I’m a fan of old movies, the black-and-whites from the 1930s and 1940s, in part because of what they reveal about how American culture has changed. The adults in these films carry themselves differently. They don’t walk and speak the way we do. It’s often hard to figure out how old the characters are supposed to be”as though they were portraying a phase of the human life-cycle that we don’t have any more.

Take the 1934 film Imitation of Life . Here Claudette Colbert portrays a young widow who builds a successful business. (Selling pancakes, actually. Well, it’s more believable if you see the whole movie.) She’s poised and elegant, with the lustrous voice and magnificent cheekbones that made her a star. But how old is she supposed to be? In terms of the story, she can’t be much more than thirty, but she moves like a queen. Today even people much older don’t have that kind of presence”and Colbert was thirty-one when the movie came out.

How about Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, smoldering away in Red Dust ? They projected the kind of sexiness that used to be called “knowing,” a quality that suggested experienced confidence. When the film came out Gable was thirty-one and Harlow ten years younger. Or picture the leads of The Philadelphia Story . When it was released in 1940, Katharine Hepburn was thirty-three, Cary Grant thirty-six, and Jimmy Stewart thirty-two. Yet don’t they all look more grownup than actors do nowadays?

Characters in these older movies appear to be an age nobody ever gets to be today. This isn’t an observation about the actors themselves (who may have behaved in very juvenile ways privately); rather, it is about the way audiences expected grownups to act. A certain manner demonstrated adulthood, and it was different from the manner of children, or even of adolescents such as Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.

Today actors preserve an unformed, hesitant, childish quality well into middle age. Compare the poised and debonair Cary Grant with Hugh Grant, who portrayed a boyish, floppy-haired ditherer till he was forty. Compare Bette Davis’ strong and smoky voice with Renée Zellweger’s nervous twitter. Zellweger is adorable, but she’s thirty-five. When will she grow up?

In a review in the Village Voice of the film The Aviator , Michael Atkinson dubbed our current crop of childish male actors “toddler-men.” “The conscious contrast between baby-faced, teen-voiced toddler-men movie actors and the golden age’s grownups is unavoidable,” he wrote. “Though DiCaprio is the same age here as Hughes was in 1934, he may not be convincing as a thirty-year-old until he’s fifty.” Nobody has that old-style confident authority any more. We’ve forgotten how to act like grownups.

Maybe “forgotten” isn’t the right word, for the Baby Boomers fought adulthood every step of the way. About the time we should have been taking on grownup responsibilities we made a fetish of resisting the Establishment. We turned blue jeans and t-shirts into the generational uniform. We stopped remembering the names of world political leaders and started remembering the names of movie stars’ ex-boyfriends. We stopped participating in fraternal service organizations and started playing video games. We Boomers identified so strongly with being “the younger generation” that now, paunchy and gray, we’re bewildered. We have no idea how to be the older generation. We’ll just have to go on being a cranky, creaky appendix to the younger one.

Picture the World War II generation, returning home after seeing too much agony and bloodshed. The world had felt like a dangerous place for a long time. Their own parents had vivid memories of World War I, and their childhood years had included the starvation and misery of the Great Depression. And now here they were after the war, newly married and living in the new, quiet suburbs. As they looked at their tiny newborn babies, these brave young survivors felt a powerful surge of protection. They wanted their little ones never to experience the things they had, never to see such awful sights. Above all, they wanted to protect their children’s innocence.

In the days when large families lived together in very small houses, when paralyzed or senile family members were cared for at home, when families bred and slaughtered their own livestock, even the youngest child knew a lot about the facts of life. Until very recently, it was not possible to protect children from knowing such things. Nor was it thought desirable: Life was hard and dangerous, and the sooner you learned how to handle things, the better. But in the 1950s and 1960s there was a stretch of time in which parents could keep their children separated from the hard adult world until they were well into their teens.

That separation ended with the advent of cable television and the Internet. Now parents have to learn all over again how to deal with a world in which children can get at all the information adults can. The silver lining is that the generation gap has disappeared; today’s teens and twenty-somethings watch the same movies and listen to the same music their parents do. Less silvery is the fact that so much of this material is coarse and obscene, and even children’s entertainment is littered with potty jokes.

There doesn’t seem to be a way to stop this, but if it’s any comfort to you, it was probably the same in the time of Chaucer. Once again, as through most of human history, we’re not able to protect children’s “innocence” about the facts of adult life. We’ll have to figure out how to equip children to deal with these facts, as previous generations did. That will require parents to be more directive, more authoritative and “parental,” than Boomers have ever felt comfortable being.

The well-meaning parents of the 1950s confused vulnerability with moral innocence. They failed to understand that children who were always encouraged to be childish would jump at the chance and turn childishness into a lifelong project. These parents were unprepared to respond when their children acquired the bodies of young adults and behaved with selfishness, defiance, and hedonism.

The World War II generation envisioned a sharp contrast between childhood and adulthood: Childhood was all gaiety, while adulthood was burdened with misery and toil. The resulting impulse was to place children in a hermetically sealed playroom. Childhood, once understood as a transitional stage, was now almost a physical place”a toy-filled nursery where children could linger all the golden afternoon. Parents looked on wistfully, wishing their dear children could stay young forever.

As they say: Be careful what you wish for. When conservatives get nostalgic for the Ozzie-and-Harriett parenting of the 1950s, they should remember how the experiment turned out. The children got older, but they never grew up. They continued to show the same self-centered and demanding behavior that had fit so well with their parents’ desire to pamper and protect. They continued to expect that life would be arranged to please them, as it had been in the playroom. They ridiculed their parents’ values, slept around, and trashed all forms of authority.

Of course, when all the authorities have been trashed, the world doesn’t feel very secure. Anxiety hangs over a culture when adults act like children. The Baby Boomers rejected not just grownup life but grownups. They rejected the parents who had worried so much over them. If something looked like what grownups would do, Boomers wanted no part of it.

The most serious loss here is the project of education as it has been understood through most of human history. In earlier cultures, a child was at his parents’ side throughout the day, learning how to do things that were not just make-work chores but important contributions to the needs of the household. Childhood was going to be over very quickly.

By the time a child was twelve or thirteen, he would be thought capable of making binding life-long spiritual commitments”this was the traditional age for sacramental confirmation or Bar Mitzvah. By the time his body was fully formed, he would be expected to do a full day’s work. He could expect to enter the ranks of full-fledged grownups soon after and marry in his late teens. Childhood was a swift passageway to adulthood, and adulthood was a much-desired state of authority and respect.

The Boomers preserved their parents’ nightmare vision of adulthood as horrid and constricting. They communicated to their own children an urgent admonition to avoid this fate: “Be free,” they said. “Follow your dreams.” Be creative. Children were encouraged to see themselves primarily as creative artists, drawing on their rich inner resources to produce beautiful, if not entirely practical, works. The stories they heard reinforced the idea that the person to admire is the one who endures challenge and struggle in order to obey the muse.

Think for a moment of that 1946 Christmastime favorite, It’s a Wonderful Life . The message here is the exact opposite. George Bailey has dreams of being an explorer and traveling the world, but he keeps nobly setting these aside in order to care for his family. Nobody would make this movie today. In today’s version, George Bailey would have a screaming fight with his father, storm out of the house, hop on a steamer, circle the world, have dangerous and exciting adventures, and return home to a big celebration. His dad would then tell him, with tears in his eyes, “You were right all along, son.”

That kind of triumph doesn’t happen very often. If anything, despite their exhortations to risk all for your dreams, Boomers have raised their children to be cautious and risk-averse. Gen-Xers spend their first few decades, through graduate school, being closely observed by kind people who helpfully affirm or critique their every effort. They reciprocate with fondness and affection. Rather than rebelling, they often seem to wish they could be closer to their parents. A Time magazine article in January 2005 revealed that 48 percent of twenty-somethings phone or email their parents every day. They may feel insecurity about their place in the lives of those self-absorbed, carefully non-directive Boomers.

These years of extended schooling constitute a sweet life, but it changes abruptly when the graduate hits the sidewalk. Suddenly the child who has been raised on endless flexibility is faced with having to get to work on time, dress as expected, take breaks only at appointed times, and get up the next day to do it all over again. Life after school turns out to have a lot of inflexible rules, and children who’ve been raised on unlimited flexibility hit it like a brick wall.

In their 2001 book The Quarterlife Crisis , Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner describe how confounding this surprise is. They cite one young woman who wrapped up her academic career with a Master’s in flute performance and then discovered that it wasn’t a very employable skill. You can imagine how many professors and advisors over the years listened to her with shining eyes, and repeatedly told her she could do anything she wanted. It’s not her fault that she believed them. Boomers have been preparing their children for a life that doesn’t exist.

The Boomers as parents managed to go their own parents one better, extending the golden playroom all the way through graduate school. But the emphasis on unlimited possibilities turns out to be a new kind of prison. Many twenty-somethings find themselves immobilized by too much praise. They dare not commit to any one career, because it means giving up others, and they’ve never before had to close off any options. They dare not commit to a single career because they’re expected to excel at it, and they’re afraid they may only be ordinary. A lifetime of
go-get-‘em cheering presumes that one day you’ll march out and take the world by storm. But what if the world doesn’t notice? What if the field is too crowded, or the skills too difficult, or the child just not all that talented? It’s a sad but unalterable fact that most people are average.

Parents’ eager expectations can freeze children in their tracks. Even the command “follow your dreams” can be immobilizing if you’re not sure what your dreams are and nothing that comes to mind seems very urgent. It’s no wonder that today’s twenty-somethings feel unfocused, indecisive, and terrified of making mistakes. They may move back home after college and drift from job to job. They can be stuck there, feeling paralyzed for years, even a decade.

So what should we do? How can we recover a positive view of adult life and prepare future generations to move into it? The problem has many parts. The one I’m most interested in is the increasingly late date of marriage. The average first marriage now involves a twenty-five-year-old bride and a twenty-seven-year-old groom. I’m intrigued by how patently unnatural that is. God designed our bodies to desire to mate much earlier, and through most of history cultures have accommodated that desire by enabling people to wed by their late teens or early twenties. People would postpone marriage till their late twenties only in cases of economic disaster or famine”times when people had to save up in order to be able to marry.

Young people are not too immature to marry, unless we tell them they are. Fifty years ago, when the average bride was twenty, the divorce rate was half what it is now, because the culture encouraged and sustained marriage. But if we communicate to young people that we think they’re naturally incapable of making a marriage work, they will surely meet our expectation. In fact, I have a theory that late marriage contributes to an increased divorce rate. During those lingering years of unmarried adulthood, young people may not be getting married, but they’re still falling in love. They fall in love, and break up, and undergo terrible pain, but find that with time they get over it. This is true even if they remain chaste. By the time these young people marry, they may have had many opportunities to learn how to walk away from a promise. They’ve been training for divorce.

Late marriage means fighting the design of our bodies, and that’s never a fight we can win. In the Oscar-nominated movie Sideways , a small-time television actor in his early forties is about to get married. He embarks on a week-long pre-wedding debauch with his friend Miles”and he quickly sinks to depths that take even Miles by surprise. As Jack defends a particularly despicable act, he says, “I know you disapprove of what I’m doing. And I can respect that. But you just don’t understand my plight.”

Future historians will have to sort out our plight”how a whole generation could forget to grow up, while still attempting to raise a younger generation and lead the most powerful nation in the world through times of war and terror. The skills of adulthood are not ones we know how to use. Being kittenish, or obscene, or adorably perplexed”we can do that. But gathering the gravity and confidence that signals full maturity is beyond our capabilities. It’s not youth that passed us by, but adulthood.

Frederica Mathewes-Green writes and lectures on faith and culture. Her website is www.frederica.com and her most recent book is The Open Door: Entering the Sanctuary of Icons and Prayer (Paraclete).

Articles by Frederica Mathewes-Green

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