We live in a careless age. Only this week, a survey – yet another survey – has revealed that childhood has been lost. David Cameron has made a speech arguing that adults have lost authority over the young. In his new book Tokens of Trust, the Archbishop of Canterbury had identified a loss of trust in public institutions and the political system. We have also apparently mislaid the ability to be decent parents, according to a report from an Education Select Committee.
But there is one area of private life, at least, where there is no sign of decline. The teenage years are growing fast and awkwardly. They tend to start well before 13 and often are only beginning to peter out at 25, or beyond. Just as childhood (playing conkers, climbing trees, riding bikes) is disappearing, so adolescence (snogging, fighting, sulking, getting drunk) is expanding. For beleaguered adults, it is all rather worrying; not since the days of Teddy-boys has the word “teenager” been freighted with such alarm and disapproval.
A sensible-sounding paediatrician, Dr Russell Viner, has suggested that there is now a dangerous mismatch between the legal view of teenagers and the way they are in reality. “We need to rethink age limits for young people,” Dr Viner writes in The Lancet. “The age of 18 is enshrined as the traditional age at which you become an adult but there is no sound biological basis for this.” It is contradictory, he argues, to expect a brain to understand calculus at the age of 16 and yet be too immature to vote. The time has arrived when adolescents should begin to assume roles and responsibilities appropriate to their true biological age.
It is right that this argument should come from the medical profession. The symptoms of dysfunctional teenage years – bloated livers, anorexia, pregnancy, depression, drug dependence, sexually transmitted diseases – are evident in surgeries and hospitals. For the same reason, it is understandable that Dr Viner is not entirely consistent in his case, arguing that, while teenagers should take on adult roles, the age limit for buying alcohol or tobacco should actually be raised.
But the broader case he makes is important. Treating teenagers like children when their bodies and – admittedly sometimes to a lesser extent – their brains are telling them they are adult is a recipe for social and personal trouble at time when the world offers an unrivalled playground for misbehaviour.
Politicians and commentators, most of whose children have enough educational opportunities to carry them into adult life with only a few bumps along the way, are often unaware of the frustration and crushing boredom of those who feel that they have outgrown the classroom or lecture hall and who want to be allowed to grow up. The adult world’s pressures and temptations, which bear upon those in their teens, need to be accompanied by a new trust in the young to make responsible choices on their own behalf. Growing up, rather than killing time until you are officially an adult, may bring difficulties but it is never boring.
There is harmful muddle at the heart of our approach. They are cosseted as if they were children, but then punished as if they were adults. The truth is that, in the real world, the teenage years are getting shorter. By the age of 16 or 17, they are more or less over. It is doing our children no favours when they are allowed to be moody, dependant and self-indulgent while taking advantage of life’s grown-up treats. Adulthood has arrived.
Soap stars deserve our scorn
Insecure and anxious to be liked, actors are not inclined to speak out of turn. Full marks, then, for Philip Glenister, of Life on Mars, who has taken advantage of his stardom to about the state of today’s TV. It is run by “a lot of fools”, he says. “They put fame ahead of talent and think someone from EastEnders will put bums on seats.”
From the perspective of the viewer, these opinions are not only bold, but perceptive. Glenister is right to single out the new obsession with soap operas for particular scorn. Soap actors such as Ross Kemp drift into other areas of drama; soap values are everywhere on TV. Whether Glenister is right in saying EastEnders is “up its own arse”, only its fans will know.
* Hello! magazine has secured the rights to take photographs at the wedding of Wayne Rooney and Coleen McLoughlin for £1.5m. Now, from the world of public marital life, a sadder story has emerged. When a member of Westlife, Bryan McFadden, married a fellow-pop star, Kerry Katona, in a Hello!-sponsored event in an Irish castle, it had all been a sham, he has confessed. “We were getting married to have a party and get loads of money for it,” he says.
It is too easy to blame famous airheads for flogging magazine rights to their weddings as if it were just another product. The £1.5m that Mr and Mrs Rooney will be receiving is one hell of a wedding present – certainly enough to banish any doubts, at least until the cheque arrives.
The Westlife man, meanwhile, is telling his divorce story in another celebrity magazine. Marriage, the birth of a child, divorce are all material in lives led as a glossy, well-paid photographic feature.