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?