Driving home from a Thanksgiving road trip last weekend, my family and I listened to a Hardy Boys audiobook. We like listening to stories as we travel, and among our selections on recent trips, we’ve chosen several Hardy Boys tales. Along with the boys’ adventures, I’ll confess we enjoy the old-fashioned cultural references, characters, and idioms. We roll our eyes at the absence of female strength and the frequent naming of the obvious. We laugh every time poor Chet is described with clunky euphemisms like “stout,” “ungainly,” or “husky” and every time Mrs. Hardy displays her flair for (and obsession with) making sandwiches. And we point out how much easier and safer their work would be if only they had cell phones.
That said, those boys do have great adventures. They’re smart and brave, unbelievably talented, and remarkably lucky. And their parents are surprisingly liberal with their safety. In context of modern life, their permissiveness with their young detectives seems shocking.
Perhaps I’ve hit on one reason for the extension of adolescence in our society–our relatively new obsession with safety.
I know The Hardy Boys stories are fiction, and I realize they don’t accurately represent the lives of average Joes (and Franks) even in the 1920s, 30s, and 50s. But they do reflect a different period in our history, when young men were not only considered capable, but expected to carry heavy responsibility, take risks, and do important work.
At my parents’ house last week, Dad shared some stories about life on the farm when he was growing up in the 1940s. My kids’ eyes widened as he described raising animals as a child, driving vehicles at age 10, and running the farm with his brother when they were teenagers.
It wasn’t just farm work, or boys for that matter. In general, young people were expected to carry adult responsibilities at what now seems a shockingly young age. They were truly expected to grow up as they finished school–often before the age of 18. There was no such thing as a wasted period from 18 to 22, when it was widely accepted that maturation was largely put on hold and building a tolerance for consumption of alcohol was the chief concern. In fact, before the mid-20th century, there was no such thing as a teenager–the term was invented to describe a new cultural phenomenon.
When Death Wasn’t Easy to Ignore
Before the development of penicillin for medical distribution in 1942, diseases that serve as minor inconveniences in our society regularly took lives. Before the advent of the polio vaccine in the 1950s, many children were disabled and even killed by the disease. Before earthquake-ready construction, weather radar, and fire-retardant building materials, even the most prosperous people were acutely aware of their fragile position before nature. And before OSHA, security systems, and cell phones, people felt themselves obviously at the mercy of each other. Their acquaintance with death and danger made people face these enemies more bravely–because they knowingly faced them every day.
Death is no less powerful now than it was then. The difference is in our expectations. We are usually shocked when it arrives, even at the end of a long life. Until the recent past, it was a frequent and expected visitor. In 1900, American infant mortality was as high as 30 percent. Life expectancy was less than 50 years. Illness and injury were everyday risks. Few lived under the delusion that they could cheat death or live pain-free. Almost no one had the luxury of taking life and liberty for granted, dedicating themselves only to the pursuit of happiness.
In such a world, perfect safety was clearly out of reach; danger was a given. People were prepared to take risks in order to pursue a better life, do good work, or do the right thing.
The Cost of Safety
In our world, safety and longevity are so important, they often overshadow purpose. We have tasted safety from birth, cut our teeth on mastering risk, spent our years expecting relatively long and easy lives. And when we can’t master, we insure. Because we believe safety is within reach and health is normal, we expend more to maintain them than our forbears gave to pursue them. As parents, we dedicate ourselves to preserving the health and safety of our children at almost any cost. And if we don’t believe they’re capable of taking risks, why should they?
Is life better for our risk aversion? Are we happier? Do our lives count for more?
In the late 1980s, social scientists began to notice and document a shift in the length and character of the period known as adolescence. This period beyond childhood and before adulthood arrives sooner than before and extends, some say, well into the 20s and even to 30. Nowadays 26, they say, is the new 18. Young adults move back home because the jobs they want are unavailable and the jobs that are available won’t support they lifestyle they want. Independence is just too hard.
And no wonder. Without question, adulthood is riskier than childhood. For young people raised in a culture that values safety and youth more than almost anything else, why grow up? It just isn’t safe.
Perhaps self-preservation costs us more than we think.
© 2012 Amy Simpson.