Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

Forever Young syndrome
Olivia Ward

On Main Street Canada any weekend afternoon, middle-aged women with tattooed ankles jostle cheek by jowl with 50-something men in T-shirts and jeans, 16-year-olds in belly-baring tops, and couples in their 30s with electro-shock brush cuts gelled to knife-edge peaks.

This, says Marcel Danesi, is the Forever Young syndrome in action: a non-stop teen trip affecting people from pre-adolescence to twilight years, and stretching the bounds of immaturity to the breaking point.

"It's a cultural disease," laments Danesi, a University of Toronto anthropology professor specializing in semiotics and linguistics. "And now we're into the final silly stages."

Danesi's book Forever Young puts youth under the microscope and finds it wanting: in this case, wanting more and more, but understanding less and less about the world.

Compiled from five years of research including more than 200 interviews with teenagers and their parents, the book focuses on the interplay of culture and consumerism that has made youth the altar at which most of North America worships.

"It's the commercial media entertainment economy at work," Danesi says. "Age is now considered a disease. Youth sells. There's a big emphasis on having it all: Good living, keeping your youth, having as much fun as you can. It's empty because there is no wisdom behind it."

The problem, 58-year-old Danesi explains, is not that people are trying to look younger, healthier and trimmer for longer. But they are assured by society that immaturity is a desirable, even normal state for adults. As a result there's a spreading sense of futility and dislocation: crucial decisions are made by people with the value systems of teenagers.

"People are simply not growing up," Danesi says. "The category of adolescence now embraces everything from `tweenies' before the age of puberty to people years and years older. Everything that keeps the culture thinking, reflecting, seeking understanding, is missing."

Until a century ago, he points out, adolescence was an almost unknown concept. The struggling masses that made up most of the world's population couldn't afford it. Toiling from an early age, children passed into adulthood almost seamlessly, and the two stages were divided mainly by sexual maturity.

But in the early 20th century, Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, focused on adolescence as a time of anxiety and confusion, as children struggle with the trauma of their new identity as adults. In psychology and child rearing, the idea of adolescence caught on.

Until the 1950s, "youth culture" scarcely existed. But as affluence grew in Western countries, the media and entertainment industries discovered the market potential of the young.

Adolescence became not just a transition period, but a permanent state of being.

It also became an industry.

By the 1960s, a "youthquake" shook the commercial world. Rebels without causes, troubled teens, Beatlemaniacs, potheads, hippies, total-life dropouts, all were setting a style standard, even as their elders wrung their hands over their views and values.

Back then, however, youth was a "counterculture," and adulthood still mainstream.

But in North America and much of the West, by the turn of the century teenagers were the dominant culture. They, and those who rushed to impersonate them, had taken over a huge share of the advertising, manufacturing, media, music, film and television industries. North American teens now pump more than $160 billion a year into the market, and surveys show Canadian teenagers have more than $100 a week to spend.

But, Danesi warns, what the commercial youth machine is churning out is often "youth at its most negative," promoting a feckless mentality that is ultimately damaging.

He likens the all-pervasive trend to Oscar Wilde's chilling novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, a book that showed the dark side of the pursuit of youth.

In it, the elegant young Dorian Gray, fearing the end of his youth, makes a wish that his portrait would grow old in his place. Under the influence of a corrupt, decadent friend, he descends into a world of instant gratification, depravity and murder, while remaining freshly handsome even as his portrait becomes steadily more hideous.

Wilde's parable of the high price of being forever young is even more relevant today, Danesi says.

The increasingly brutal nature of the youth culture, with its enforced conformity of dress and language, bullying, ostracism, gang violence and suicide, he says, is a sign that "something is terribly wrong."

So is escalating chronic depression, drug taking, anorexia and a pathological fixation on looks among teens and children of younger and younger ages, as well as their elders.

Social scientists have recently declared adolescence a condition that lasts well into the 30s. The American-based MacArthur Foundation's landmark study "Transition to Adulthood," concluded that it ends around the age of 34.

In our society, reaching the 30s heralds an increasingly feverish scramble to remain young. TV and magazine makeover features have shifted their focus from clothing and cosmetics to plastic surgery, much of it aimed at recapturing youthful beauty.

"What worries me is it might reach a tipping point," shudders journalist Geraldine Bedell of Britain's daily newspaper The Guardian. "It might become like cosmetics, hair dye or straight teeth, things people once lived comfortably without, but which are now almost required.... If I want to carry on looking, and more importantly, feeling young, I might have to have it."

And, she adds, it's all part of society's movement away from judging people by character, and judging them instead on "personality" signalled by appearance, with youth being the qualifying characteristic.

"The infantilization of contemporary society is driven by passions that are quite specific to our times," says British sociologist Frank Furedi of Kent University. "The understandable desire not to look old has been replaced by the self-conscious cultivation of immaturity."

One of the signs, he says, is the marketing of toys for adults, from computer games to cyber pets, stuffed animals and in-line skates. Cartoons are pitched to adults in increasing numbers, along with fantasy and adventure books, and comics that were once the province of children and teens.

Marketing big-ticket items as toys has caught on, too. The American auto industry was quick to seize on the buying power of "urban audiences," which are young, cool and shaped by the gangsterized hip-hop culture of young black city dwellers.

Even Cadillac, once the brand of newly rich suburbanites, made an astonishing comeback with its top-priced Escalade model SUV, now a hip-hop icon.

"It has been a totally great surprise," the company's general manager, Mark LaNeve, told Newsday earlier this month. "We can't take credit for it. We're too busy to know what's cool. We let the kids tell us."

Market testing the young and restless is now de rigueur for any company that wants to stay afloat. Much as anthropologists once observed the behaviour of exotic tribes, corporations now pay to watch how teenagers will respond to new products and marketing schemes.

But: "Teens responsible for establishing and broadcasting trends don't want to be part of the mainstream," says Peter Zollo, president of Teenage Research Unlimited, a Chicago market research firm. "They value their position at the top of the trend-adoption hierarchy or outside of it altogether."

As marketers "aggressively mine youth culture" and publicize their current favourite products, he says, the kids thumb their noses and move on. Then their elders eagerly snap up the discards as the dernier cri of cool.

Corporations aren't the only ones cashing in on the youth trend. Churches, too, are tapping the youth segment, with outreach activities like rock concerts and extreme sports. And at a recent meeting of the staid Davos World Economic Forum in Switzerland, curious moguls flocked to a panel on "How to be Hip."

However, Danesi insists, embracing the youth culture is not merely a flirtation with fashion victimhood.

Being "tough and cool," the dominant adolescent values, has deeper and more sinister implications for society. And he says, adults should look more closely at the young people they're emulating.

"The power of gang symbolism, with its tribal connotations, has probably much more to do with teen violence today than any of the traditionally accepted social causes," he concludes in Forever Young.

Teenagers, he says, are now less integrated into society, even as society tries to imitate their trends and habits. They have less meaningful contact with their elders and isolate themselves through language, as well as attitude.

Slang always existed. But now, Danesi says, instead of a fleeting fad that disappears as adolescents mature, it is a dominant part of the English language. It is also increasingly aggressive, ridiculing and obscene.

Teenagers' contempt for their elders is echoed in society's contempt for the middle-aged and elderly.

"Folk wisdom used to be respected, because it was something people could turn to in times of trouble," says Danesi, who spent part of his childhood in the Tuscan town of Lucca in Italy. "Now nobody looks to the old for solutions. And nothing else has replaced them. Society has lost its anchors."

Danesi says he has no magic formula for curing these social ills. But, he insists, we would be better off as teenagers and adults if there were a seismic shift in attitude to both.

It would include the radical step of "eliminating adolescence," by recognizing it as a transition to adulthood rather than a dominant stage of life.

He believes authority should return to the family, not through punishment, but by encouraging adults to offer guidance and mature examples for the young.

And, he says, the media should stop "juvenilizing" the culture and catering to the worst adolescent stereotypes.

Are today's teenagers a lost generation?

Danesi, who has a grown-up daughter and two school-aged grandchildren, is far from giving up on the young.

"I love teaching, because I learn so much from my students," he says.

"They're intelligent, they have great ideas and they're really motivated. They deserve the best world we can give them."

First published in the Toronto Star, 21 March 2004