The Invention of Adolescence

Parents facing the problems of their teens’ adolescence often think these problems have been around for thousands of years. This is not true, however: the phenomenon of adolescence has occurred only during the last century.

According to Donald Joy, adolescence did not, and does not, exist in preliterate, agrarian societies. Adolescence occurs in industrial, technological societies where the age of economic independence and marriage has been delayed past the age of puberty. The age of puberty—the stage of maturation in which a person becomes capable of sexual reproduction—is lower in industrial, technological societies. We need not look at different cultures to see this; we can observe the emergence of adolescence during the last century of our American culture.

Adolescence is defined here as the period between puberty and full adulthood. Adults are expected to support themselves, are held legally responsible for their actions, and are permitted to be married. During most of the last three thousand years of human history many cultures have considered persons in their early teens as adults (see chart). The age of puberty is thought to have taken place in the late teens during this era. There was thus no period of adolescence, because teens were considered to be adults before or at the time of puberty. It is only since the Industrial Revolution that puberty has occurred before teens were considered to be adults. Consider the factors illustrated in the chart.

The Age At Which People Were Considered Adults

We need first to know at what ages people were able to work to support themselves and were held responsible for their actions. Until recently, this age has been 12 or 13. Hebrew boys go through bar mitzvah ...

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