Arrested Adulthood: The Changing Nature of Maturity and Identity.
The vast majority of the extant sociological literature concerned with specific life stages focuses on childhood, adolescence, youth and old age. Adulthood, on the other hand, remains as under-elaborated as it is taken for granted in the social sciences. At the same time, adulthood functions as a disciplinary boundary for those sociological sub-disciplines who have youth or 'old age' as their focus--leaving it little more than a default category wedged between two vigorously debated stages of life. For these reasons alone Arrested Adulthood deserves attention.
Indeed, Cote remarks that adulthood 'now constitutes the longest, but the least understood, period of the life course' (p. 2). This is commensurate with the widely accepted prolongation-of-adolescence-thesis and the concurrent notions that adults, just like adolescents, are said to increasingly exhibit 'a desire to experience as much pleasure as possible and to avoid responsibilities indefinitely' (p. 2).
In Chapter 1, Cote contextualizes the transformation of an unproblematic, socially embedded adulthood to a "psychological adulthood' in the ongoing dissolution of normative structures and the decline of socially recognized transitionary markers throughout modernity. The author then goes on to differentiate between passive 'default individualization' and active, deliberate 'developmental individualization' in order to analyse actors' action orientations towards their life trajectories. Consumer-corporate interests are said to have benefited from and perpetuated the default option; popular culture thrives on the illusory notion that individuality comes about 'by selecting the right wardrobe or developing slight affectations in speech, behavior, or appearance' (p. 34). Thus an increasing number of adults are seen as taking the 'paths of least resistance' rather than acquiring 'self-discipline, in order to develop advanced skills, aptitudes, and attitudes' (p. 34).
Following a brief excursus on social-scientific and subjective views of adulthood, Cote turns to a 'civilizational' critique of the United States: increasing violence, an increase in the number of single-parent families, an escalation in time spent watching overtly violent and sexual television programmes and a decline of trust and political participation are key aspects singled out by Cote. Putnam's (1995a, 1995b, 1996) work is utilized as 'evidence for this decline in civic society and social capital' (p. 69) as a result of increasing atomization and 'the technological transformation of leisure' through TV (p. 72).
The widening experiential gap between parents and their 'offspring' in contemporary society is, for Cote, a clear reminder of Margaret Mead's 'prefigurative' culture, while Riesman's concept of 'other-directedness' fulfils the subjective requirements of the author's 'culture-identity link' (pp. 86-92). Furthermore, drawing on Lasch's (1979) work he makes the point that narcissism combined with other-directedness finds ideological support in a culture that fosters other-directedness because it 'entails being flexible, adaptive, and situational' (p. 96). Bly's (1996) indictment of 'sibling society' is added to the above critique as another poignant estimation of contemporary US society, before the author turns to a sharp rebuke of postmodern theories of the self. Here Gergen attracts particular criticism for his celebration of life as 'the candy store for one's developing appetites', the playground for 'saturated selves' (Gergen, 1991: 104). For Cote, this constitutes an endorsement of 'elements of personality disorders' (p. 105).
Erikson's 'identity crisis'--the unsuccessful reconciliation of ego identity, behavioural characteristics and social roles--is used to further elaborate Cote's thesis that erstwhile pathologies (e.g. narcissism) have been normalized. For to be in a continued state of flux regarding one's identity matches the demands for 'flexibility' as a prime requirement for the successful navigation of life in a destructured world. At the same time, intergenerational connections that once served as guidance on the path to mature adult identities are said to be replaced by popular (mass) culture as a source of 'ersatz identity' (p. 125).
Cote then moves from psychological and psychoanalytic concerns with identity to some sociological literature. Here Furlong and Cartmel (1997) are not so much singled out for their contributions to youth studies, as they are selected to further support Cote's critique of post-modernity. Giddens's (1991) and Beck's (1992) theories are chosen as representative of sociological endeavours at theorizing contemporary individualization processes. Foremost in Cote's reading are both theorists' concerns with individualization and he draws both on Giddens's concerns with 'reflexivity' and the requirements of biographical planning as illuminated by Beck to shore up his advocacy of 'developmental individualization' as an exit option to contemporary cultural dilemmas.
Continuing his appraisal of contemporary North American/Western societies, Chapter 5 draws comparisons with Huxley's Brave New World, a world that, according to Cote, 'resembles the corporate-capitalist mass society of late modernity with its popular culture increasingly penetrating every aspect of people's lives' (p. 161).
This is followed by the author's contention that, over the course of the past 200 years or so, the market has come to replace the institutions of the family, education and the state as normative structures, only to gain primacy in contemporary society, with 'an elite group of adults ... "profiting" from this development' (p. 166).
The rise of the market as a normative institution was accompanied by the 'discovery' of adolescence as a distinct life stage. Its subsequent 'pathologization' is said to be central to an enduring ageism that precludes young people's 'full participation' in society (p. 168), although at the same time they are recognized as key contributors to the consumer market. Thus, the corporate-capitalist consumer market has everything to gain from people's reluctance to grow up.
The author then outlines his vision of the fully developed individual with his 'identity capital model' (which closely resembles Bourdieu's 'capital' in its various forms). Cote divides his model into 'tangible'/'sociological' and 'intangible'/ 'psychological' assets. As the term suggests, 'identity capital' is envisaged and expressed in the language of investment and exchange. The author's recommendations are worth quoting at length:
To be a player in ... [the identity] markets, one must first establish a stable sense of self, which is bolstered by social and technical skills in a variety of areas, effective behavioural repertoires, psychological development to more advanced levels, and associations in key social and occupational networks ... [These] are apt to involve skills in negotiating life-passages with others, such as securing validation in communities of strangers and obtaining membership in the circle and groups to which one aspires ... [The sociological, 'tangible'] features include educational credentials (educational capital), fraternity or sorority and club or association memberships (social capital), personal deportment (e.g. manner of dress, physical attractiveness, and speech patterns), and the like. Tangible resources should be effective as 'passports' into other social and institutional spheres, inasmuch as they are needed to get past the 'gatekeepers' of various groups in which one wants to be a member, as well as to be accepted by established members ... [The] more psychological factors ... like the holding of commitments, ego strength, self-efficacy, cognitive flexibility and complexity, critical thinking abilities, moral reasoning abilities, and other character attributes ... can give individuals certain vitalities and capacities with which to understand and negotiate the various social, occupational, and personal obstacles and opportunities they are likely to encounter throughout late modern life. (pp. 209-10)
In the concluding section of his book, Cote advocates a 'universalizing consciousness' and a 'caring particularism' to stem the tide of moral degeneration and the concurrent reproduction of 'half-adults'. He does not elaborate on how this might be achieved, although Sweden is cited as evidence that intergenerational 'quid pro quo' arrangements are possible in democratic societies.
There are three main propositions Arrested Adulthood makes that can further our conceptualization of adult life. They concern (1) the emergence of psychological adulthood as a result of detraditionalization; (2) the market as both the progenitor and beneficiary of a perpetual 'youthhood'; and (3) the problematic normalization of 'disembedded' identities against an increasingly fluid structural background. Aspects of (2) and (3) in particular warrant critical consideration.
First, in an attempt to grapple with the 'political economy of adulthood' (p. 3), Cote bases his cultural critique chiefly on the machinations of 'corporate-capitalist mass society' and its detrimental effects on identity formation. Although he makes a strong case for the profitability of the youth market (i.e. popular culture) to the US economy and thus corporate-capitalist interest in young adults' consumption habits, Cote's critique goes only half-way: it ignores an increasingly precarious labour market as a central component of contemporary adulthood.
Second, qualifications to the contrary notwithstanding (p. 210), Cote does precisely what he attributes to postmodernists: having uncovered the multidimensionality required of late-modern identities, he ultimately concedes that an adaptation to the exigencies of late modernity is indeed the only 'way out' for individuals. His advocacy of an investment-of-the-self-approach delivers him unwittingly to what he perceives as the other side of the debate. Thus, what the author initially criticizes as a naturalization of other-directedness and narcissism in a society that elevates 'being flexible, adaptive, and situational' (p. 96) to normalcy, eventually becomes Cote's own prescribed remedy. By extension, the lines he so clearly draws between 'default' and 'developmental' individualization are considerably blurred, and one begins to wonder how different from the much-criticized passivity in the face of corporate capitalism a conscious, reflexive, adaptation to structural demands really is. One suspects that Cote's decision to omit his dichotomous approach to individualization from his typology of adults ('for the sake of simplicity', p. 198) and to opt instead for 'the more generic notion' (e.g. Beck's) would have been a beneficial strategy throughout. For his reliance on an all-too-clear-cut binary distinction brings to light a central theoretical weakness of the book: its failure to take into account issues of access to the accoutrements of 'developmental individualization'. No amount of qualification can circumvent socio-economic issues, especially when one of the central propositions rests clearly on individuals' necessity to acquire a specific habitus in order to more fully participate in community life.
Considering the analytic problems adulthood as a concept poses for the social sciences, I was particularly interested in Cote's conceptualization. Indeed, the author is very clear about what adulthood isn't and what it should be. Focusing on 'actual behavior' (p. 56), he arrives at salient characteristics an increasing number of adults are said to exhibit: they are selfish, narcissistic, hedonistic, other-directed, irresponsible, opportunistic impression managers, avoid commitment, have an exaggerated sense of their needs and wants and indulge in ceaseless lifestyle experimentation, to name but a few of the symptoms diagnosed. If we juxtapose this with Cote's thought-provoking proposition that adolescence has undergone a historical marginalization through processes of 'pathologization' (Chapter 5), one cannot but arrive at the conclusion that the author is now, in turn, 'pathologizing' adulthood. This, of course, further bolsters the prolongation-of-adolescence-thesis, albeit in a way contrary to the author's intentions: for the constructed pathologies of adolescence, whose sedimentation as taken-for-granted reality in the social sciences is so vehemently criticized by Cote, are vindicated by the author as he transfers their locus to adulthood. Furthermore, he adheres resolutely to a conceptualization of 'standard adulthood' (Lee, 2001) and uses this normative model in order to prescribe what being 'grown up' ought to be all about. In refusing to accept that adulthood is subject to an ongoing redefinition and that therefore a return to 'traditional adulthood' is impossible, he negates contemporary adults' ability to create guiding meaning structures against and commensurate with the changing conditions he analyses. On this point it is well to remember H.A. Katchadourian's words: 'we assume young people to be what is convenient to adults for them to be ... we then get upset when they are not' (1978: 55).
No matter how carefully Cote negotiates the cusp between sociology and psychology, he ultimately sides with the latter in his efforts to find a solution to the maladies of culture. This is not surprising as his neo-Eriksonian perspective is complemented by no more than a fleeting gesture to the voluminous sociological literature on identity. And so, his recommendations amount to little more than an investment plan in the 'identity market'. How late-modern adults are to accomplish this while negotiating the thin line between self-interest and egocentrism--let alone having to deal with the pitfalls of self-blame should they fail to 'realize their potentials'--remains unclear.
Cote has undertaken the difficult task of critically engaging with a stage of life that is being redefined 'as we speak'. As an emergent typology adulthood, now the 'longest but least understood' (p. 2) stage of life, is marked by a considerable lag between persistent and often no longer appropriate normative ideals, and individual attitudes and practices. But it can only be perceived as 'arrested' when the beliefs, attitudes and behaviours of contemporary 'grown ups' are superimposed on the sociocultural exigencies of another time. Thus, the attempt to come to grips with the transformation of contemporary adulthood, that is, the ongoing redefinition of the 'what' and 'how' of adult life, remains a formidable challenge to sociology.
Beck, U. (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, trans. M. Ritter. London: Sage.
Bly, R. (1996) The Sibling Society: An Impassioned Call for the Rediscovery of Adulthood. New York: Vintage.
Furlong, A. and F. Cartmel (1997) Young People and Social Change: Individualization and Risk in Late Modernity. Buckingham and Philadelphia, PA: Open University Press.
Gergen, K.J. (1991) The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life. New York: Basic Books.
Giddens, A. (1991) Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Katchadourian, H.A. (1978) 'Medical Perspectives on Adulthood', in E.H. Erikson (ed.) Adulthood. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Lasch, C. (1979) The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Lee, N. (2001) Childhood and Society: Growing Up in an Age of Uncertainty. Buckingham and Philadelphia, PA: Open University Press.
Putnam, R.D. (1995a) 'Tuning In, Tuning Out: The Strange Disappearance of Social Capital in America', PS: Political Science and Politics December: 664-83.
Putnam, R.D. (1995b) 'Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital', Journal of Democracy 6: 65-78.
Putnam, R.D. (1996) 'The Decline of Civil Society: How Come? So What?', Journal of Public Sector Management 27: 27-36.
School of Sociology
University of New South Wales