If adolescence now lasts until 24, what does that mean for the rest of us?

Yvonne Roberts
‘Childhood and youth have lost their vital exclusivity: young friends pose for a selfie.
Photograph: Getty Images

In medieval times, childhood ended at the age of seven, with the arrival of a supposed understanding of right from wrong. Childhood and adolescence have constantly been refashioned. Last week it received its latest round of remodelling.

Scientists have announced that adolescence, previously thought to end at 19, now stretches from 10 to 24, and they recommended that laws should be changed to take this into account (considerably raising the criminal age of responsibility in England and Wales from 10 would be a start, but is probably not on this agenda.)

In the journal Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, lead author Professor Susan Sawyer writes that early onset of puberty (as young as 10 for some girls), the continued development of the brain and body into the 20s, and delayed partnering and parenting means the “semi-dependency” that characterises adolescence has expanded.

“Age definitions are always arbitrary,” she writes, but “our current definition is overly restricted.” It certainly is.

Even in my lifetime, chronology is no longer what it was. Sixty years ago, anyone in middle age and older was expected to stick to Crimplene, cardigans and sensible shoes. Mini-skirts were for the young. Every decade had its wardrobe. Now, demography is in revolt. Then, 40-year-olds had grandchildren but now they are as likely to be pushing prams with their own newborn on board. And while some children dress like celebrity twentysomethings, grannies emulate the Kardashians.

When I was at school in 1960, we learned (very little) about reproduction via rabbits; today’s 12-year-old can access an unmediated encyclopedia of pornography. Today’s technology is helping to dismantle, brick by brick, the walls that once protected the innocence of childhood. And the rum ironies don’t end there.

“Acting like an adult”, for some, is now a journey of reverse adolescence. The mature teenage years (no ciggies, alcohol or underage sex ) eventually segue into older age, shedding spouses, responsibilities and much of the pension on experiential risky living. “Live gig? Awesome!”

Childhood and youth have lost their vital exclusivity – and, in some senses, we are back where we began.

Several hundred years ago, “child” expressed kinship, not age. Children, expected to be economically active, dressed much like grown-ups (in rags or riches); they were witnesses to what adults got up to in the boudoir, which was also often the family sitting room, cattle pen, lavatory and workshop. Now children can again access all areas, via the screen.

“Semi-dependency”, of course, can be a plus. Greater contact may encourage sharing new ideas, exercising tolerance (it can, of course, also lead to civil war). In ITV’s Transformation Street on Thursday, the love and pride that a West Yorkshire man, Ian Dawson, expressed for his daughter Juno, formerly James, was a tribute to the capacity of some modern families to adapt – gay, straight, trans, blended, separated, biological and non-biological et al. Cruelty exists, but so too does parental care and affection in all its diversity, however long or short the adolescence.

However, one of the strongest influences on social development has always been economics. Teenagers, for instance, emerged in the 1950s when they spent wages on a scale unknown before; rebels with a consumer cause. So, today, what is really coming first? Is it improved knowledge of the human condition, or pressure created by unregulated capitalism, house prices, low wages and unaffordable childcare delaying parenthood. Is that why adolescence – aka living under the same roof – is extending?

Regardless of the answer, the ability to process failure, manage risk, understand the consequences of your own actions and when to blame mum or dad for your bruised inner child, can take a lifetime’s training. That training begins with resilience, a sense of agency, income and, above all, independence.

Without that, for parents and children, it becomes so much harder for us all to learn how to grow up.

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