are often stumped by things their parents, at the same age, would have considered basic: changing a tire, replacing a button, ironing clothes, applying for a job, and the like. A recent analysis of such practical torpor by psychologists Joseph Allen and Claudia Worrell Allen goes so far as to suggest that 25 years of age is the new 15. . . . They note, “We’ve worked with macho teenage boys—high school seniors who were more than able to take their licks on an athletic field or jousting with peers—who were reduced to near paralysis when told to go to a shopping center on their own and approach store managers about possible job opportunities. So far removed and so beyond them did the adult world seem that these teens felt unable to enter it alone, even in the most rudimentary ways.” Other researchers have pointed to the incomplete development of the adolescent brain as the source of adolescent troubles, but the Allens instead highlight the insular nature of the adolescent world. Adolescents, they contend, grow up in a peer-dominated bubble, cut off from adult contacts, adult roles, and the adult world in general (other than their parents). . . . Overall, the Allens suggest, this adolescent bubble makes it harder for young people to engage in more meaningful pursuits or to make more significant contributions.I have to say that when I was 15 I could no more have walked into a mall and asked for a job than I could have walked to the moon. And for just the reason Bowman suggests: I was utterly separated from adult society and regarded the business world as something more foreign to me than a Mongol tribe. I got all my high school jobs from a friend of my father's, whom I actually never met.
But there is more to it than that. It is hard for young people to do meaningful work, not just because they are outside adult society, but because what passes for meaningful work in our society is growing increasingly strange. I spent three hours this afternoon entering numbers in spreadsheets and comparing them to numbers in other spreadsheets, a peculiar activity that is called "management." Has any remote tribe ever done anything stranger? There was a funny moment in my house a few weeks ago when our youngest (8) said something about working in an office one day. Her older brothers, 16 and 20, launched into a chorus of, "An office! Ugh! The worst! How could anybody stand that?" as if she had said she wanted to work in a lead mine. So far as I can tell, that is how my sons really feel about offices, and in fact almost everything else our society has to offer hard-working adults. And why not? Is there anything less natural to humans, especially young, male humans, than office work?
If I had a farm, my sons would be quite useful. I could say, "fix that fence" or "tend those sheep" and they would. My eldest just bagged up all the leaves in the yard, a chore I really hate. If they could work their way gradually into adulthood doing chores that felt immediate and real and brought them a few dollars in reward, they would thrive. But that is not the world we live in. In our world, "work" means having to go out and establish a scary formal relationship with a stranger, master skills (selling lottery tickets, say) that seem bizarre and pointless, and then spend hours and hours in one place doing tedious things completely removed from your friends and family.
We are doing, it seems to me, everything possible to make it hard for teenagers to get jobs and otherwise function as adults. The more we consider people just as resumes, the harder it is to get started. The more work depends on specialized skills, the more depressing the working world becomes for twenty-year-olds. Especially twenty-year-olds more comfortable in the woods than in the sorts of places Americans work.
What we really mean when we say that ever more education and ever more specialized skills are needed to succeed, it seems to me, is that our world is getting very, very weird. What we do naturally is ever more useless. In many ways our civilization is an amazing success, but unless we find some way to make our working lives more fulfilling and better integrated with the rest of our world, I fear it will continue to bring as much misery and anxiety as happiness.