My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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perpetually liminal: are we refusing to grow up? what does this mean?

Many of the texts i’m reading these days are talking about the move from childhood to adulthood and the liminal/transitional stage in-between. Although the concept of “teenager” is relatively new (created during the American depression to keep younger people out of the workforce), most societies have a transition period between childhood and adulthood. Of course, girls’ transition has been historically marked by menstruation while boys tend to go through some ritual of moving into adulthood. In almost all these texts, adulthood is seen as a desirable state to be in, full of all sorts of privileges. It is assumed that children want to move into adulthood and that part of the liminal stage is about taking on adult privileges (sex, drinking, …) while still having childhood responsibilities (a.k.a. few). In most societies, the key to the transitional phase is the removal from the core community to a separate one and then a return…

Contemporary American society has really stretched the liminal stage to include mandatory high school and socially required college. Rather than moving into adulthood at menstruation/male strength periods, we have another 10 years to wait before we are deemed adults. We don’t even leave home until 18 even though menstruation has dropped to 12 and below. With the liminal stage stretched out, there’s a drastic increase in participating in adult behaviors with childhood responsibilities.

I started thinking about Burning Man (yes, i bought tickets this week) and how, in many ways, it is a celebration of this liminality. We all go to the desert to act like some peculiar combination of adults and children, represented in the imagination by romping around, making ourselves all messy, sex & insobriety, building large Lego-esque projects, having little responsibility. I was also thinking about rave culture. On one hand, we are all trying to take on privileges of adulthood – sex & insobriety, lack of curfew – while working hard to look like small children – big painted eyes and phat pants that create the impression of child-like proportions, bright colors, pacifiers.

I’m kinda torn in resolving all of this. In many ways, i feel like half of my generation doesn’t want to grow up while half is working hard to do so. How much of this has to do with our inability to inherit certain other privileges of adulthood (power, money) and our lack of interest in dealing with adult responsibilities that are getting increasingly harder like money and health? As adults live longer, there is more pressure to remove youth from the workforce, from any position where they can compete. How much is this fucking with the dynamics? How much is the generational divisions and the efforts to legally regulate young people (both now and in their futures by faulting them for their youth) part of adults’ need to maintain power at risk of losing it to a larger liminal generation?

When the idea of teenagers was created during the depression, schooling became mandatory. In some senses, this was ideal because it meant that a larger portion of the population was prepared for the future. But over time, a high school diploma no longer served as a ticket to a better life. And then it was college. And then it was graduate school. What next? And what about the fact that we no longer have a construct of “success” for working class kids? By removing unions and life-long well-paying factory gigs and government jobs with pensions, we’ve turned “success” into a game that can only be acquired through pre-existing privilege or a lottery (becoming a “star”). This really marginalizes a huge chunk of today’s youth culture. What if you aren’t really meant to be college bound? What then? The service economy is not exactly appealing. No wonder drugs are continuously rising both because using them lets you escape and dealing them provides a way out.

It seems to me that we’re running full speed into a crisis stemming from a build-up of pushing off moving into adulthood, increasing doubt about the opportunities of adulthood and the complete failure to provide necessary support structures for the population. I’m not sure i have my head entirely yet…

Am i crazy? Can we really have a stable society without a feasible success route for non-knowledge workers? Can we really function with adulthood being pushed off into the mid/late 20s?

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12 comments to perpetually liminal: are we refusing to grow up? what does this mean?

  • silona

    Actually I was a bit upset at BM last year – because I do not view it as the safe playground it is sold to me by friends. I knew about the radical self-reliance in regards to the desert – just not the rampant perves running about. ew.

    And to be honest I don’t view things like BM as a reversion. Instead I view this part of society as redefining things. I did the house in the suburbs thing and hated it. I have noticed that certain companies (cough cough google) is encouraging this level of play in their employees for the sake of creativity. It makes for better workers. If you use more of your brain – you become smarter.

    And I applaud the Burning community – the one is austin is awesome. We have a fair amt of working class artists and less geeks with money. But then that is in many ways more austin. less money less stress … it’s nuturing.

    The BM projects also have an atmosphere of learning and creating and doing that we don’t find in schools anymore. I find my work is better if I have time to do art. And we have lots of people willing to teach each other how to weld, fix a veggie car etc etc

    And I personally believe that we isolate a large percentage of our population not with college but with a lopsided educational system that only targets one or two learning types at best – leaving half of the population out in the dark. I think many people can have those “higher” level jobs if taught properly. (I used to work at ITT until the corporate crap there got to me.) I completely focused in on talking and teaching the hands-on verbal people that traditional get left behind. So many of them thought that they just weren’t smart. They did some pretty amazing film and computer graphics and networking projects after the dust settled. Man, I had this one student that cannibalize his little sister’s old toys to make these battling robots …

    Most colleges focus on the structural learners and the visuals if there are lucky. It is sad to be losing all those people that learn from doing. We used to have apprenticeship to teach them. And let’s not forget those whose strength is organizing groups and people – where is their learning structures. We are leaving a large chunk of people behind – that become demotivated and lost. it’s sad…

  • mrc

    Your point about a missing model of “success” for working-class kids is a good one. I think that word is behind a lot of your initial question. In many ways, this is a question of values. If people don’t see value in taking on traditional adult responsibility, then of course many costly cultural artifacts will arise (as you ably characterize in ravers and burners) from the fertile ground of their disposable income.

    Speaking from a lengthy experience within that liminal space, a small but growing dissatisfaction driven by values can provoke change in the individual. That is, extended childhood is not a dead-end path to brain-dead consumerist adulthood. But you are right to worry about that — let me tell you, after you’ve been a kid for 25+ years it’s definitely a shock to wake up to the reality of the world as it is. None of the tough social problems went away. And none of them are going to get solved unless we really take the time and resources to address them.

    If you dwell on this for too long, it gets depressing. Come to think of it, perhaps this discomfort is part of the motive force driving us to party so hard in the limial space — to try to find meaning there which we can hold up against these difficult problems and this hard world. Or maybe that was just me.

  • Fascinating observations. I agree with the lack of defining success for the young adult. I recently graduated with a Computer Information Systems B.S. degree (double meaning there). My student loan debt is equal to two years income at the job the degree landed me. Assuming my difference between income and trimmed to death expenses remains the same, it will not be paid off until my unborn child is in college. Is that success?

  • Mike Lewis

    In my view, today’s liminal period IS the college experience. It has all the traditional characteristics. It’s the first time (usually) an individual goes away to a foreign place, is relieved of responsibility, and goes through various rites of passage.

    While there are still “growing up” experiences after college, i do believe that our society does see a college graduate as an “adult.” Many people, myself included, have spent many nights pondering what’s goign on with the world and the roles we play. But i don’t think that this makes us any less “adult” i just think this means we’re constantly moving on a journey, and constantly growing.

    Kundera says “At the beginnings of one’s erotic life, there is arousal without climax, and at the end there is climax without arousal.”

    What sucks is that we are all getting older and i personally am going to try to hang on to arousal as long as possible.

  • It comes down to choices, I live a young mans life well into middle age because I can. My Grandparents had to go to work at 9, my father went off to war at 17.
    I keep fit and healthy appreciating life as a gift and I’m celebrating with every breath.

  • I think college is a great thing, and it seems to me that over the next 50 years America’s college graduates will create a pool of smarter, more informed, more savvy human beings. The US will increasingly become a knowledge & service economy, while people around the world (with an elementary school education) make its goods.

    Is that good? Hell no. But it’s darwinism and it works.

    There will always be the kids that drop out when they get their first paycheck from McDonald’s and can buy rims, but no one should be encouraged to do that.

  • Part of the problem may be that college is no longer necessary for learning knowledge-worker job skills; many of the most successful people in technology didn’t attend traditional college at all, didn’t graduate, or didn’t study anything related to the fields in which they are now knowledge workers. Summer interns at tech companies can often do just as much as recent college grads with degrees in computer science; my world is about the practice of software engineering, not the construction of algorithms or VLSI’s.
    Knowledge-work is learned by doing. I just might go and learn Scheme this weekend because it might be helpful for my job to think of data/code fluidity in that particular way; this will be a very different experience than learning Scheme as a freshman in order to do the coursework.
    College requires more maturity and personal drive than working for a decent manager in the industry. No way is a professor going to ask you for weekly updates on your month-long homework assignment, or work with you to load-balance between various tasks. I think young techies would do well to learn-by-doing just as much as they need to get their first job, then work until they know what they want to learn about, and why… and only then go to college.
    I’m ideologically interested in programs like Teach For America and City Year which deploy young people into useful service roles straight out of high school. I think higher education is for adults, and the way to become an adult is to _be_ an adult.

  • Greetings,

    If you, or others, are interested in pursuing the issue of educating/supporting “non-college-bound” or “working class” youth, I recommend the book “Rethinking America” by Hedrick Smith. It is 10 years old now, but the principles and examples remain relevant today.

    He compares America, Germany and Japan and the way major corporations are integrated (or not) with secondary education institutions to provide training and opportunities for non-college students to develop useful career tracks.

    He talks about America as a “hero” culture, where superlative personalities or achievements are celebrated in spite of the fact that few people will ever achieve these levels. Thus, programs to send “every student to college” are funded and promoted although this is not appropriate (or even desired) for all Americans. And few high school guidance counselors are trained or prepared to guide students to any option but college.

    In a related issue, I remain distressed that there are all kinds of grants, scholarships and financial aid for higher education (government and otherwise), while there is virtually no support for early childhood education.

    A student attending a state college can often attend for as little as a few thousand, while early childhood education (child care by trained educators) can cost upwards of $15,000 per year. This is the most formative time of a human being’s intellectual and social development (over 90% of the synapses in the brain are formed in the first 3 years) and determines much about how an individual learns and interacts with others for the remainder of their life. …ah, but this is a topic for another day.

    Caryn

  • Sustainable Career Planning Is No Longer Required Reading

    Whatchu talkin’ about, Willis?We see Gary Coleman’s scrunched-up little face saying that now-famous line and we think, how adorable! And then we see him on some Cash Call commercial at 1am on the UPN Network bellowing, “I needed some cash, BAD!” and we t

  • Odysseus

    One wonders whether our current tracks even lead to success for knowledge workers or whether we’re wasting their time, too.

  • Excellent essay. I like the part about success being increasingly confined to those who have rich parents and those who ‘get lucky.’ That great American work ethic seems to be fading fast as our choices are eaten up by corporate capitalism (pure capitalism would be an improvement!). Keeping people in a constant state of fear for their jobs keeps them complacent, making young people cling to the scraps they’re thrown and older people cling to the illusion of security.

    As for the Darwinism mentioned by one commenter, perhaps a refresher of high-school biology is in order. Darwin coined the phrase “survival of the fit” — if it works, it lives. It doesn’t have to be the best or the brightest, just has to survive long enough to pass on its genes, and that leaves a pretty wide field for adaptation and resilience in the face of change. The idea of “survival of the fittest” was coined later by a social theorist to describe early capitalism, but if you think for a moment, any ecosystem — or any society — in which this principle operated would soon die out (soon in relative terms, here). If “the fittest” for a particular situation dominated, what would happen when that situation changed? Rather than a singular vision of “the fittest,” which offers us a dead end, we need a wide diversity of “fit” options that all different kinds of people can pursue. Monoculture, whether we’re talking food or economics, is a death sentence.

    Maybe that’s one reason why we liminal young people are struggling so hard against growing up. Being an adult has become en exercise in monoculture, and on some instinctive level we see that there’s more to life than being a cubicle slave….

    (–working-class debt-laden temporary cubicle slave, waiting to hear about PhD funding)

  • ada

    hey how is everyone???/