Growing Up, or Just Growing Older?: Shifting Patterns in American Adolescence

The cast of The Wolves in rehearsal.

“Nine girls in uniform stretch in a circle on an AstroTurf indoor soccer field. They do the same stretch at the same time for the same amount of time.”

This first stage direction in The Wolves introduces us to the activity that the 16- and 17-year-old characters will do for most of the play: warming up for their Saturday soccer games. The girls play year-round to bolster their skills, hoping to earn spots on college teams. As adolescents, they focus on personal development: academics, athletics and the specter of higher education. The adult world looms mysteriously ahead of them; though they interact regularly with parents, coaches and teachers, these girls have yet to shoulder adult responsibilities.

In some historical moments, women their age already managed motherhood, households or jobs. In “Adolescence in Historical Perspective,” a 1969 article in Journal of Marriage and Family, authors John and Virginia Demos lay out how the very concept of adolescence emerged relatively recently. “The concept of adolescence, as generally understood and applied, did not exist before the last two decades of the 19th century. One could almost call it an invention of that period; though it did incorporate, in quite a central way, certain older attitudes and modes of thinking.” They also assert that “the idea of adolescence is today one of our most widely held assumptions about the process of human development. Indeed, most of us treat it not as an idea, but as a fact.”

While everyone alive today grew up with adolescence as a cultural norm, older people may recall that their own adolescences seemed shorter than those of their children or grandchildren. Studies, in fact, support this: in “The Decline in Adult Activities Among U.S. Adolescents, 1976-2016” (Child Development, 2017), authors Jean M. Twenge and Heejung Park describe how today’s youth are slower to reach traditional milestones. “In seven large, nationally representative surveys of U.S. adolescents, fewer adolescents in recent years engaged in adult activities such as having sex, dating, drinking alcohol, working for pay, going out without their parents and driving, suggesting a slow life strategy.” Compared to their 1970s peers, more youth today spend a prolonged period doing supervised activities, such as soccer, and less time outside the presence of adults.

When these young people enter their 20s, many will take longer to meet the traditional milestones of adulthood. “Today’s 25-year-olds,” writes Laurence Steinberg in “The Case for Delayed Adulthood,” (New York Times, 2014),“compared with their parents’ generation at the same age, are twice as likely to still be students, only half as likely to be married and 50 percent more likely to be receiving financial assistance from their parents.” While some older adults may rebuke their younger counterparts for lagging “behind,” Steinberg argues that “prolonged adolescence, in the right circumstances, is actually a good thing, for it fosters novelty-seeking and the acquisition of new skills.”

The young characters in The Wolves, at 16 and 17, are on the brink of legal adulthood. But are they adults? What does it mean to come of age in an era where the definition of adulthood, and the pathway towards it, have grown uncertain?