The decline of maturity

English poet Philip Larkin, informed that heaven would restore him to a state of childish innocence, abjured the supposed gift, preferring "money, keys, wallets, letters, books, long-playing records, dinner, the opposite sex and other solaces of adulthood." I know what he meant. In the Thirties, Larkin's era, as for my generation that followed, life still had a defined beginning, a middle and an end. The interesting and meaningful stuff happened in stage two, adulthood. Adulthood was the romantic crossroads where responsible independence and cultural growth joined with deferred sexual freedom to nudge the maturation process forward.

I stepped across the threshold into adulthood -- early marriage right out of university -- just when it ceased to exist in society at large as a stage of life entirely distinct from youth. By the time I was 30, everyone who followed me was told not to trust anyone over 30.

Cultural observer Joseph Epstein pinpoints the transition from adulthood to adolescence as American culture's default "moral condition" in the decade following the 1951 publication of J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. In his 2004 essay, The Perpetual Adolescent, Epstein notes: "Salinger's novel exalts the purity of youth and locates the enemy... in those who committed the sin of growing older, [Holden Caulfield's] parents, his brother ... and just about everyone who has passed beyond adolescence and had the rather poor taste to remain alive."

Adolescence as the new adulthood is a widespread but thankfully not a universal phenomenon. A smart and savvy subsection of the middle class -- my own children and most of their peers, for example -- present as counterweights to the extreme solipsism that Christina Rosen wrote about in these pages yesterday.

Today's young adults who are consciously choosing to step over the threshold from adolescence to adulthood grew up in social enclaves where maturity and other traditional bourgeois values remained longer in force than in the general population. They have more egalitarian gender roles than my generation did and married a bit later, but in other essentials, they are following our example. They have embraced connubial domesticity with enthusiasm; make personal sacrifices and curtail selfish desires without complaint; limit their material and recreational pleasures to provide tomorrow's security and cheerfully endure great swathes of tedium bringing up children in the belief that transcendence of the self -- and for the common run of humanity that means children -- is nature's plan for optimal self-realization.

Maturity as a general virtue, however, declined in the Sixties when indiscriminate sexual liberty, detached from responsibility and emotional engagement, became a human right from puberty forward. With no need to defer the gratification of appetite, there was no further need for patience, maturity's hallmark.

And yet what stage of life could be worse for indefinite prolongation? Adolescence is a period marked by extreme intellectual callowness, thrall to raging hormones, obsession with appearance and social caste, contempt for authority, fascination with the transgression of rules, immoderate self-righteousness and intense sensitivity to perceived offence.

For the negative physical consequences of adolescence as a cultural norm, consider the body-sculpting, porn and plastic surgery industries. Our culture's obsession with youthful appearance and limitless, Dionysiac sexuality is pandemic.

For the more pernicious negative intellectual and political consequences, consider the universities. In academia one finds a ruling cadre of grey-haired, jeans-clad university teachers pickled in Woodstock-nostalgic revolutionary amber, still rebelling against their parents' conformity and hypocrisy, still contemptuous of their parents' institutions and values, even those that stabilized family life and nourished communitarianism.

The political correctness these ideologues embody, Epstein shrewdly notes, is a peculiarly adolescent phenomenon: "Political correctness... -- from academic feminism to cultural studies to queer theory -- could only be perpetrated on adolescent minds: ...Only an adolescent would find it worthwhile to devote his or her attention chiefly to the hunting of offenses [and] the possibility of slights, real and imagined."

You'll want examples of culturally influential individuals representing the adult and adolescent camps.

OK. In this corner we have the recently deceased Irving Kristol (1922-2009), father of neo-conservatism, a trim, sartorially conformist man of socially conservative and politically constructive ideas. He was a hugely influential thinker with no personal vanity. He was a loved mentor to young acolytes and a feminist avant la lettre (Kristol and fellow intellectual Gertrude Himmelfarb enjoyed a long, famously collaborative marriage). He produced a brilliant intellectual successor in son Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, America's most lively conservative weekly. That's adulthood.

In the other corner we have the celebrated filmmaker Michael Moore, a schlubby boy-man of blinding egoism -- wearing children's play clothes, an Arafat beard and a permanently ensconced baseball hat -- whose objective is to bring down America and its institutions. He does not seem interested in mentoring or succession. That's adolescence.

Kristol is quietly revered by hundreds, perhaps thousands of fans. Moore is noisily revered by millions. What a topsy-turvy world we've made for ourselves.