Adulthood seems to be coming later and later for contemporary youth. Is there something in our culture which makes us shun the rights and responsibilities of maturity. MercatorNet’s US Editor Matthew Mehan speaks with American cultural commentator David Bosworth.
MercatorNet: Every generation sees its share of immature parents. Is there something particularly immature about this generation?
Bosworth: Rather than focus on one generation, a practice which too easily slides into the sort of blame game so favoured by our culture warriors, I would start the conversation by emphasising that the current epidemic of immature behaviour is part of an historical process long in the making — since the late nineteenth century at least. Transformations in America’s moral economy have shadowed and reflected the complete reordering of our material economy during this same period. The radical disruptions of two world wars and a long-lasting depression delayed and obscured the ethical, psychological, social implications of these changes, so that it wasn’t until the postwar period of relative peace and plenty that the profile of a new American character began to become clear — to be mapped by David Riesman, Christopher Lasch, and others.
The trend toward immaturity is intricately interwoven with the reorganisation of our material reality, including changes which most of us would acknowledge as genuine progress and would not want to surrender: our parents’ longer life spans, greater opportunity for women, and the material wealth generated by America’s unchallenged economic might after World War II. But the trend is also and more ominously a product of the decadent moral logic that drives our consumer economy. Prosperity, as it is defined by that economy, actually requires and so actively induces immature behaviour — rashness, imprudence, avidity, a slew of infinitely fungible adolescent expectations.
MercatorNet: What points of reference can we use to judge this age as less mature than the last?
Bosworth: I sense a request for some sort of sociological index, and given my intellectual biases, which flee from the so-called numbers, I can only supply a tongue-in-cheek one — say, the increase in cosmetic surgeries multiplied times the rise in illegitimate births times the frequency with which contemporary parents refer to their children as their "best friends." But I’m a mythos-minded thinker, and my serious assignment would be this. Read Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio, written circa 1880, and then watch Disney’s animated version released in 1940.
Everything you need to know about the demise of the American ethos is implied in Walt’s radical emasculation of the original’s theme. Collodi’s story dramatises the slow maturity of an impetuous boy who finally learns, in Chesterton’s words, how "to love the world without trusting it." In Disney’s version the moral message, as sung by the boy-puppet’s literal "conscience," Jiminy Cricket, is this: that "fate is kind," that dreams come true "out of the blue," that "no request is too extreme."
At least four generations of American kids have been raised on this hymn to narcissistic entitlement, which is the Disney Company’s virtual anthem. Please point me to any serious ethical or spiritual tradition that teaches its children that no request is too extreme. Then consider who it is that might profit from whole generations being raised on such boundless expectations.
MercatorNet: Parents often choose to imitate their own mothers and fathers when raising children. Is that not still the case? If not, why?
Bosworth: To influence your children in any meaningful way, whether modelled after your own parents or some counter ideal, you have to be in their physical company — you can’t email it in — and many parents today, for various reasons, are simply "absent without leave." The prevalence of broken families and illegitimate births has meant that many children have had no meaningful relationship with one of their parents, usually their fathers.
This tragedy has been compounded by time pressures placed on the domestic rhythms of intact families because both parents are working outside the household. In a privatising global economy with low wages and few benefits, many lower class couples simply cannot make it financially on one income. Middle class families feel a similar pressure in their anxious aspiration to provide "the best" for their kids — the best houses in the best communities with the best public schools, to be supplemented by all the necessary coaching, tutoring and associated equipment.
For these high-achieving parents, raised as they were on the tonic claims of technological progress, the model that tends to prevail is not adhering to family tradition but heeding the latest professional advice on the subject of parenting, which, like every other aspect of our society, is supposed to get "better and better."
Finally, exploiting that model of perpetual progress, the fashion economy more broadly holds tradition in contempt — all things new are supposed to be "improved" and the old parenting "style" becomes an embarrassment, the equivalent of wearing an Eton collar or a hat festooned with tropical fruit. When "hip" becomes the prevailing social and psychological measure, as it has in our consumer economy, then parents begin (to borrow a marketing term) "repositioning" themselves as their children’s best friends.
MercatorNet: In your previous writings you have noted a loss of the partition between the public and the private, a break down of the harmony between the home and the wider world. Please explain.
Bosworth: The modernising marketplace economy has generated tremendous wealth and genuine technological progress, but it has never been family-friendly itself. As identified early on by Thomas Carlyle, the ruling tutelary spirits of capitalism are Mechanism and Mammonism (rational efficiency for appetitive profit), and those linked sets of values narrowly applied cannot fashion a community of good neighbours much less supply a model for the loving self-sacrifice necessary for meaningful and effective parenting.
The paradoxical challenge of capitalism has always been finding ways to utilise its material means to insulate oneself from its potential moral depredations. The most common solution, beginning in early to mid-nineteenth century England, has been to take one’s profits to build a house for one’s family that is separate physically and so, too, psychologically and ethically, from the economic centre’s prevailing ethos.
Although reasonably successful in the past, that suburban solution — the attempt to construct, to borrow from Lasch, a "haven in a heartless world" — has become far more problematical today, and the reasons, briefly stated, are three in number. First, the sheer invasiveness of the electronic media has meant that the home’s "castle walls" can no longer keep out the economy’s propaganda. Second, the rampant privatisation of public spaces (enclosed malls replacing town squares as democracy’s primary meeting places) has made even the suburban "home town" a centre for commercial indoctrination. And finally, a point I emphasised in my essay "The Sacking of Wemmick’s Castle” with both parents often spending forty hours per week or more working outside the household, there is a natural tendency for the corporate ethos to skew the prevailing notions of responsible behaviour at home.
Good parenting is revised accordingly, gravitating toward managerial-style methods and goals such as the "play date" (scheduling efficiency), "quality time" (maximising productivity), and setting up a website for one’s newborn (publicising the company’s latest product line). As a consequence of all these forces, the values of Mechanism and Mammonism have begun to prevail inside the family’s "haven" as well as out.
MercatorNet: Is this a liberal or conservative problem?
Bosworth: It’s everyone’s problem, though selective blindness to it does tend to parse out differently depending on one’s political orientation. Cultural conservatives have been far more sensitive to the fragility of the family in postmodern times. Reasoning as they do out of traditional values, for example, they didn’t have to wait for "studies to be done" — all those sociological post-mortems — to recognise some of the dangers inherent in the divorce revolution.
And though I may disagree with the particular movies or books that offend them, they at least recognise that children do need to be protected at times from the excesses of "free speech" in the entertainment and information economies. All that acknowledged, cultural conservatives in America still tend to scapegoat individual "liberal" artists or thinkers and worry obsessively about Big Government. And they repeatedly ally themselves politically with the very corporate forces which are the primary determinant of our collectively shared and largely debased "moral field."
Liberals, by contrast, have a very healthy scepticism about corporate motives and behaviour, but are blinded to the ways in which their own thinking has been affected by the same moral logic that drives today’s marketplace. They miss, for example, the obvious connection between the current obsession with "transgression" in the arts and the academy and the permissiveness pitched by the fashion economy. And their tendency to believe in rational progress via science and technology, blurring the crucial differences between our moral and material beings, sometimes leads them to imagine that there can (and soon will) be a "technical fix” to the problems of human nature.
On the other hand, there have been some encouraging signs of late. In the last five or six years, Commercial Alert — a liberal non-profit group run by Gary Ruskin and associated with Ralph Nader — has teamed up with conservative pro-family groups to lobby against the commercial invasion of the public school curriculum via corporate ventures such as Channel One.
MercatorNet: Then, what is missing from family life in modern society? And how was it lost? Or taken?
Bosworth: What’s missing all too frequently, for the various reasons I noted before, are the parents themselves, as well as the extended families and stable neighbourhoods filled with lifelong friends, who together once supported parents in raising their children. What’s missing increasingly in our society is a confident understanding of how the responsibilities and associated behaviours of children and adults ought to differ and how being the best possible parent differs from being your child’s best friend.
What’s present in their place are a widespread fear of and contempt for ageing, an over-investment in what I call the bogus expertise of self-help specialists, and a confusion between workplace roles and domestic ones. What’s present — nearly omnipresent — is an entertainment economy whose invasive commercial messages convey the same themes as Disney’s Jiminy Cricket: that (so long as we purchase the right product or advice) fate will be kind and our dreams will come true out of the blue; that ours is an existence in which it is both plausible and ethical to believe that "no request is too extreme."
MercatorNet: Well then what is maturity? Who are the mature parents of today?
Bosworth: What does it mean to graduate, to marry, to come of age? Even in a fully rationalised society where the old rituals of transition have been routinely degraded, we expect (if all too vaguely) some sort of profound change in the meaning, feeling, and practice of everyday life after these common yet crucial borders have been crossed. There comes a time, the poet Wendell Berry once wrote, when we must cease being apprentices and become practitioners. Although a sculptor may have numerous assistants, he is the one in the end who signs the work of art, who is finally accountable for the quality of its achievement.
Maturity is that developmental stage in life when one becomes fully accountable — domestically, professionally, civically, even existentially. All human actions are inflected through the specific language, customs, economic skills, and spiritual beliefs of one’s tribe, and so the expression of maturity may assume many different forms. But as Joseph Campbell argued forcefully about the nature of the heroic myth, there is, I believe, still one superintending, if shape-shifting story. In that story, on the other side of the transitional divide, one acquires the rights and responsibilities of adulthood, the most universal and significant of which are the rights and responsibilities of raising children.
I have my own cluster of traits that I associate with parental maturity — so easy to enumerate, hard to fulfil. They include a commonsense intelligence, a metaphysical realism, a commitment to truth-telling (properly gauged to the age of one’s children), and a temperamental equilibrium that manages to counterbalance hope with humility, joy with a certain wariness about both the world and oneself.
But I bring no secret list of A-grade parents, and if I had one in hand, I don’t for a moment believe that it would graph out according to some predictable political or religious divide. My message is far more cautionary and collective. Behind the feel-good rhetoric we muster on patriotic occasions, we no longer live in a place and time that "wants" us to be mature — in parenting or anything else. The totally commercialised moral field of contemporary American life wants efficient producers and avid consumers. Driven to transform all values into "market value," it preaches the practices of efficiency for the purposes of avidity. It asks us to serve, as Milton put it, "the least erected spirit that fell from Heaven."
Associate Professor David Bosworth teaches creative writing at the University of Washington in Seattle. He is also completing a book on the demise of American virtue. An excerpt ("Auguries of Decadence: American Television in the Age of Empire") will be appearing in SALMAGUNDI this fall. Matthew Mehan is US Editor of MercatorNet.