In the 1990s, most people who played video games were teenagers. Now the average gamester age is nearly 30. Cultural products aimed at tots and preteens capture the attention of adults. “SpongeBob SquarePants,” intended for the 6-to-11 age group, draws almost 19 million viewers from the 18-to-49 crowd. Some famous museums, uncomfortable with their adult role as guardians of historical memory, have gone adolescent, staging exhibits on motorcycles, hip-hop and “Star Wars” movies. Many college courses, even on major campuses, make rainy-day activities at summer camp seem profound.
Such examples of America’s descent into perpetual adolescence populate Diana West’s provocative “The Death of the Grown-Up.” Ms. West, a columnist for the Washington Times, argues that the country is suffering a case of arrested development, with teen tastes and desires eclipsing traditional adult conduct and values. A good deal of evidence supports her. An obsession with play and self- expression and a resistance to limits — conventional hallmarks of adolescence — are increasingly strong “adult” themes too. Ms. West’s style is impressionistic. She collects comments, anecdotes and occasional statistics to bolster her case that the 1960s war against authority lives on in the lives of middle-class grown-ups. The attitude of rebellious teens — that adults are idiots — percolates through the culture and is standard fare in sitcoms and TV ads. Ms. West quotes the cultural critic Lionel Trilling writing that “making a life” — or shaping the self by closing out certain options — had once been “salient in the West.” By the late 1960s, Trilling felt, it no longer was.
Ms. West’s principal claim is convincing, but her argument, at times, shades into nostalgia and conventional culture-war rhetoric. She quotes Frank Sinatra at a 1945 performance telling his screaming fans to pipe down — they were bothering the grown-ups. (Those were the days.) Similarly, she approvingly quotes psychiatrist Francis Braceland saying that the music at a rock concert was “cannibalistic” and “a communicable disease.” Sinatra is quoted again, this time saying in the 1950s that rock ‘n’ roll is “the most brutal, ugly, degenerate expression it has been my displeasure to hear.” But Sinatra, a great musician, moved toward at least a grudging admiration for the music that had supplanted his own among the young. Ms. West picks on U2’s Bono for assuring Grammy night fans that he would continue (warning: euphemism alert) “[messing] up the mainstream.” Despite this over-the-top remark, Bono makes a poor target. His work against AIDS has been inspiring and fully adult. Though she deplores the 1960s, Ms. West maintains that the countercultural rebellion of the young was actually set in motion a decade before. She writes: “The revolutions of the 1960s begin to look like a mopping-up operation, a rearguard action to eradicate an already doomed ancient regime: the adults.” And again: “It was in the 1950s that the adult was pushed aside even before most baby boomers were even out of diapers.” It is true that ’60s rebelliousness didn’t spring into existence overnight: Tensions over conformity mounted during the 1950s, and civil-rights unrest began then. But adults had not yet been “pushed aside.” Having grown up in Teaneck in the 1950s, I can attest that New Jersey’s ancient regime was in sturdy shape throughout the period. The Ike era was no revolutionary time.
The 1920s is a far better place to begin detecting the seeds of adolescent revolution, but Ms. West thinks not. She finds “no mention of teen-age problems” in the famous Middletown studies done in Muncie, Ind., in the ’20s and ’30s by Robert Lynd and Helen Merrill Lynd. But in fact the Lynds noted the rising conflict in Middletown between parents and their young. Arguments about too much drinking (this was during Prohibition) and staying out too late were common. The automobile, mass produced and available to ordinary families, offered the young the means of forming peer groups and a place to have sex. The Roaring ’20s were a shock that did much to loosen parental controls. A familiar argument holds that the rebellion of the 1960s might have occurred decades earlier if the Depression, World War II and the recovery period of the 1950s had not intervened. By not noticing the forces unleashed in the ’20s, Ms. West misses a chance to analyze the 1930s youthquake that might have been.
Another question for Ms. West: If American adults are emotional slackers stuck in arrested development, who is responsible for the innovations and incredible wealth generated by the economy? Accepting restraint and boundaries is important, as Ms. West says, but painting outside the lines is important too. Instead of founding their company in a friend’s garage while they were in their mid-20s, Larry Page and Sergey Brin might still be waiting their chance in a traditional top-down business. And if their project were finally approved, it would not carry a name as juvenile as Google.