The relatively modern concept of adolescence is continuously broadening its boundaries. Whereas this initially referred to those entering their teenage years on their journeys to becoming adults, post-university attendees are beginning to re-visit their teenage lifestyle following completion of their studies. Thus, the last ten years have seen a “second adolescence,” if you will, wherein instead of continuing onto adulthood following university, children return home to live with their parents, travel the world or begin a second degree simply to avoid the responsibilities and independence they feel looming over them.
The term ‘Coming of Age’ is a subjective one. Certain cultures, religions and societies interpret this very differently. ‘Coming of Age’ is split into two broad categories: when one enters adolescence like the Bar or Bat Mitzvah of the Jewish tradition which celebrates an entrance into adulthood at the ages of 13 or 12 respectively or, dependant on legal occurrences such as the rights to vote, drink, smoke, gamble in a casino, etc. I would argue that a new interpretation in the form of ‘second adolescence’ is gaining momentum and introducing a third category: those who have passed both aforementioned boundaries but still consider themselves to be “growing up” and not yet “grown up”.
This change is best reflected in the cultural offerings of each generation. Perhaps the most quintessential coming of age novel is ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ by J.D. Salinger, written in 1951 and narrated by teenage protagonist Holden Caulfield. Holden tells his story from the confines of a mental hospital or the like, at the age of 16 years old. Holden recounts exploring the independence that accompanies growing up such as travelling alone, interacting with women, thinking about sex and drinking alcohol. Holden, and those he interact with, demonstrate the various stages of adulthood, from approaching to becoming and the challenges that accompany independence and maturity.
Fast forward half a century and the themes of sex, drinking, complex adolescent relationships and teenage self reflection continue in the cult film ‘Mean Girls’, 2004. Cady moves from Africa, where she previously resided with her photographer parents, to the US and enters the emotional labyrinth that is High School. When the most popular group of girls show interest in being her friend, Cady enters a world of gossip, fashion and a minefield of meanness. The film ends with catharsis; Cady begins to understand herself and what is important in life, matures hugely and begins the first steps into adulthood.
So far, so predictable: teenage angsts are reserved solely for ages 13-18, college follows and so does implied maturity, a career and becoming Grown Up. Then came the American economic recession of 2007, which impacted upon the world, becoming a Global Recession in 2009. Jobs were lost, people were worried, money was scarce. This affected those studying University, or those a few years away from it; jobs were no longer guaranteed and hard to find which reflected on the ability to purchase a house, which suddenly seemed totally unachievable. So, the culture changed. Instead of the parents’ generation who went to school, went to university, got a job, bought a house, things were no uncertain and unclear.
Enter the second gap year – there are no ‘career’ jobs so why not travel the world on a budget? -, the second degree – there are no jobs so why not stay within the comfortable realm of student hood? -, and returning to the childhood home – there are no jobs so owning a home is beyond my reach, why not move back to my parents where I can live rent free?. This, mixed with the ease of travel meaning that, unlike previous generations, the entire world is within reach, and social media which puts pressure on youngsters to present a ‘dream life’, a perfect living, solidified the socially acceptable concept of a second adolescence.
This, of course, was reflected within the culture. Hit TV show ‘Girls’, 2012 – present, offers a realistic portrayal of twenty year olds struggling to find jobs, a reasonable place to live and a career focus after college. Far from the fabulous, put together women in ‘Sex and the City’, featuring four women who “have it all,” the women in ‘Girls’ are confused, lost and many are still reliant on their parents for money, affection or mothering. The second adolescence, however, extends far beyond the 20s age group, with films ‘Wild’, 2014, and ‘Eat Pray Love’, 2010, featuring women in their 30s and 40s whose marriages have collapsed and experience similar feelings of confusion and loss to the post-teens in ‘Girls’. Both protagonists choose to leave their lives and embark on a challenging journey, be it hiking 1,000 miles, or travelling the world.