the ’50s the ‘default’ position of modern times that had been around at least since the early ’20s (or even 1890s) resumed.

    Anyway that’s my thesis, though I’m not sticking to it!

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    Comment by TSO | September 27, 2007 | Reply

  9. Thanks for the comments, everyone. Marissa continues to impress … she could be the poster child for the argument that young people can mature beyond their years despite listening to contemporary music styles. Brian Crane, while you’re digging, can you lend me a shovel over here?

    Does music merely reflect the culture, or does it shape and influence culture? Clearly the answer is both. Everyone agrees that culture inspires music. But music, in turn, exports the culture that inspired it, extending its influence far beyond its origins. Music is a powerful force for social transformation: the revolutionaries of the 1960s knew this, and that is why they employed music to achieve their goals.

    There is no question that the general decline of the West began long before the 1950s and has many causes. Contraception and total war certainly did their part. The 16th century Protestant revolt is justly blamed, as are certain elements of the “Enlightenment” which preceded it. Richard Weaver famously blames William of Occam and philosophical trends of the 14th century, particularly nominalism. But I think this is something different from what Diana West means by “the death of the grown-up”.

    Christian civilization died first, but the “grown-up” (the common social ideal of adulthood) endured for a while longer. One can be a “grown-up” and still hold all kinds of wrong ideas about things.

    What finally killed the Western grown-up? Many things, certainly, but it seems obvious that rock music dealt the final, fatal blow. It wasn’t jazz in the 1920s, because jazz did not reach the masses: the communications media was not yet capable of saturating the culture. Rock music in the 1950s coincided with the explosion of television, radio, and communications technology, which made the genre instantly universal.

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    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | September 28, 2007 | Reply

  10. Maybe the “decline of the grown-up” is linked simply to the modern ability to survive without being grown up. It was only in the 1950s that an extended adolescence became feasible. Human nature suggests that we will grow up to the extent we need to, and generally not much more.

    In the 1920s America was still an agricultural nation I believe. And that necessarily leads to kids growing up fast – they help out on the farm from an early age and learn the value of work. And, of course, during the years of war and depression you simply had no choice but to grow up.

    By the 1950s great affluence led to the postponing of adulthood. Growing up suddenly became optional, perhaps in part due to contraception and the development of the welfare state. Those two factors combined led to “consequence-less” sex and arrested development.

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    Comment by TSO | September 28, 2007 | Reply

  11. “Maybe the ‘decline of the grown-up’ is linked simply to the modern ability to survive without being grown up…”

    Yes, this is undoubtedly true. But it must be maintained that a healthy culture can oppose the social trends made possible by technology and prosperity. We see this, at least, on a micro level in various quarters of the modern world. Culture is more powerful than the microchip. But our culture was substantially weakened by the 1950s and ended in total surrender to the new material possibilities.

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    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | September 28, 2007 | Reply

  12. I – know – it’s only rock n’ roll, but I like it.

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    Comment by William Luse | October 1, 2007 | Reply

  13. 10½ years ago, I wrote a lengthy and somewhat pedantic essay, never going beyond the first draft, on this very topic; I had taken Grace Palladino’s 1996 book “Teenagers: An American History” and built an intensively polemical commentary around it, arguing essentially the same thesis posited now by Diana West.

    My thought was that the foundation for the phenomenon was laid in the early 20th century insistence by certain social advocates for compulsory education beyond the 8th grade. That, coupled with the emergence of the organization of schools and classrooms by grade/age level in the 1920’s, gave birth to peer groups who were beginning to notice, however instinctively, a developing divergence between their physical maturation and their social maturation … thus breeding a discontent which, in turn, started manifesting itself in rebellious acts, the theme behind which was a simulation of adult behaviors and privileges. These peer groups began to be noticed by clever marketers in the late ’30s and early ’40s, and with “swing” music in the background, the adolescent subculture was born. Telling in this respect was a landmark Ladies Home Journal survey conducted in 1950, cited by Palladino, that revealed that the teenagers of that time were doing *a lot* that they were successfully hiding from their parents and other authority figures.

    The subculture thus already had a significant momentum leading up to 1955, but with the advent of rock-and-roll on a mass scale that year, this subculture was made an institutionalized feature of American life, and in the 60s, it began its takeover of American (and Western) culture, which became a fait accompli within 10-20 years, culminating with the arrival of Bill Clinton in the White House.

    It was my central argument in the essay, in short, that it was not so much the notion of “adolescence” itself but rather the creation of the teenage *subculture* that was the engine driving the progressive immaturation of our society.

    Reading it again a few months ago, I am now struck by how much I was writing from an “ivory tower” and now wouldn’t recommend it for circulation: for one thing, I wrote ruthlessly against the very notion of youth “letting their hair down,” testing the boundaries of acceptable social behavior, and this because I didn’t allow myself to do any such thing at those ages. Thus, beneath the essay’s obvious airs of self-righteousness, I burned with a well-concealed (even from myself) envious resentment at those who “sowed their wild oats.”

    What is more, I had thought in 1997 that if only one could raise one’s children in a milieu that did all the “right things” in terms of their religious and secular education, and conceded nothing to the teenage subculture, then these children would naturally reject the subculture’s premises and thus be immune to its temptations. Within the decade since, I would come to see that this was not necessarily the case at all.

    We hear the phrase, “God writes straight with crooked lines,” and it now seems to me to fit perfectly the process of the maturation of individuals. What is more, like with everything else one tries to do in one’s home counterculturally, the reality we must face is that however one’s children are shielded from the youth subculture growing up, they are inevitably going to encounter and engage it sooner or later. If the home they came from was marked by duplicitousness, abusiveness, or even simply a lack of love, then all the more they will be drawn to it in direct spite of the sensibilities with which they were raised.

    The transfer of the teenage subculture’s mentality to the entire society as a whole is, of course, a distinct issue from the process of personal maturity and is the thing the Diane West thesis concerns. I’m not going to reverse myself and contend now that this was a good thing. However, it is what has happened, and entire generations (including myself) have never known life another way. I have come to suspect that, much like with technology and other facets of life particular to our time, it is more conducive to sanity to establish boundaries in the context of the culture with which one is familiar, rather than to induce the profound alienation that would result from an a-priori attempt to completely disown it.

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    Comment by Somerset '76 | October 1, 2007 | Reply

  14. ” …I had thought in 1997 that if only one could raise one’s children in a milieu that did all the ‘right things’ in terms of their religious and secular education, and conceded nothing to the teenage subculture, then these children would naturally reject the subculture’s premises and thus be immune to its temptations. Within the decade since, I would come to see that this was not necessarily the case at all … the reality we must face is that however one’s children are shielded from the youth subculture growing up, they are inevitably going to encounter and engage it sooner or later. If the home they came from was marked by duplicitousness, abusiveness, or even simply a lack of love, then all the more they will be drawn to it in direct spite of the sensibilities with which they were raised.”

    Wise words, Somerset. And disconcerting, to say the least!

    Of course the child’s free will must also be added to the mix. It is possible to do all the right things as a parent, and still have children who go the wrong way at times. Thanks for commenting.

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    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | October 2, 2007 | Reply

  15. My thought was that the foundation for the phenomenon was laid in the early 20th century insistence by certain social advocates for compulsory education beyond the 8th grade. That, coupled with the emergence of the organization of schools and classrooms by grade/age level in the 1920’s, gave birth to peer groups who were beginning to notice, however instinctively, a developing divergence between their physical maturation and their social maturation …

    Excellent point Somerset.

    Before the 1920’s schools were not so age-segregated and thus young people were more likely to grow up faster. Often they would apprentice with adults one-on-one in jobs, even as young as ten or twelve.

    The school system provided a ready-made peer system that retarded emotional growth rather than accelerating it.

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    Comment by TSO | October 3, 2007 | Reply


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