Joe McKendry

What happens when society misunderstands entire age-groups?

Imagine a world without the concept of adolescence. This was America 150 years ago. School was for children; postpubescent teenagers entered the adult world. In 1904, the establishment of adolescence as a social category got a decisive push when G. Stanley Hall published an influential two-volume work called, naturally, Adolescence. Hall posited that adolescence is a psychologically distinct time of conflicting and often extreme emotions, and popularized a special term for it. Today, we can barely imagine life without the concept. In a world where adolescence is an accepted fact, teens are enfolded in all kinds of institutions and norms that guide them to maturity. Still more important, we have a narrative for adolescence: that the challenges and difficulties of the teenage years are part of a normal transition. Generally, we encourage teens to reach out if they feel confusion or turmoil, and, if they do reach out, most of us have the good sense not to mock them.

Like adolescence, the happiness dip at midlife is developmentally predictable, and can be aggravated by isolation, confusion, and self-defeating thought patterns. Like adolescence, it can lead to crisis, but it is not, in and of itself, a crisis. Rather, like adolescence, it generally leads to a happier stage. In short, although adolescence and the trough of the happiness curve are not at all the same biologically, emotionally, or socially, both transitions are commonplace and nonpathological. But one of them has a supportive social environment, whereas the other has … red sports cars.

— Adapted from The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, by Jonathan Rauch, published by Thomas Dunne


This excerpt appears in the May 2018 print edition with the headline “Don’t Worry, It’s Just a Phase.”

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