Maybe there are no adults in the room

Posted on under Today's research

An interesting study shows we may have to rethink our whole concept of childhood and adulthood.

What the researchers say: The value of adulthood as a period of certainty has declined for many, which means that this period is being delayed and adults are preserving signs of infantilism, the researchers behind the new study argue.

Traditionally life is divided by age ‘child – young person – adult’ but, the researchers say, this is not quite relevant today. Too many things have changed: the pace of life, approaches to education, social roles and institutions, marriage, and professional identity. People’s life courses have become less predictable. The beginning of adult life has changed. Finally, the value of adulthood is being questioned, and infantilism is becoming a common phenomenon.

From a psychological perspective, adulthood implies self-regulation, emotional maturity (rationality, self-control, lack of impulsivity, etc.), responsibility, ability to self-reflect, and the need to work and have stable relationships. Adults strive for success in their professions and in family life. Some psychologists emphasize the importance of the motives of affiliation and achievement. It is important for a person to define his or her civil and social position, lifestyle, etc.

Infantile personality, on the contrary, is characterized by immature feelings (‘childish’ reactions, lack of willpower, lack of confidence), external locus of control (other people are blamed), inflated self-concept, low demands on self (accompanied by high demands on society), and egocentrism. “An infantile person seeks to escape the need to adequately assess objective social reality,” said the lead author.

In other words, maturity is associated with successful mastering of the key social roles: professional, spousal, and parental. But more and more people are delaying this choice and valuing it differently. People are spending more time in search of themselves and are taking longer to get an education and choose a partner. As a result, the process of professional and personal identification is taking longer.

Demographic data show that the age of separation from parents has shifted from 18-20 in older generations to 23-25 for those born during the 1980s.

Almost one-third of the generation born between 1980 and 1986 believe that they rushed into independence too early. “A fairly large and growing proportion had apparently taken the decision lightly and later regretted it,” the researchers say.

Delaying adulthood is a response to the new reality, many scholars believe, at a time when everything is changing.

A number of new ‘ways to live’ have been discovered. Alternative models of adulthood have evolved. People’s life courses have become unpredictable. For example, people earn a degree, work, and then study again and change their profession. People can leave their parents’ home, but then come back and extend their ‘childhood.’

Educational choices have an ‘unknown expiration date’ (due to the unclear future of professions) and, according to other research (see previous TRs), cause lack of confidence. As a result, young people tend to become escapist and delay important decisions. Instead of choosing a strategy, they limit themselves to tactical solutions in various spheres of life and delay their final (‘adult’) choices.

Conditions for socialization have changed. Communication has largely gone online, and is mediated by digital technology and devices: gadgets, mobile apps, social media, messengers, etc. But such contacts are superficial, the researchers emphasize. Studies have shown that when live communication is replaced with digital communication, empathy decreases and ‘autistic-like behavior’ grows (self-absorption, escaping reality). This leads to emotional immaturity.

The sociocultural environment has also changed, and traditional roles are being devalued. “The goal ‘to be happy’ is being replaced with the goal ‘to be successful,’” the researchers write. “The traditional values are seen as an obstacle for young people who are willing to become successful by any means.” With all these powerful changes of environment, infantilization looks like a logical phenomenon.

Many scholars argue that adulthood is no longer an unconditional value. For example, a study on attitudes among 5th-graders today revealed that they are not willing to grow up. Young adults are in a similar situation. “The contradictory image of the future… frightens a young person and encourages them to stay ‘in childhood,’ where there were no problems and the life was stable and safe,” say the authors. It turns out that infantilism in this case is almost a conscious choice.

‘Legitimation’ of infantilism can also be related to its assessment as a protective mechanism, a way to overcome the difficulties in life. In modern terms, infantilism just an alternative life course.

Infantile people also tend to need authoritarian figures—parental ones—to look after them. Hence the current number of authoritarian presidents, perhaps. What a horrible thought to leave you with.