Working with so many young people for so long has led me to reflect more on the nature of adolescence, the good, the bad and the ugly! It seems that the main task of adolescence is gaining independence. Its a journey from a dependent childhood to adulthood, for some it is a long journey, maybe even lasting 20 years or longer. In the UK many factors recently have prolonged the process, expanding higher education, prolonged debt and financial reliance on parents, marriage happening later (if at all), a globalising job market which is more unstable and temporary. Adolescences involves a painful trade off – from the comfort of enjoying the benefits of childhood to the uncertainty of emerging into adulthood. It takes courage and resilience to leave the nest, and a success-addled culture is leaving less space for failure.
Its increasingly obvious that the main task at university, at least at undergraduate level, is socialisation. Belonging, establishing the more responsible settled patterns of adulthood, this is whats going on at many universities – with 18- 22 year olds. Lectures, essays and exams, although important really take a back seat to the challenge of leaving the nest. It is when they start to specialise at masters and postgraduate level that the knowledge acquisition and contribution come to the forefront. I have observed that the big universities are very poorly equipped to take the pastoral duties of accompanying young people in their quest to become adults seriously. Often this is reflected in their student satisfaction ratings. Here in Manchester it is notable haw many of the Chinese students seem so miserable. The Confucian model of learning is more holistic, with a stress on virtues and the development of character, something that hard pressed lecturers don’s have any time for.
Adolescence in many ways an exciting time, with an emerging creativity often linked to rebelliousness, hope, idealism and a youthful beauty. But there is a dark side of adolescence which American Bill Plotkin calls ‘pathoadolescence‘. This is defined by being hostilely competitive, violent, superficial, materialistic, greedy, tribal and ultimately self-destructive. Interesting he argues that it spawns a variety of cultural pathologies, resulting in contemporary societies that are class-stratified, violent, racist, sexist, ageist. Certainly when one looks back at the political discourse of this last year this analysis seems to ring a few bells. It also maybe that the speed of our technological change fuels these trends, Sherry Turkles book Alone Together – is certainly worth reading. Her basic thesis is that our digital age of relentless connection leads to a new solitude. We turn to new technology to fill the void,but as technology ramps up, our emotional lives ramp down. Could this lead to a new phenomenon ‘Regressive Adolescence?’ .