The Disappearance of Adulthood – Going Underground

I recently re-read The Disappearance of Childhood by Neil Postman, a fascinating look at the institution of childhood and how it was formed and how modern media is eroding it. It’s such a well-argued book that I was finding myself nodding as I read and reading passages aloud to my wife. As a teacher, having some understandings of the rapidly narrowing gap between adult and child, reading the book was an enlightening and worthwhile process, cementing and expanding, adding much needed detail to a process that I thought I already understood.

In 1982 when it was first published, Postman was speaking mainly about ‘electronic media’ ie: television. While we now call it ‘digital media’ and include the Internet, an even more powerful and interactive beast, I believe his core points remain the same:

  • Access to and proficiency with written language once marked the Adult. The child entered school to attain this.
  • Whereas written language must be decoded and taught, electronic/digital media requires no literacy to interpret; images are read instantly, by adult and child alike.

Thus, little about the adult world is secret from children in the modern age. Postman uses the example of Tropic of Cancer. As a young boy, he was prevented from accessing the ‘secrets’ within:

I vividly remember being told as a thirteen-year-old of the existence of a book, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, that, I was assured, was required reading for all who wanted to know sexual secrets. But the problems that needed to be solved to have access to it were formidable. For one, it was hard to find. For another, it cost money. For still another, it had to be read. Much of it, therefore, was not understandable to me, and even the special passages to which my attention was drawn by a thoughtful previous reader who underlined them, required acts of imagination that my experience could not always generate. (p84)

With television and the internet, no such barriers exist. And so, if the way we define the Adult is based on the Child, then what does it mean to be adult now? What secrets are left, what is it about the Adult world that is now hidden from children or teenagers? I wager very little. All taboos are present, are glorified on television, and the Internet is a natural extension of this. Children now have unrestricted access (by ‘unrestricted’ I mean as it relates to the code-breaking of language literacy) with television and internet, to all inter-personal concepts traditionally reserved for the adult world.

Obviously there are other factors (biological rather than social) that impact here. Consider the shift where children enter the workforce while at the same time remain in school, so that many of them work part time while studying full time.

This is a relatively modern trend, and earning and spending money gives children one more foot in the door to the adult world. (And I do not object to children learning about money first hand, not at all.) But I am convinced that the digital world is doing much to erase old notions of ‘childhood’ and leaving in its place, ‘almost adults’ – children who have access to all adult secrets and perhaps believe that they are adults too. Children who feel angry and frustrated by the language-based restrictions on their development into ‘adulthood’ (especially when digital media has it all instantaneously, without sequential or code-breaking learning), teens who are earning money, who are doing or knowing about basically everything adults do, and yet, do not fit in. And it must anger them, both the inability to fully comprehend the adult world, and the tendency to rush into it nonetheless, then struggle with the consequences.

Because there are still significant differences between even the two groups. Even between the digitally literate child and the digitally literate adult. And without extending my rambling too much further, those differences may just come down to time, a life lived for say 30,40,50 years rather than 10,15 or even 20 years, are very different things.

Now I don’t think too many teenagers, at any time in the history of childhood, have felt all that differently about desires to ‘grow-up’ as soon as possible. What is clearly different now, is the way that the digital world unlocks these desires earlier and earlier. Tweenies and the early sexualisation of girls, the mobile phone ownership revolution (the phone being a traditionally adult tool I think), the trend toward private and portable media consumption, the increased access to income (essentially ‘disposable income’ if they live at home) all of these things seem to be signs of young people, of children, who are caught in a time of serious change.

What this leads me to ask myself (aside from what is going to happen to schools) is what is secret now – what about the adult world is hidden from children (be they teenager or younger)? Because if kids are no longer (and probably haven’t been since the inception of TV) able to be sheltered from adult concepts, and can participate in most adult situations, then what is an Adult?

Are we now but biologically different creatures? Are we just bigger, older, smarter (we hope)? I’ve left quite a few things out, of course, and Postman’s book is far more convincing than my jumbled grab bag of ideas here, but the question remains.

How do we define ourselves as adults? What secrets are left?

6 thoughts on “The Disappearance of Adulthood – Going Underground

  1. So, if you’re still reading, what do you think? My first thought is Jazz – and by Jazz I don’t mean Sinatra etc.

    There seems to be something about its complexity, it’s ‘oldness’ that blocks children (and most (but not all) teens for that matter) its radical difference from chart music, its location (in clubs that require ID) its presence in the media (very slight, very underground)…

    • I don’t think many would have come up with that answer Ashley :). I hate to tell you this but Jazz is played in places that don’t require ID (unless you are referring to a different Jazz entirely). I’ve loved Jazz since I was a kid and was dragged from Jazz club to Jazz club all over the place in Australia and overseas. It might not be popular but I don’t think that is an age thing particularly. There are some adult aspects to Jazz but I don’t think that is what defines it. I think Mark has a point (below) – a child is or should be naive to the dark side of humanity (eg., incest, rape, adultery, murder, cruelty, corruption etc.,) and some children lose their childhood prematurely because they are forced to access this truth. I might have to read Postman’s book. Another interesting issue is that the period of childhood is also defined culturally (girls marrying older men at age 13 in some countries – not by personal choice) and historically (children used to enter the workforce at very young ages – 10+ without much schooling at all). Some might argue that childhood in some Western societies has never been for such an extended period. I think the longer the better (as long as they move out at some stage – haha).

      • Oh no! Please don’t tell me YOU know some kids who like jazz too! Oh dear, where will I hide? 🙂

        Yes! Definitely read that Postman book if you can, it’s amazing – some of the points you make are explored in it, like ‘adolescence’ being new and constructed etc, and the very early entry into work etc – and definitely that childhood is constructed in a large way.

        You’re so lucky, being introduced to jazz so early!

  2. “Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.”
    That which defines us as adults is that that will condemn us, the bridge from child to adult comes at the realisation of our own mortality and at the recognition of the evil that men do. Who would want to rush into this?
    Thanks for the post Ash, there must be something in the air as my last two posts have been about the loss of childhood (maybe we’re growing up? No.)

    • An apt quote indeed, Mark!

      It’s a sad rush, too, into adulthood, and then it always seems that we see how silly our desperation is from the other side of the divide (wherever that lies now).

      Yes, I noticed! Something definitely in the air – some sort of bug?

  3. Hi Ashley,

    Have just read…
    Think at the young child. Watch him with all the “wardrobe” of teddies and dolls he has around him. How can he get the notion of good choice betwen them all ? This is a dirty heap of possessions without names and true reality. Every thing around the child is multiple, all-found, everything is supermarket-like. Life is just a rythm between open doors, … getting out of the house, then, the car, then, the supermarket… nothing to fight for, parents buy everything, even what they don’t need… money, the purse, are only at stake. And, most of the time are not.
    It’ a virtual world. Not root for anything.
    Money isthe keyword and freedom, too. That freedom which is no more the freedom of being oneself free to have one’s opinions, but free if you have money, that money which allows everything.
    Everything (anything) is permitted, once you have money. The world has no borders for them to face. Except school… As school is effort, is (to some extent) opposed the fascination of freedom, it’s judged as compulsory, tough, effort. And the poor child has not been raised in a world of “effort”.
    “Born with a silver spoon”, you say in the English world !
    Shool is reading and writing, however, for which use, nowadays ?? People talk freely,do,’t stop talking !! TV has become the realm of talk-shows and those latter are completely virtual, they are a floating world of words, of non-important words. Talked words are wind, breezez, no roots, once again.
    Ealier, children used to be quite often with grand-parents for holidays or even long weekends. Now, grand-parentsare young and play young. Nothing left to give roots to children.
    Adults strive for money (not or work) but for a good quantity of money, because is the law of big-capital-globalization, if you want to be part of the community, you need money TO BUY, buying has become the ROOT ! Sales here and there… And, conversations between adults are quite often about sales and buying.
    Two, three, four generations… ago, they fought for books and learning and quality of life, hoping to be part of the educated world… Children had punishment, had to learn morals. Alas, parents don’t teach morals anymore, they are not married or are divorced… Multi-parented families… friends and friends.

    Our world is a the world of words. It’s just virtual.

    Death, wars, poverty, famine, ecological catastrophies are virtual.

    You just learn to not caring about this and that nymore. Take it for granted that the (haiku) moment needs to be deserved ! Yesterday is beyond… Tomorrow… We will see…

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