Prolonged Adolescence

Via Steve Sailer, I came across Emmanuel Todd’s maps of family structure in Europe. HBD Chick blogged about all of this and was the one that brought it to Sailer’s attention. I’ll let you follow those links if you are interested in the subject. The basic takeaway is twofold: 1) Western Europe (as opposed to Eastern Europe) has different traditional family structures; and 2) the Anglo-Saxon world (Denmark/Norway, the Netherlands, and England) has a particular traditional family structure that actually has the latest marriages and loosest inheritance laws. As an American, and a descendant of the Anglo-Saxons, this interests me. (I’m largely Celtic and Nordic by blood, but there’s bound to be some Anglo-Saxon mixed in, and as an Amercian I live in a country founded on the ideas of the Anglo-Saxons.)

All this discussion (and it’s fascinating, I encourage readers to investigate those links) made me think about the how the notion of adolescense has changed. There are all sorts of cultural factors, of course. People live and dress like children well into their thirties and even fourties these days because we’ve done away with the notion of respectably adulthood. Being young and cool is valued, whereas being old and wise is not (except for in a maudlin way). But young people have always been “cooler” than old people (even though the notion is a modern one); and old people have always been wiser, on average. But wisdom used to be desirable, something a young person could yearn for. Nowadays it’s just a consolation prize for the old losers in the all-important game of staying young and cool.

It’s a bit reductionist for my taste, but I was thinking about the concept that major hormonal changes in the body could serve as markers as transitions from one phase of human life to the next. Hormones are massively important in human behavior, and to go through a major hormonal change means to become a different person (socially speaking), whether you want it or not. The most famous such change, one which all adults can recognize, is the change that happens at the onset of puberty. I went through puberty from about 14 to about 17. I was a radically different person when I was 18 than I had been at age 13. All my interests, my foci, my ways of approaching the outside world and even my own family — all this had changed dramatically in the space of 5 years. This is perfectly normal and almost all people experienced something analogous in their teen years.

Now, I certainly changed between ages 23 and 28, but the change was nowhere near as dramatic. And indeed, though I changed between age 3 and age 8, the rather rapid changes a small child goes through in cognition and socialization are still of one piece, if you will. That is, I was changing all throughout my youth, as all humans do, but the change I went through in my teens was simply different.

(I should also mention that there is a strong hormonal change between the moment an infant is breast-fed and when that child is weaned. Few of us remember this transition, so it’s hard to talk about. But from a biological perspective, this shift is real and significant.)

Traditionally, for a woman, the next big hormonal change after puberty is the gestation and birth of her first child. For a woman, pregnancy and early motherhood are times of radical hormonal change. Just as in her puberty period, she finds her whole world turned upside-down, and she becomes in some senses a new person. Just as with puberty, her core essence might remain the same, but also just as in puberty life has been radically altered — on a chemical level.

Further pregnancies and other life events can obviously change how our hormones interact with our bodies, but the next radical change for a woman, hormonally, is the onset of menopause. Menopause represents a strong and radical change in the hormones of a woman, and she simply can’t continue on as a “young woman” anymore once the chemicals in her own body have changed. It’s not a bad thing, and indeed it can result in noble old women, but it’s a joke to pretend this is not an epochal change in the life of woman.

So then, simplifying far too much, I break woman’s hormonal life down into: 1) breast-fed infant, 2) pre-pubescent child, 3) pubescent and post-pubescent adolescent, 4) fertile mother, 5) post-menopausal old woman.

Or: Baby, Child, Teenager, Mother, Old Lady.

So let’s look at that “Teenager” phase of a woman’s hormonal life. Menarche happens much earlier in Western societies than it used to. Most of this, presumably, is due to stronger nutrition. I maintain that some of it is cultural/psychological: that is, girls get puberty cues much earlier in life than they used to. I haven’t seen a study proving this, but it makes sense to me. But certainly young American girls have a much richer diet than medieval or ancient girls, and so it’s not shocking that they go through menarche at a younger age.

At the other end of the “Teenager” period we have the moment of a woman’s first pregnancy. Pregnancy starts changing the hormonal balance in a woman’s body from day one. Many women these days, of course, end up aborting their children. But they also used to miscarry much more frequently than they do today. So — while I actually could write a whole new post about the hormonal (not to mention spiritual) trauma that abortion causes a woman — let’s just assume for the sake of argument that “pregnancy” refers to pregnancies carried to term: babies.

Western white women have babies later and later in life now, if they have them at all. It’s pretty typical for a college-educated, upper-middle class woman in America to have her first child at 33 or 34.

So, if girls used to go through menarche at 16, and have babies at 20, the period of being an “adolescent” or “teenager” was abour 4 years, give or take two years. Now, a girl goes through menarche at 11 and pregnancy at 33. “Teenage” hormones are active in her for 22 years. Five and a half times longer.

That’s five times as much teenage-ness. Think of all the stupid ways of teenagers, and think of how societies have always accomodated the craziness of teenagers, and then multiply the teenage factor by FIVE. Women are only half of society, of course. But then… ahem… women are HALF OF SOCIETY!

I can’t prove any of these numbers with links just now, but I invite readers to disprove them. Even if I am off by a few years here or there (which I must be, considering that I’m not using any hard data), the point stands. Women are teenagers for decades these days, whereas being a teenager is meant to be a brief and intense period in the life of a woman. We have a world of teenagers in the West today. No wonder we act like such adolescents.

Of course boys and men have their own method of prolonging teenage-ship these days. But one can only write so much in one blog post. For today, dear and lovely ladies, the spotlight is on you.

12 comments on “Prolonged Adolescence

  1. ajb says:

    “whereas being a teenager is meant to be a brief and intense period”

    I think this is true, but the characteristics of this period have changed. We know, from people who homeschool in certain ways, that the way ‘teenagers’ tend to act in our society is artificial. Taken out of the highly unnatural environment of high school (or primary school) + typical mass entertainment + so on, and put instead in a more natural context, teenagers don’t tend to act nearly as much like ‘teenagers’. They aren’t nearly as irresponsible, irrationally rebellious, and so on.

  2. Manwe says:

    “We have a world of teenagers in the West today. No wonder we act like such adolescents.”
    Agreed!

    I don’t really have anything to add, I think your on to something.

  3. the Fish says:

    “…girls get puberty cues much earlier in life than they used to.”

    I believed it’s pretty well established that, on average, girls who don’t live with their biological fathers begin puberty earlier than those that do.

    • outofsleep says:

      This makes sense biologically, however unfortunate that might be. Without a father to protect her, it makes sense for a young female to seek the protection of a mature male through accelerated sexuality. Of course, in a world of casual and meaningless sex, this strategy usually backfires.

  4. MRC says:

    So … women don’t become mature adults until they bear children? Are barren women teenagers until menopause? Or women who miscarry? What about nuns? Is chastity a barrier to maturity? Is a woman who stays a virgin all her life, a teenager all her life?

    • outofsleep says:

      You are invited to try answering some of these questions yourself.

      • mary728@telus.ca says:

        I’m asking you, because I’m curious as to how women who can’t or shouldn’t bear children fit into this theory.

        What about the 19-year-old-mother in Phoenix in the news today who was stoned on pot and drove off with her baby on the roof of her car? Where does she fit in and what maturity did her child-bearing bring her? Is she, or any teenage unwed high-school-dropout mother, more mature than a 35-year-old woman who has never given birth?

        Of course if maturity can be attained by taking hormones, it will be simple to give the same hormone treatment to any childless woman. Why aren’t doctors prescribing this now? “You may find the side effects uncomfortable, Miss Smith, but in 9 months, you’ll feel like a new woman!”

        • outofsleep says:

          Perhaps you should re-read the entry, Mary. I said that hormonal changes could serve as “markers” of different periods in life, and even that I called “a bit reductionist for my tastes.”

          Nowhere did I suggest that it was the only determinant of maturity. Obviously there is much, much, much more to life than hormonal changes. Obviously there are many, many, many other factors that determine how people behave. I cannot cover every single objection in a blog post of a few hundred words. Either you have poor reading and logic skills, or you are being deliberately antagonistic (“trolling”).

          To your first comment I asked you to try responding because I agree there are obviously many shades of grey. For example, one of your questions was “Is a woman who stays a virgin all her life, a teenager all her life?” My answer is, of course, no. But there may be a certain ingenuousness to such a woman, a certain childlike countenance. On the other hand, such a woman in today’s culture would have to be a very remarkable person to begin with, so she’s an outlier no matter what. Taking extreme cases (such as this one, or the stoned mother who drove away with her baby on her car) is not very useful. Do you see why?

          Incidentally, on your last paragraph about taking hormones to induce maturity, I’ll bite and answer as if it were a straight question and not a sarcastic one. If such a hormone therapy were possible, it would be *avoided* at all costs by modern women. They don’t *want* to be mature; they want to be children forever. If anything, doctors would proscribe hormones that keep women stupid, self-centered and irresponsible. Come to think of it, doctors already do this, and the hormone in question is called synthetic progesterone.

          • outofsleep says:

            Also, if you think I am some kind of biological determinist, reading some of the other entries on this blog should dispel that notion.

          • Wyandotte says:

            Er…did you really mean “proscribe” or maybe “prescribe” instead? Tee hee hee, what a difference a letter of the alphabet makes! English is a funny language, sometimes.

            Anyhow, regarding synthetic progesterone. I don’t see why the socalled “natural” progesterone would be any better, a product women are flocking to. Women are just fooling themselves either way. Unless we have severe advanced Addison’s disease or something similar – and we want to have a few more years, though not good-quality ones – we are not meant to take hormones. Look to “alternative” medicine for all kinds of possible methods of balancing hormones. Also, some MDs know better.

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