The concept of adolescence did not exist before 1900. The transition to adulthood was generally marked by the onset of puberty. A variety of ceremonies have been used to announce that transition. The Bar or Bat Mitzvah, the Catholic Confirmation and many other ceremonies indicated that the child was now an adult.
In the pre-1900 world, you were either a child or an adult. At the age of 13, Ben Franklin finished his schooling and was apprenticed as a printer and immediately became a self supporting adult. John Quincy Adams attended Leiden University in Holland at the age of 13 and by the time he was 14 he was in the employ of the American Ambassador to Russia where he served as an interpreter and secretary. At the age of 16, Adams was the secretary to the American delegation that negotiated the peace with England at the Revolutionary War's end. At 12, Daniel Boone got his first rifle and by the time he was 15 he embarked on a yearlong exploration of the American Wilderness. These men, what we know as adolescents, performed as adults and demonstrated competency and admirable leadership.
The terrible exploitation of children in factories was a widespread practice that thankfully ended with the advent of adolescence.
The concept of adolescence seems to have expanded during my lifetime. Some are still dependent on their parents into their late twenties. Growing up, it was a common sight to see kids as young 8 or 9 driving tractors and working on area farms. Others worked in logging operations or in their parent's business. I suspect that those hard working kids had a leg up on everyone else. They learned how to work hard, a valued skill across a lifetime. They used to mow grass, now; even those jobs are performed by adults. Many farms have vanished. A fearful liability compels many others not to hire adolescents for fear of a lawsuit. Today, a 15 year old that sets out for a yearlong exploration, as Daniel Boone did, could end up in trouble.
Adolescence has taken some heavy hits in popular culture. Many describe it as period that is fraught with difficulty and is a problematic journey that everyone must suffer through. If we offered youth an opportunity to transition to adulthood sooner, the adolescent journey might look very different. Remember, all kids count.
Scot Hurlburt can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com