Against Eternal Youth

[First Things, August 2005]

I’m a fan of old movies, the black-and-whites from the 30’s and 40’s, in part because of the things this time-travel reveals about how American culture has changed. One thing that’s struck me lately is how differently the adults in these films carry themselves, walk and speak. It seems adults used to have a whole different kind of bearing. It’s hard sometimes to figure out how old the characters are supposed to be. They seem to be portraying a phase of the human life-cycle that we don’t even have any more.

Take the 1934 version of “Imitation of Life.” Here Claudette Colbert portrays a young widow who builds a successful business. (Selling pancakes, actually. Well, it’s more believable if you see the whole movie.) She’s poised and elegant, with the lustrous deep voice and magnificent cheekbones that made her a star. But how old is she supposed to be? In terms of the story, she can’t be much more than thirty, but she moves like a queen. Today even people much older don’t have that kind of presence. A quick check at the Internet Movie Data Base reveals that Colbert was only 31 when the movie came out.

How about Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, smoldering away in “Red Dust”? They projected the kind of sexiness that used to be called “knowing,” which itself suggests experienced confidence. When the film came out Gable was 31, and Harlow was ten years younger.

Or picture the leads of “The Philadelphia Story.” When it was released in 1940, Katharine Hepburn was 33, Cary Grant was 36, and Jimmy Stewart was the baby at 32. Yet don’t they all look more grownup than actors do nowadays?

Characters in these older movies appear to be an age nobody ever gets to be today. This isn’t so much an observation about these actors (who may have behaved in very juvenile ways privately), but about what audiences at the time thought grownups acted like. A common coin of behavior demonstrated adulthood, and it was different from the way children, or even adolescents like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, would behave.

Yet today actors preserve an unformed, hesitant, childish quality well into middle age. Compare the poised and debonair Cary Grant with Hugh Grant, who portrayed a floppy-haired ditherer right up to his 40th birthday. Compare Bette Davis’ strong and smoky voice with Renee Zellwegger’s nervous twitter. Zellwegger is adorable, but she’s 35. When will she grow up?

In a review in “The Village Voice” of the film “The Aviator,” reviewer Michael Atkinson referred to the current crop of childish male actors as “toddler-men.” He wrote, “The conscious contrast between baby-faced, teen-voiced toddler-men movie actors and the golden age’s grownups is unavoidable…[T]hough DiCaprio is the same age here as Hughes was in 1934, he may not be convincing as a 30-year-old until he’s 50.”

Nobody has that old-style confident authority any more. We forgot how to grow up.

“Forgot” isn’t the right word; Baby Boomers fought adulthood every step of the way. About the time we should have been taking on grownup responsibilities we made a fetish of resisting the Establishment. We turned blue jeans and t-shirts into the generational uniform. We stopped remembering the names of world political leaders and started remembering the names of movie stars’ ex-boyfriends. We stopped participating in fraternal service organizations and started playing video games. We Boomers identified so strongly with being “the younger generation” that now, paunchy and gray, we’re bewildered. We have no idea how to be the older generation. We’ll just have to go on being a cranky, creaky appendix to the younger one.

How did this happen? I think that it’s one more example of the law of unintended consequences. What follows is the story of three generations: those who returned from World War II to start their own families, the “Baby Boom” children raised by these parents, and the “Generation Xers” now coming into their own. It’s not a story of blame. In each case, parents loved their children and wanted to do the best they could to make them happy. But in aiming at maintenance of happiness, they omitted some things necessary to become fully competent, confident adults. I’ll have to make some sweeping generalizations, and you’ll be able to think of exceptions to the rule. Still, the rule is so melancholy that it seems worth examining.

Picture the World War Two generation, returning home after seeing too much agony and bloodshed. The world had felt like a dangerous place for a long time. Their own parents had vivid memories of the First World War, and their childhood years had included the starvation and misery of the Great Depression. And now here they were, the peace of 1945 newly won, newly married and living in the new, quiet suburbs. As they looked at their tiny newborn babies, these brave young survivors felt a powerful surge of protection. They wanted their little ones never to experience the things they had, and never see such awful sights. They wanted to protect their innocence.

Let’s think about that word “innocence.” It has three possible meanings. The first is “vulnerability” which, if you think about it, is not technically the same thing as innocence. Yes, children are heartbreakingly vulnerable. Much of the pain of war and poverty is that it violates the weak and powerless. We feel urgency about protecting children from harm.

But even though children are vulnerable it doesn’t’ mean they’re innocent in the following two meanings of the word. One of these meanings is “ignorant.” The theory is that children should be kept innocent of knowing the things adults know. But this is a relatively recent phenomenon; in the days when very large families lived together in very small houses, when paralyzed or senile family members were tended at home, when families bred and slaughtered their own livestock, even the youngest child knew a lot about the facts of life. Until very recently, it was not possible to protect children from knowing such things. It was not thought desirable. Life is hard and dangerous, and the sooner you learn how to handle things, the better.

But in the 1950’s and 1960’s there was a rare stretch of time in which adults could maintain a separate world from their children, well up into the teen years. That ended with the advent of cable TV and the internet. Now that parents have to learn all over again how to guide their children, in a world where those children can access all the information adults can.

The silver lining is that the generation gap has disappeared; today’s teens and twenty-somethings watch the same movies and listen to the same music their parents do. Less silvery is the fact that so much of this material is coarse and obscene, and even children’s entertainment is littered with potty jokes. Somehow the word “butt” has become hilarious to young and old. There doesn’t seem to be a way to stop this, but if it’s any comfort, it was probably the same in the time of Chaucer.

Once again, as through most of human history, we’re not able to protect children’s “innocence” about the facts of adult life. We’ll have to figure out how to equip children to deal with these facts and navigate them safely, as previous generations did. That will require parents to be more directive, more authoritative and “parental,” than Boomers have ever felt comfortable being.

So the first two meanings of “innocence” are “vulnerability” and “ignorance.” The third is moral innocence. Here the idea is that children are little angels, untainted by grownup evil, an idea that owes more to Rousseau than Scripture. Yes, children rarely embark on very serious sin. But they are innately self-centered, and it takes years before they’re able to understand other people’s rights and feelings. There’s a reason we call certain behavior “childish.” And there’s a reason why parenting advice from the Proverbs of Solomon onwards has put the accent on “discipline.”

These well-meaning parents of the 1950’s confused vulnerability with moral innocence. They failed to recognize that children encouraged to be childish would jump at the chance, and turn childishness into a lifelong project. They were unprepared to respond when those children acquired the bodies of young adults and behaved with selfishness, defiance, and hedonism.

What’s more, the WW II generation had envisioned a sharp contrast between childhood and adulthood, in which childhood was all gaiety and adulthood was burdened with misery and toil. In the 1954 Broadway version of “Peter Pan,” the hero sings, “I’ll never grow up, I will never wear a tie, and a serious expression in the middle of July.” He goes on, “Cause growing up is awfuler than all the awful things that ever were.” It was a grownup that wrote that. It was someone who had lived through the Great War and the Depression, and knew what “awful” meant.

But the resulting impulse to place children in a hermetically sealed playroom was misguided. Now childhood became, not a transitional stage, but almost a physical place, a toy-filled playroom where children could linger all the golden afternoon. It was strictly separated from adult life, and adults looked on wistfully, wishing that their dear children could stay young forever.

As they say: be careful what you wish for.

When conservatives get nostalgic for the Ozzie-and-Harriett parenting of the fifties, they should remember how the experiment turned out. Those children got older, but they never grew up. They continued to show the same self-centered and demanding behavior that had fit so well with their parents’ desire to pamper and protect. They continued to expect that life would be arranged to please them, as if it were that perpetual playroom. They ridiculed their parents’ values, slept around, and trashed all forms of authority.

But when all the authorities have been trashed the world doesn’t feel very secure. Anxiety hangs over a culture when adults act like children.

The Baby Boomers got Peter Pan’s message all right, and rejected, not just grownup life, but grownups. They rejected the parents who had sacrificed and worried so much over them. If something looked like what grownups would do, Boomers wanted no part of it.

The most serious loss here is that the historic educational project of childhood was changed. Previously, childhood was understood as a period when young people were preparing for increased responsibility. The whole point was to put them on a path to adulthood, but Boomers had been trained to resent and reject adulthood.

In earlier cultures, a child was at his parents’ side throughout the day, learning how to do things that were not just make-work chores, but essential contributions to the household. Childhood was going to be over very quickly. By the time a child was 12 or 13 he would be thought capable of making binding life-long spiritual commitments, as seen by the traditional ages for sacramental Confirmation or Bar and Bat Mizvah. By the time his body was fully formed, he would be expected to do the equivalent of an adult day’s work, or even more if he was strong. He could expect to enter the full-fledged ranks of grownups soon after, and marry in the latter half of his teens. Childhood was a swift passageway to adulthood, and adulthood was a much-desired state of authority and respect.

A few decades ago life was pretty much a conveyor belt: you went to school, graduated, got hitched and started working. There wasn’t a gap of fifteen or twenty years during which you tried to find yourself. Economic realities wouldn’t permit it. But now, as the Boomers prepare their own children for adulthood, the situation has changed.

The Boomers preserved their parents’ nightmare vision of adulthood as horrid and constricting. They communicated to their own children an urgent admonition to avoid this fate, which can be summarized: “Be free.” Follow your dreams. Be creative. Children are encouraged to see themselves primarily as creative artists, drawing on their rich inner resources to produce beautiful, if not entirely practical, works. The stories they hear reinforce the idea that the person to admire is the one who endures challenges and struggle in order to obey the muse. Eventually, society catches on and hails the artist for his perseverance and inherent gifts.

Picture for a moment that Christmastime favorite, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The message here is the exact opposite. George Bailey has dreams of being an explorer and traveling the world, but he keeps nobly setting these aside in order to care for his family. Nobody would make this movie today. In today’s version, George Bailey has a big screaming fight with his father, storms out of the house, hops on a steamer, circles the world, has dangerous and exciting adventures, and returns home to a big celebration. His dad tells him with tears in his eyes, “You were right all along, son.”

That kind of triumph doesn’t happen very often. If anything, despite exhortations to risk all for your dreams, Boomers raised their children to be cautious and risk-averse. Gen Xer’s spend their first few decades, through graduate school, being closely observed by kind people who helpfully affirm or critique their every effort. They reciprocate with fondness and affection; rather than being rebellious, they may wish they could be closer to their parents. A Time magazine article in January 2005 revealed that 48% of twenty-somethings phone or email their parents every day. They may feel insecurity about their place in the lives of those self-absorbed, carefully non-directive Boomers.

These years in extended schooling constitute a sweet life, but it changes abruptly when the graduate hits the sidewalk. Suddenly the child who has been raised on endless flexibility is faced with having to get to work on time, dress as expected, take breaks only at appointed times, and get up the next day and do it all over again. Life after school turns out to have a lot of inflexible expectations, and children who’ve been raised on unlimited flexibility hit it like a brick wall.

In their book “The Quarterlife Crisis,” Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner describe how confounding this surprise is. They cite one young woman who wrapped up her academic career with a Master’s in flute performance, and then discovered that it wasn’t a very employable skill. Yet you can imagine how many professors and advisors over the years listened to her with shining eyes, and repeatedly told her she could do anything she wanted. It’s not her fault that she believed them. Boomers have been preparing their children for a life that doesn’t exist.

The Boomers managed to go their parents one better, and extend the golden playroom all the way through graduate school. But the emphasis on unlimited possibilities turns out to be a new kind of prison. Many twenty-somethings find themselves immobilized by too much praise. They dare not commit to any one career, because it means giving up others, and they’ve never before had to close off any options. They dare not commit to a single career because they’re expected to excel at it, and they’re afraid they may only be ordinary. A lifetime of go-get-em cheering presumes that one day you’ll march out and take the world by storm. But what if the world doesn’t notice? What if the field is too crowded, or the skills too difficult, or the child just not all that talented? It’s a sad but unalterable fact that most people are average.

Parents’ eager expectations can freeze a child in her tracks. Even the command to “follow your dreams” can be immobilizing if you’re not sure what your dreams are, and nothing that comes to mind seems very urgent. It’s no wonder that today’s twenty-somethings feel unfocused, indecisive, and terrified of making mistakes. They may move back home after college and drift from job to job. They can be stuck there, feeling paralyzed, for many years or even a decade.

We parents can do them a big favor if we back off the expectation that they will all be shining stars one day, and allow them to be as ordinary as we are. There comes a time to stop planning for the perfect life and just live it, imperfect and changeable as it is.

What to do about this situation? How can we recover a positive view of adult life, and prepare future generations to move into it confidently? There are so many threads in this mare’s nest that pulling any one will nudge all the others. The one I’m most interested is the increasingly late date of marriage. The average first marriage now involves a 25-year-old bride and a 27-year-old groom. As an old natural-childbirth instructor, I’m intrigued by how patently unnatural that is. God designed our bodies to desire to mate much earlier, and through most of history, cultures have accommodated that desire by enabling people to wed by their late teens or early twenties. Postponing it till the late twenties would occur in times of economic disaster, loss or famine, times when people had to save up in order to be able to marry. Now we face a kind of artificial disaster, in which schooling has been so dumbed down that a career once made possible by a high school degree now requires a Bachelor’s or even higher. People spend ever more years in school hoping to attain credentials for a career, when a high school diploma used to be enough to support a modest household.

Young people are not too immature to marry, unless we tell them they are. Fifty years ago, when the average bride was 20, the divorce rate was half what it is now. That’s because the culture encouraged and sustained those marriages, and expected them to work. But if we communicate to young people that we think they’re inherently incapable of making a success of marriage, they will surely meet our expectations.

In fact, I have a theory that late marriage contributes to an increased divorce rate. During those lingering years of unmarried adulthood, young people may not be getting married, but they’re still falling in love. They fall in love, and break up, and undergo terrible pain, but find that with time they get over it. This is true even if they remain chaste. By the time these young people marry they may have had many opportunities to learn how to walk away from a promise. They’ve been training for divorce.

Late marriage means fighting God’s design for our bodies, and that’s never a fight we can win. My personal hobbyhorse, in the project of restoring a viable idea of adulthood, is that of finding ways to support and enable young marriage. A couple of years ago I wrote a piece detailing some recommendations for this, which I gave the intentionally shocking title, “Let’s have more teen pregnancy.”

In a movie that appeared in the recent Oscar lists, “Sideways,” a small-time TV actor in his early 40’s is about to get married. He embarks on a week-long pre-wedding debauch with his friend Miles, but quickly sinks to depths that take even Miles by surprise. As Jack defends a particularly despicable act, he tells Miles, “I know you disapprove of what I’m doing. And I can respect that. But you just don’t understand my plight.”

Future historians will have to sort out our plight, how a whole generation could forget to grow up, and still attempt to raise a younger generation, and lead the most powerful nation in the world through times of war and terror. The skills of adulthood are not ones we know how to use. Being kittenish, or obscene, or adorably perplexed – we can do that. It’s the gravity and confidence that signals full maturity that is beyond our capacity. It’s not youth that passed us by, but adulthood.

Frederica Matthewes-Green

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

Marriage and FamilyThe Culture