Arrested Adulthood: The Changing Nature of Maturity and Identity

Arrested Adulthood: The Changing Nature of Maturity and Identity

Arrested Adulthood: The Changing Nature of Maturity and Identity

Arrested Adulthood: The Changing Nature of Maturity and Identity


Why are today's adults more like adolescents, in their dress and personal tastes, than ever before? Why do so many adults seem to drift and avoid responsibilities such as work and family? As the traditional family breaks down and marriage and child rearing are delayed, what makes a person an adult?

Many people in the industrial West are simply not "growing up" in the traditional sense. Instead, they pursue personal, individual fulfillment and emerge from a vague and prolonged youth into a vague and insecure adulthood. The transition to adulthood is becoming more hazardous, and the destination is becoming more difficult to reach, if it is reached at all.

Arrested Adulthood examines the variety of young people's responses to this new situation. James E. Côté shows us adults who allow the profit-driven industries of mass culture to provide the structure that is missing, as their lives become more individualistic and atomized. He also shows adults who resist anomie and build their world around their sense of personal connectedness to others. Finally, Côté provides a vision of a truly progressive society in which all members can develop their potentials apart from the influence of the market. In so doing, he gives us a clearer vision of what it means to be an adult and makes sense of the longest, but least understood period of the life course.


As strange as it may seem, my desire to write this book on adulthood springs from my previous research into the nature of adolescence. That research revealed two features of adolescence that are contrary to most people’s commonsense conceptions of the period between childhood and adulthood: (1) adolescence takes different forms in different cultures and over time, and (2) adolescence is becoming longer and longer, especially in late modern societies. The second point led me to consider the possibility that for large numbers of people, prolonged adolescence—and more recently “youth”—now takes up much, if not all, of what in an earlier society would have been “adulthood.” That is, although we now live much longer, it appears that an increasing number of people are not “growing up” in the traditional sense of the word, or at least in the way many people have understood it. The reasons for this are many, but my analysis of the issue suggests that social, economic, and technological changes have been making it increasingly difficult for people to become the type of adult that was characteristic of the past.

During a 1994 publicity tour for the book Generation on Hold: Coming of Age in the Late Twentieth Century, I found that the most frequently asked questions concerned what the future holds for young people today, given the numerous hazards and difficulties they face. These questions pointed to a gap in our understanding of contemporary life. When I turned my attention to this type of question and examined the life stage that supposedly follows adolescence, I realized that the concept of adulthood is as vague as the concept of adolescence. Moreover, adulthood is a hazardous and difficult journey for many people, not a destination of safety and security that is reached once and for all. In other words, like most people I had taken for granted the notion of adulthood as a reference point from which other life stages are judged, viewing it as a static time of security, at least from the point of view of human development.

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