Monday, March 28, 2011

Extended Adolescence Goes to the Movies

"Adolescence has become a lifestyle instead of just a life stage."

Those words from my youth ministry friend Brian Berry succinctly capture an emerging trend in our culture: extended adolescence. Through delaying some of the common markers of adulthood (financial independence, marriage, vocational career, personal responsibility for one's actions, etc.) and an idolization of all things youth, we can see that both young and old are beginning to embrace the Peter Pan-like value of never growing up. The extended adolescence mantra: have fun now, take responsibility later.

It's showing up in our movies.

Of course, it's a bit of a chicken/egg scenario: did our media influence the spread of extended adolescence, or did media simply capture and portray what was already happening? I imagine it's a bit of both. For the past decade, extended adolescence has become a ubiquitous theme in American film, one that subtly influences our own perceptions and values, as well as our teens'. It's all around us; we just have to know where to look.

When Garden State came out in 2004, it felt like a generation of 20-somethings breathed a collective sigh. "Yes," we exclaimed, "someone gets us." Zach Braff's filmic treatise is the story of Andrew Largeman coming back home for the funeral of his mother. It can't really be described as a coming-of-age story, since that requires someone...well...coming of age. Growing up. Figuring things out. By the end of the film Andrew is beginning to figure a few things out alongside Sam, a young woman he's fallen in love with, but neither have come to any real conclusions apart from the facts that they love each other and life is filled with pain. The final lines Andrew shares with Sam are telling: "So what do we do? What do we do?" No answer is given. But at this point, extended adolescence had fully infiltrated American film.

Adam Sandler, Owen Wilson, and Will Ferrell have made entire careers built around extended adolescence. They are grown men acting like children to the amusement of audiences. This past year's Sandler comedy Grown Ups and the more recent Wilson film Hall Pass are both great examples of grown men intentionally choosing to act like middle school boys. Their adolescent behavior isn't condemned, but celebrated and enjoyed. In the past, these characters would have been the side plots in films, the comic relief playing second fiddle to the heros and heroines of the story. In the 1950s, adolescence was portrayed as a time of storm and stress, struggling to figure out one's identity and place in the world (eg. Rebel Without a Cause and The 400 Blows). In the 1970s, it was characterized by innocence and silliness, all relegated to the high school years (eg. Grease and American Graffiti). In the 1980s, it was an amalgam of angst and innocence, still in the high school years (eg. The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller's Day Off). Beginning in the early 2000s, adolescence in film is considered an idyllic time of bliss and fun that extends well into the 20s and 30s, where responsibility is replaced by apathy and identity formation is mostly put on hold.

There is the opposite of extended adolescence in recent films that reveal young people's capacity to take responsibility for their lives. Two of this year's Oscar nominees, Winter's Bone and True Grit, center around teenage women having to grow up and be adults before their time. With deceased fathers and aloof mothers, these women have the burdens of adult responsibility placed upon them. Audiences find themselves rooting for these characters, these young women who are rising above the circumstances that life has given them. We also celebrate them in real life, giving Oscar nominations to Jennifer Lawrence (age 20) and Hailee Steinfeld (age 14). The reason we celebrate them is that we view them as outliers, encouraging anomalies in a world where they aren't expected to grow up until much later.

Perhaps it is these cultural expectations that need to change. Leaving the theater last week after viewing happythankyoumoreplease--a decent indie film that feels like TV star Josh Radnor's attempt at becoming the next Zach Braff--I found myself both frustrated and hopeful for the emerging generation--my generation (I'm currently 26 years old, so these are my people). We're characterized by the paradoxical traits of activism and apathy: we want to change the world for the better, but we've gotta update our Facebook status first. If only we were expected to be more than "kidults," I wonder what we could do with all that pent-up potential. What if dire circumstances didn't require kids to grow up too fast, but healthy expectations and cultural markers led the way? What if apathy was replaced by responsibility? What if adolescence was viewed as a healthy step in life's journey instead of the idealized destination?

Zach Braff asked the question, so what do we do? I'm still processing that answer. In the meantime, maybe I'll watch a movie.

Where else do you see extended adolescence in the movies? Share your thoughts in the comments.


  1. Great thoughts Joel, I have been reading Church Planter by Darren Patrick and this is another theme he picks up on. I think the A29 guys have talked a lot on the extended Adolescence of societies men.

    I think it is important to note this is probably more of a western condition. You don't see this in Asia, Africa or India. The condition seems only common in Western Society.

    Anyway like usual some great insights man.

  2. Great post, man. "We want to change the world for the better, but we've gotta update our Facebook status first."
    Definitely hits home.

    I think extended adolescence became more prevalent as birth control became more socially acceptable and available over the last couple decades. I talked with my mom about this last week, and she said that the lightswitch into adulthood flipped for her (and especially my dad) as soon as I was born. They were also 22 and 23.

    If you look at my current circle of friends (all about 25-26), half are married or engaged, and the other half are single (or in relationships with no hurry toward marriage)... I think the switch will flip for people as soon as they have children.

    Thanks for the Monday morning insight, I really enjoyed if you'll excuse me, I gotta update my facebook status. :)

  3. Really good thoughts Joel. This was something that I shared in staff meeting today which a lot of people found true. I found myself thinking about all that you said through my entire day. I know I can fall into this category at times too which is hard to admit but true.

    Thanks for your wisdom, You have truly spoken into my life on many occasions and still do even through your blog (even though I poked fun of you for it when we first met). You are a wise man Joel Mayward.

  4. @Duncan, you hit on a great point, that Western culture seems to influence this, and even the parts of Asia you see this have Western infiltration.

    @Paul, the birth control observation is a great one. Makes me think of the average age for getting married, how its now around 26 and only getting later. Add the economic situation where jobs are scarce and you've got a great culture where extended adolescence can thrive. (And say hi to your mom for me!)

    @Gus, glad this could be a great conversation starter for your church, you the man!