In a new study published in The Lancet on Jan. 17 by a team from Melbourne's Centre for Adolescent Health, led by Dr. Susan M. Sawyer, the argument has been made for an alteration to the age span that falls within adolescence. No longer should the ages be considered ten to 19 years old, says the team. Adolescence more accurately lasts from the age of ten to 24, as a cultural phase. Yep, 25 is the new 20, my dudes.
The term "adolescence," which Dr. Sawyer and her team identify as "the phase of life stretching between childhood and adulthood," emerged with the advent of industrialization. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, which marked Western civilization's move from an agrarian economy to one ruled by machine manufacturing and industry in the mid-1800s, physiological changes didn't necessarily warrant a change in status or a shift in social standing. For many, one's age and physical maturation were not considered factors in their eligibility to work.
But as Child Labor Laws and the concept of childhood development began to rise, a cultural shift started emerging. There wasn't just "baby" and then, one day, "adult." There was something in between, some liminal stage that people increasingly entered, caught between zero responsibilities and total, cut and dry independence. In 1904, psychologist and educator G. Stanley Hall published a paper titled "Adolescence," which essentially spring boarded the term, and its implications, into the arena of scientific and scholarly study. Hall is perhaps most remembered for his now-iconic phrase "storm & stress," referring to the period of development when we're moody and in conflict with parental and authority figures and engaging in all kinds of risky behaviors.
Since its birth, "adolescence," particularly in a country like the United States, has become a fraught, often discussed, rarely agreed upon concept. How should an adolescent act? When does an adolescent become an adult? And why, oh, why, is it such an abhorrent phrase?
The root of this can, in part, be traced back to this concept of "storm and stress," which Hall posited as a universal symptom, so to speak. In accepting this concept as fact, as an indisputable element of puberty, we've now spent over a century shouldering teenagers with cultural expectations for their conduct — and ours. Think about it: complaints are forever raining down on the heads of "adolescents," but the way we treat them, the way we speak about them and portray them in the media, also actively contributes to their continued characterization as, well, let's say "difficult."
So why the new broadening of the term? "Adolescence encompasses elements of biological growth and major social role transitions, both of which have changed in the past century," wrote the research team. "Arguably, the transition period from childhood to adulthood now occupies a greater portion of the life course than ever before at a time when unprecedented social forces, including marketing and digital media, are affecting health and wellbeing across these years."
According to both the NIH and the WHO, adolescence is still defined as running from age 10 to 19. But even the government acknowledges that adolescence is tough to nail down, with the NIH writing, "Medical practitioners involved in the care of adolescents must often deal with an arbitrarily set, chronological threshold between adolescence and adulthood." This difference between biological age and maturation, they note, becomes particularly fraught when age limits are placed on certain areas of healthcare.
No one is saying adolescence is easy - but the pendulum has slowly begun swinging the other way, and the depiction of this time in our lives as categorically "stormy" and "stressful" is also being brought into question. It's a time for figuring things out, and that shouldn't be demonized.