A melancholy expression, Ipod attached to skull, relentless sighing, the feeling of being deeply misunderstood: this is a day in the life of a teenager. And yet, according to Robert Epstein’s provocative book Teen 2.0, there is no reason for this. In his controversial review of anthropological, biological, and psychological studies, Epstein concludes that the phenomenon of adolescence (or as he calls it, “prolonged childhood”) is an artificial stage of life that does significant damage to young persons. Epstein attacks the basic foundations for the label ‘teenager,’ and proposes that the abolition of such age-determined groupings will lead to the disappearance of the troubled behavior typically associated with teens.
Epstein’s multi-disciplinary study of teenagers around the world reveals that a) the concept of adolescence is a recent occurrence, and b) that it is almost exclusively isolated to developed cultures with a highly-Westernized influence. According to Epstein, the period of life known as adolescence, characterized as a time of “troubled youth,” was sparked by post-Industrial Revolution social activists in the United States, whose original intent was to protect young people from being exploited by a burgeoning factory culture. Despite these noble intentions, these activists prolonged childhood artificially and eliminated the space within culture for capable young persons to exercise adult responsibilities. The consequences of these conditions have manifested in a couple of all-too-familiar ways.
In locating the core of the teen problem, Epstein argues that the false category of adolescence has two primary symptoms: infantilization, or the artificial extension of childhood beyond a reasonable biological/psychological cut-off, and the disruption of the child-adult continuum, the segregation of youth from adult communities. Culture gives minimal responsibility to persons ranging from ages 13-25.. This compartmentalization of age groups in significant social communities like the work, school, and church environments, assigns capacity on the basis of age rather than on competency. In short, young people are the victims of age-discrimination..
According to Epstein, it should come as no surprise that teens demonstrate anti-social behavior such as involvement in self-destructive practices, gang culture, or at the very least an animosity toward adult figures. These are by-products of an anxiety created in people that possess the capacity to handle adult responsibilities, but are not allowed the education or societal role to carry them out. Teens are not allowed access to challenging jobs, but are relegated to fast-food service. They are forced to sit in infantile youth groups, hearing sermons about teenagers who were ruling nations and being called into culture-shaping ministry. Teens are told that they should learn to regulate their own lives and live virtuously, but have no real authority over their own decisions to succeed or fail in cultivating these skills.
Although Epstein acknowledges that the social forces that incited this debilitating condition were well-intentioned, he has no kind words for those organizations and institutions that continue this form of age-based discrimination. Among the foremost offenders are government, industry, and education. Government, in Epstein’s opinion, actually strips young people of rights comparable to adults only a few years their senior. Labor regulations, for example, often disallow even capable young people from earning a minimum wage like that of their adult co-workers. Further, the Western industrial complex has built a 200 billion dollar market in perpetuating teen culture and spreading it globally. Then there are educational organizations that stifle the brilliant and frustrate the struggling by forcing all into arbitrary age-brackets. Common to all of these, though, is the idea that age is directly responsible for capability, which Epstein attacks as an affront to ongoing research data, exemplars among the teen community, and common sense itself.
Epstein suggests that Western cultures will see fewer troubling characteristics in adolescents if they give meaningful responsibility back to young people and reintegrate them into adult communities. At the core of these suggestions is a radical switch from age-based rights to competency-based rights. A young person should be able to test out of school early if they can demonstrate their competency (it is still widely difficult to do so). They should be able to apply for career track jobs if they are able to compete for a position. Likewise, adults and youth need to interact more often, with adults demonstrating adult life and mentoring youth. Epstein repeats again and again that by reestablishing the child-adult continuum, the anxiety of age-based discrimination and the destructive behaviors of teens will dissipate.
Ultimately, Epstein urges us to stop the age-discrimination and actually recognize teens for who they are: young adults.