At fifteen, my grandfather left home and became an apprentice to a chicken-feed dealer (later he worked himself up until he became a very rich man, but that is beside the point). My father and I both happened to leave home at eighteen. Fast move forward. In the US between 2000 and 2011, the number of women aged 25-34 who lived with their parents went from 8.3 to 9.7 percent. The corresponding figures for men were 12.9 and 18.6 percent, a vast increase indeed. These changes have been accompanied by others, such as allowing people up to 26 years of age to join their parents’ health insurance (in the US, under Obamacare) and extending the licenses of “child psychologists” so as to enable them to treat 25-year olds (in Britain).
Crowning the process is the rise in the age at which people have their first child, which is now the highest in history. Even so, the above figures only form the tip of the iceberg. They are the last—for the time being, at any rate—stages in a process of compulsory infantilization that, in all Western countries, has been going on ever since the industrial revolution. Some of the earliest moves were made in Britain during the middle decades of the nineteenth century when parliament first limited the number of hours young people could be put to work and then gradually prohibited them from working at all. Then as now, some of those involved in the efforts were true “philanthropists,” as the phrase went. Others, though, had less lofty motives in mind. Either they were trying to eliminate competition from small family-operated enterprises, as big business did; or else they hoped to increase wages, as trade unions did.
Today, things have reached the point where anyone who suggests—as, famously, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich once did— that it might be good for teenagers to do some work will face a storm of disapproval. And yet, as thinkers as far apart as Aesop, St. Benedict, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud have recognized, working and earning one’s keep as one of the most important ways in which people can maintain their own self-respect and take up their place in society.
Meanwhile, youngsters who were not allowed to work had to be looked after. Traditionally doing so was the job of mothers. Especially middle-class ones who neither had the money to hire substitutes nor were compelled to work by economic necessity. Starting the 1960s, though, the advent of feminism led to a vast increase in the number of women who worked outside the home; meaning that they could no longer do as they used to.
Partly as a result, the school-leaving age was raised still further. Until, in many countries, it reached eighteen. Nor did graduation from high school necessarily end the confinement of young people. Increasingly, those of them who went on to college found the latter acting in loco parentis, supervising and chaperoning them as if they were unable to act responsibly. Linguistic usage reflected this fact. The phrase “college men” used to be standard but has been on the decline since its peak in the 1920s. By contrast, “college kids” has been steadily rising until, in 1996, the curves showing the frequency at which the two expression were used intersected.
Meanwhile, more and more children who used to walk or cycle to school are now either being “bused” there or driven by their parents. Statistics show that the maximum distance from home at which they are allowed to roam on their own has been falling. Instances when parents who allowed children aged ten or so to play, unsupervised, in a park near home were threatened with having their offspring taken away from them are on record. In many cities those under sixteen, or seventeen, or eighteen, now face a curfew; meaning that, unless they are accompanied by an adult, they are no longer allowed to be on the streets at night. Amidst all this the age of consent has been rising. The more years young people spend at school and the better educated they are, apparently, the less able there are to resist the appeal of sex and to handle it responsibly.
Briefly, young people are increasingly being treated as if they cannot look after themselves. Not in respect to work. Not in respect to study. Not in respect to freedom of movement, not in respect to drink—in the US and some other countries, one must be over 21 in order to enjoy it—and not in respect to having sex. All for their own, good, needless to say.
But that is not half of it. For as long as humans have existed, the moment at which young people of both sexes were separated from each other was considered a critical step on their way to adulthood. Normally this took place when they reached puberty or slightly earlier. Now we are told that, in Norway and Sweden, recent reforms in the military have led to male and female recruits being made to share the same bedrooms as if they were not yet twelve years old.
The ultimate insult to both men and women, I would say.