Will the Kids Ever Grow-up? An Interview with Diana West

Albert Mohler | President, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary | Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Will the Kids Ever Grow-up? An Interview with Diana West

September 27, 2007

Nationally syndicated radio talk show host Albert Mohler recently interviewed author and columnist Diana West about her new book “The Death of the Grown-Up: How America’s Arrested Development is Bringing Down Western Civilization.” 

Albert Mohler: I have to tell you I was anticipating your book. One of the major issues of my own writing and lecturing is about this “delayed adulthood”—this extension of adolescence. How in the world did this happen? 

Diana West: I think it’s been a long time coming and I think it’s something a lot of us recognize but have that same question, “How did this get started?” I think that a lot of it has to do with the period immediately following WWII—the 1950s, not the 1960s as is commonly thought. We had a period of economic boom. We had a brand new youth market that was created in response to a lot of money in the pockets of children—actually preceding the Baby Boom—and you see a transfer of cultural authority going from adults to young people at that time. This, of course, was only emphasized once the Baby Boomers started to come of age and go to college with what we see in looking back at the 1960s.

Albert Mohler: One of the things that most concerns me about this history is that you have the development of this new species known as the adolescent—a term that until Stanley Hall started using it wasn’t even really known to Americans. The old distinction was between child and adult, but now there’s this third creature, this adolescent, and then we start warehousing them in high schools.

Diana West: Right. It’s interesting that you use that term [warehousing] because, of course, the great, large, enormous public high school is a relatively new feature of common life. These large high schools—and junior high schools, too—brought kids into a world where they were dominated by other kids and the adult influence was suddenly literally very small and that’s another factor in some of this development.

There was also a new sense that adolescence was a period not just to grow through, but really something to focus on and to treat as a be-all and end-all period of our existence. And I think when you talk about this third creature—the adolescent—I think, unfortunately, it’s where we’re “pushing our kids too soon” and it’s where we’re leaving ourselves long after we grow out of it. So it’s almost like we’re morphing into a large adolescent being.

Albert Mohler: And at least socially, psychologically and spiritually speaking a lot of people are not growing out of it at least until their 30s.

Diana West: Well, hopefully they finally emerge. There’ve been some scientific studies where they’re actually trying to name “34” as the end of adolescence, which is kind of mind-boggling.

Albert Mohler: It will mean the end of the race—the end of the species, eventually. Because how far out can this go? You have the delay of marriage, the delay of child bearing and this has huge social impact.

Diana West: It really does. And there’s also this sense of questing for an identity, which can be very attractive to a young person, but this continues on and on. One of the things I tried to explain in the book is how this actually had an impact beyond the family circle, beyond the local, personal experience. I think that this delayed sense of adulthood—this kind of pressure to not become mature—has also had repercussions for who we are as a people.

We used to talk in the 1980s and 90s about the so-called culture wars which had to do with the Western-dominated canon being replaced by a more multicultural canon in the schools and universities and so on. And this was all very well and theoretical. But, of course, after 9/11 I felt these questions come back with a much greater urgency because, again, we are facing these same issues: Who are we? What is a Western identity? What is liberty based on? Does jihadist Islam allow for coexistence? These are the kinds of things that I think are deeply related to our failures to grow-up.

Albert Mohler: One of the symbols of a failure to grow-up is that we now have adults, who may even be the parents of adolescents, who are dressing like adolescents. You actually mention this in your book. In fact, let me read a few of your words: “These days, of course, father and son dress more or less alike, from message emblazoned t-shirts to chunky athletic shoes, both equally at ease in the baggy rumple of eternal summer camp.” That’s pretty scary.

Diana West: It is. One of the things I looked back to was that wonderful novel by Booth Tarkington called “Seventeen.” People sometimes talk about it as the first novel about teenagers and it was written about 100 years ago. The plot turned on the 17-year-old boy wanting to stand out from the other 17-year-old boys when a pretty young girl moves to town. And the way he does that is by sneaking out with his father’s tuxedo. In other words, he wanted to look like a grown-up. And you think of it now in terms of what a 17-year-old boy who wants to impress a girl wants to look like and it’s a completely different self image.

Albert Mohler: You talk about “the unbearable lightness of being a grown-up today. A condition that belies the ever thus canard that our social order is no different than the one our parents inherited.” What are you talking about there?

Diana West: I think a lot of people will say this to me, “Haven’t we always been this way? Hasn’t the most recent generation always rebelled against the generation in control?” And certainly that is a natural human impulse. But I think there’s a huge difference between now and say post-1950. Through this decline in adulthood that I try to trace in my book, we come to a mainstreaming of the counter-cultural pose, the eternal rebel, the anti-authority figure that we think of in student radicals from the 1960s or rock-and-roll seams [in the culture]. It has changed what used to be the middle-class backbone of the country.

I think that everyone is fairly bohemian at this point in terms of representing, reflecting a certain standard of behavior. So in our time we don’t really have anything to rebel against. It’s almost like everything has been done to a large extent. And you don’t have that reflex, moralistic backbone that once upon a time turned back, for example, a lot of the social upheavals of the 1920s.

In addition to being one of Salem’s nationally syndicated radio talk show hosts, R. Albert Mohler, Jr. is the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky  and recognized as one of America’s leading theologians and cultural commentators. For an extensive library of ministry resources from Dr. Mohler, including his daily blog, visit www.albertmohler.com.