As the world hurtles mercilessly forward, our ability to fully grasp the world is slowly falling away. Although there never really was a time when we could have perfect knowledge of how the world worked, we at least had an illusion that we did. This collective illusion, known as adulthood, is now slowly slipping away.
While laws defining the age at which a child can give their consent have been around since the middle ages and certainly would have pre-dated this in the form of social norms, it could be argued that our modern idea of childhood really only came into being along with the industrial revolution. Only with the advent of mechanization could society afford to have such a large chunk of its workforce essentially exempted from labour. It was in 1819 that the first child labor law was passed, which stated that workers must be at least the ripe-old age of 9 years old before they can be employed in gainful work.
Along with this law, the dictates of childhood were established. Until the age of [insert modern definition of adult], you shall be free of the expectations of an adult. You will be free of the requirement to work. You shall not yet be considered to be responsible for your actions. You will also have fewer rights than adults and legally must always be under the care of a responsible adult. You will also be expected to spend a significant amount of your time in a place known as school, where you will learn the skills and knowledge needed to navigate the world.
Once you get through this process of childhood, you will pop out the other side as a fully formed human being. As an adult, you will finally have a command of the complex machinations of the world around you. You will become responsible for everything you do or don’t do, for good and for bad. You will know yourself, what it is that you want from life, and how to get it. You will be ready to join the “real” world. You will have a career that will provide for you for the rest of your life.
You will have a plan; you will be set for life.
Clearly, this was always bullshit.
Nonetheless, this seductive idea of adulthood was a comfortable and pragmatic delusion. It helped us feel powerful and in control in the world where our understanding was so very limited. I would argue that the illusion of adulthood was important factor driving the accelerated scientific and technological innovation through the 20th century. Embracing the idea that we each have the power to control our own lives led us to the parallel realization that we have the power to reshape the world around us to serve our needs.
The perception of adulthood is personal manifestation of the great man theory. A view that we are each independent actors in this world is just as false as the view that history can be broken into a string of important men acting independently of the world around them.
Let us take the criticism of the great man theory put forward by Herbert Spencer in the 19th century:
“[Y]ou must admit that the genesis of a great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown…. Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.”
This well-articulated criticism of our tendency to overvalue the importance of historic individuals could just as easily be applied to our modern view of ourselves. You must admit that the genesis of you depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which you appear… Maybe we each get to run our own race, but we don’t get to choose what race we are in.
In the modern world, with our increasing knowledge of the networks of interaction which rule everything from the biological to the sociological world, our view of history seems to have shifted away from the raw importance of individual actors. In parallel, it seems that our view of ourselves has also shifted away from the idea of the fully realized adult.
We realize now that the systems around us have a powerful influence on who we are and what we do in life. If we come from a [insert adjective] home and grow up with [insert adjective] education, there is strong likelihood that we will go on to live a [insert adjective life]. Violence breeds violence, ignorance breeds ignorance, and success breeds success.
Our realization that our freedom is imperfect and our control is incomplete, necessitates that we let go of the idea of true adulthood. We will never be fully prepared for a “real” world which does not really exist. In a world which is changing at an accelerating pace we will never be able to outpace our growing ignorance. We will never enjoy the luxury of careers and clear life plans which allowed our parents to set in their adult moulds.
The boiling down of a human soul into a singular purpose always was always rather cartoonish anyways.
Ironically, maybe childhood was the more truthful view the entire time. Childhood is something in between. It is a time when we accept our naivete about life, and we are open to change. We grasp only what responsibilities and capabilities that our knowledge allows, but we are also cognizent of our own imperfection. Children are a work in progress.
It would seem that a natural extension of childhood is already happening. We are living at home longer, waiting longer to have children, and staying in school longer. All of these things which would previously have been associated with childhood have been extended out over the years. In a future where work will become less and less the defining characteristic of our lives, I hope that we will be able to rediscover our fascination with the world and embrace of the positive aspects of childhood (creativity, freedom, happiness, love) and not the negative aspects of childhood (impatience, irresponsibility, ignorance).
Ultimately, as we begin to grasp the enormity of the universe around us we are left with a knowledge of our own imperfection and fallibility. In the face of the awesome we are all children.
This post was partially inspired by a self post on r/Futurology by Polycephal_Lee. “There are those that say idleness will breed laziness and contempt, but we can empirically observe a population of freeloaders who completely depend on others and contribute nothing: our children. Are they lazy assholes? No, they’re curious, thoughtful, happy, kind, friendly creatures. Essentially everything I want to be.”