Adolescence: The Yardstick of Progress

Most of us remember adolescence as a time of extreme awkwardness. It’s associated with puberty, with high school, with drama, with hesitant first contact with the sex or gender of our desires, and generally just being a time that none of us got through with our dignity intact. So it may make you feel better to know that I am here to say that this awkward life-stage actually has some value to the world at large.

Because that is indeed what I am here to propose. In my opinion, civilizations can be judged by the length of the adolescence that its members go through.


A dictionary may be helpful. Merriam-Webster defines the term as meaning, “the period of life when a child develops into an adult : the period from puberty to maturity terminating legally at the age of majority” (“majority” in this case contrasting with the idea of being a legal minor). This definition is not a bad one, but it does not tell the entire story. Because here’s the thing: there was a period of human history during which adolescence as a phase of life did not exist.

Let’s just go back to classical Athens for a second. It’s tempting to assume that Athens represented all of Greece, but the truth is that it did not; each city-state had its own particular customs. (Sparta, for instance, did things extremely differently than what we’re about to discuss.) So right now we are only talking about Athens, and don’t make the mistake of generalizing.

In Athens, as in most cities and states throughout history, men and women got married and had babies. Marriage is one of the most pervasive technologies in all of human civilization, because of how effectively it raises the standard of living. Rearing young is easier when there are two parents. (You see this in animals too, amongst those species that form pair-bonds.) Consequently, marriage, or something like it, is widespread throughout human cultures… And, consequently, the customs surrounding it are just as varied. And in Athens, the custom was for 32-year-old men to marry 14-year-old girls.

This pairing looks ridiculous to most Westerners, who have been fed a steady diet of “marry only for love” morals by Western culture in general and Walt Disney in particular. Throughout history, though, many other considerations have factored into marriage, and in Athens, the motivations were 100% financial. The husband was the head of his family unit — his oikos, to use the Greek term (his οἶκος, to use the Greek spelling). The oikos included not only his wife and children, not only his house and property, but the business he owned to make himself money and any slaves or servants that happened to be attached to any of these things. As you can imagine, building up this much wealth took a little time. Consequently, Athenian men did not seek to marry until they were already established and successful in their industries.

So now our Athenian man is married. He has a wife, and she gives him a son and a daughter. What happens now? Well, the son goes on to found his own oikos. He becomes a source of revenue, at the very least to himself if not to his parents. But the daughter? Raising children costs money… And raising a daughter costs more so, because she requires a dowry for when she gets married. And what do you get in return? Presumably, the goodwill of her husband… Maybe. Depends on what sort of wife she turns out to be, and on whether his goodwill turns out to be worth anything. So you maybe get a useful son-in-law, and maybe you don’t get anything at all. You see where this is going? A son is an investment, but a daughter is a sunk cost; heck, she’s a parasite, who eats you out of house and home and then goes on to lend her productivity (IE her uterus) to someone else. So what do you do? You get her out the door as fast as you can. You start finding her a husband the instant she has her first period. And that’s how you end up with a 32-year-old husband and a 14-year-old wife.

Why bring all this up? Simple. It puts adolescence in perspective. Today the average American girl hits menarche at 12–1/2 years old, and the average boy has his first ejaculation at age 13.5. Athenian girls, we can somewhat casually infer, were beginning to menstruate by age 13 or so, and from there we can establish the slightly more nebulous milestone of saying that boys were capable of ejaculation by 15. But only one of them was considered ready for marriage, because the standards applied to them were different.

See, there’s two kinds of maturity from a societal standpoint: whether you are capable of siring offspring and whether you are capable of supporting offspring. And it’s that dichotomy that brings us adolescence. At the risk of sounding conceited, I’m going to throw out the Merriam-Webster definition and supply my own. Adolescence is: “A period of life during which an individual has reached physical adulthood but not financial adulthood; a time in which a person can conceive offspring but lacks the money to raise them.”

That is why the period of adolescence didn’t always exist in all places and all time periods: there was not always a distinction between physical and financial majority. Women weren’t typically expected to care about keeping their children fed, only with having them. And then there’s the traditional Native American belief that a boy became a man after his first successful hunt. He could be eight years old and have never had a boner in his life, but that didn’t matter; he was economically ready to support a family, and that was what counted.


It’s a bit of a sophistry to use this as a justification, but I think there’s some truth behind it: the entire march of human progress has been about moving towards a state in which adolescence exists. The farther back in history you go, the younger the threshold of full adulthood (both physically and financially capable of having a family) gets. It was a simpler time.

Of course, there are other factors to contend with. The age of puberty has trended younger over the course of history. The onset of puberty, after all, is linked to general health and well-being, something which has trended upward over the course of human history. (The study I linked only tracks menarche, first menstruation, but because the same factors contribute to that and oigarche, first ejaculation, I believe the evidence applies. Besides, apparently no one’s done a historical retrospective on wet dreams.) We’ve also seen other nice things like a lower child mortality rate, a lowered maternal mortality rate, a lessening of deadly diseases, better food, more education, equal rights, and weekends. These are the things that I’m referring to when I talk about the advancement level of a society: the slow march towards a world where everyone is entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

But something else goes hand-in-hand with these earmarks of longer-lived and healthier citizens: specialization and complexity. If we go back to the hunter-gatherer model, we see that the family unit is independent: dad provides the meat, mom provides the veggies, and between the two they take care of every other need that their children might have, from clothing to shelter and beyond. It was an era of more generalized knowledge; there wasn’t much to know about the world, but every dad had to know all of it, and every mom too.

Life isn’t like that today. Around 1920 came the passing of the last men to know everything — not because humans got dumber, but because the body of human knowledge became too great to learn within one lifetime. From that day forward, specialization became not a luxury but a necessity. Gone are the days from the Oregon Trail video game where there are only three careers. Today, and for close to a hundred years back, you pick one area to focus on and you specialize in it to the ignorance of all else. The upside of this trend is that each person gets really, really good at what they do. The downside is that all of us are interdependent on each other. No one person in American society has the know-how to reconstruct it from scratch anymore. I could not live without farmers, doctors, scientists, technicians, engineers, construction workers and more… and they could not live without what I do.

The reason I bring this up is because it also contributes to the phenomenon of adolescence. The increasing specialization and complexity of our jobs has raised the threshold for economic maturity. It takes longer for the average person to be able to support a family. (Heck, if we take homeownership as a prerequisite of financial stability, then there may be an entire generation of people who will never be ready!)

So there’s another way we could define adolescence: it’s that period of time when you’re ready to have sex but not ready to have babies.

Using this definition, we can actually put a lot of things in perspective. The possibility of sex being an act of recreation instead of procreation has its roots right here. Any stance which refuses to acknowledge that evolution of practice — Catholic views on contraception, Republican views on sex in general — begin to look like the antiquated throwbacks they are. Even teen pregnancy, that seemingly self-contradictory phenomenon where children have children due to non-adults engaging in adult behavior, starts making sense in this context. But for once, I’m not here to stand on on a liberal soapbox and condemn backwards attitudes. I’m here to talk about the implications for society at large.


Well, these days, a college degree is considered mandatory before anyone will hire you at a “real” job. Most Americans graduate from college at the age of 21. Now we’re up to 10 years. On your first day on the job after college, you’ve already been physically an adult for 10 years. But what about the increasing thresholds of education? If you get a Master’s Degree or a doctorate, that adds another two or three years. And what about the decreased power of the dollar in light of inflation? We’ve talked, in other articles, about how much money you need to make in order to support children; it’s an amount that most people don’t see on their first paycheck. Even if you do have that doctorate.

There are stories these days of couples having their first child at the age of 35. That’s when they finally felt ready to bring a new life into the world. Typically, those people have been married for years and saving up money for even longer… But they weren’t financially ready until then.

Do those 35-year-old married couples count as adolescents? My question is, why wouldn’t they? They’re not fully adult, after all; they’re not ready (by their own standards) to have children. And 35 is by no means the upper limit; I had a friend in college whose parents had him, their first child, when they were 40. Between increasing standards of health (meaning earlier puberty) and increasing standards of education & societal complexity (meaning later earning power) It’s possible for people to be in a state of adolescence for thirty years.

So we’ve answered the question of how long it can be. But I have a better one: how long should it be? If we’ve arrived at a state of affairs where someone could possibly be in an uncertain twilight of semi-adulthood for three decades, what can we do about it?

One fairly obvious answer is, “Roll it all back. We’ve gone too far, so let’s revert to an older state.” Conservatives love this answer, since many of the things that we call “progress” — IE life liberty and the pursuit of happiness — infringe on conservatives’ desires to be the richest and most powerful person around. (Their medieval attitudes on reproduction suddenly make sense when viewed in conjunction with their desire to be, for all intents and purposes, medieval lords.) I can only speak for myself, but I think the advances in health, medicine, humanities and civility of our culture are worth the sacrifices we’ve made.

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t re-evaluate.

“My father once told me that respect for truth comes close to being the basis for all morality,” Paul-Muad’Dib writes in Frank Herbert’s Dune. I’ve always agreed with this sentiment. You can’t figure out the right thing to do unless you know all the facts. Right now, our culture’s ideas of “maturity” and “adulthood” are based on old and outdated information — for instance, the idea that people can afford college. It would behoove us to revise the definition based on conditions that exist now, not just what used to be true. Facts are always changing — maybe that’s why some people have such an averse reaction to them — and we have to change with them. Even Usul agrees; “This is profound thinking,” he continues, “if you understand how unstable ‘the truth’ can be.”

Adulthood comes in two parts (at least; one could have arguments about the social and moral obligations of an adult). Adolescence is the state of being in which one only partially qualifies for adulthood. It’s stretching longer and longer because complex societies simultaneously make one component of adulthood easier to attain while pushing the other further out of reach. Is this a problem? Not necessarily, but it’s certainly something our culture hasn’t adjusted to yet. We still think of “adulthood” as just being this thing that you’re either at or you’re not; it’s an on-off switch, binary. We need to adjust our thinking to accommodate the phases of (transitioning into) adulthood, and smooth them out if possible. After all, the goal of every society is to create a safe environment for people to make babies. A society that forces its citizens to delay procreation for decades is not exactly a step forward.

What can we do? I’m not certain. But I do know we won’t figure it out if we don’t even ask the right questions.

We don’t have the right to live in a world that satisfies our moral sensibilities. We DO, however, get to CREATE one. Here’s how we do it.