We've all heard of Peter Pan – A fictional, free-spirited and mischievous young boy who never grows up. Peter Pan spends his never-ending childhood having adventures on a mythical island called Neverland.

I don't believe that any child wants to stay a child forever. Children are eager to grow up. I remember being a child myself and waiting patiently to be handed adult responsibilities. I wanted to know what it was like to grow up, but when it did finally happen, I wanted to go back to being a child. In fact, I reminisce often about how care-free and full of magic my childhood was. Such is the irony of life.

Perhaps that is why Peter Pan first appeared as a character in Barrie's A Little White Bird, a novel for adults. I think, if given the chance, most adults would want to go back to their childhood, to be free of the responsibilities and burdens of adulthood, and to live in blissful ignorance of the pain that growing up often brings.

Yet in doing so, they would be giving up the beautiful things that are reserved only for adulthood – falling in love and getting married, having and raising children, and shouldering responsibilities that challenge them and simultaneously add meaning to their life.

Unfortunately, most people nowadays suffer from something called Peter Pan Syndrome. Coined by Dr. Dan Kiley, Peter Pan Syndrome was used to define men who were struggling with accepting responsibility and commitment, although I believe now it can be used to describe 90% of the western population aged 18 and above.  

“Such people usually have great difficulty in finding a job, for whatever they find is never quite right or quite what they wanted. There is always “a hair in the soup.” The woman is never quite the right woman; she is nice as a girlfriend, but… There is always a “but” which prevents marriage or any kind of commitment.” Marie-Louise von Franz, Puer Aeternus

I came across a video in which a 20-something-year-old shared a day in his life living in New York City.

Here is the video:

Disclaimer: This blog post is not a dunk on this individual. Instead it is an observation of a much larger social phenomenon.

I think we’ve entered an age in which some people are stuck in a state I like to call: Chronically 20.

What does this mean?

Simply put, the time-span in which a person enjoys experiences limited to youth has increased exponentially. What has caused this? There are a number of reasons. I think the most important one is industrialization, as all other reasons stem from this one. Other reasons include a lack of stability, responsibility, financial security, and increased educational levels.

Throughout history and across the world, youth has been marked with responsibility. Children were considered a vital part of a working society, especially in agrarian communities, where they worked on family farms and contributed to their financial well-being. As the Industrial Revolution saw the rise of factories, families were forced to sell their lands. Factory owners realized children were not desired workers, which led to them congregating in the streets. Educational reformers of the mid-nineteenth century attempted to convince the public that a primary school education was a necessity if the nation were to advance as a whole. Although, at the time they made it seem as if the creation of public schools was to break the cycle of poverty, the truth was that public schools were created to categorize young people by age groups in order to enable the easy management of the population.

The Creation of Public Schools and its Consequences

Biologizing youth and teenagehood was a phenomenon that was unheard of until the 1920s when hundreds of articles began to be published exploring childhood and adolescence as psychologically and biologically apart from adulthood. Media began to depict teenagers as having specific behaviours, such as being irresponsible and immature. The consequence of this was the creation of public schools - not to educate the youth, but to create an environment in which youth could follow a strict regime and be under surveillance, all while it being socially acceptable to do so.

In his book Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood, Mintz states that America has never been a child-friendly country. That Americans have always resented their children’s intrusion on their parents’ time and resources, and that even reforms that were designed to protect children from abuse were instituted to protect adults from children.

The reason I mention all this is because industrialization led to the expansion of public schools, which eventually led to the expansion of higher education, such as colleges and universities, than even higher education, such as medical schools, law schools, and so on and so forth. We’ve already established that public schools were created as a means of population control, precisely to place children under surveillance and to limit their responsibility in the real world. Whether intentionally, or unintentionally, this phenomenon extended into an individual’s adult life as well.

Why Are Some People Chronically 20?

In prior generations, young adults were expected to have finished school, found a job, and set up their own household during their 20s. Carl Jung stated in his theory on the first of half of life, which he dubbed starting at 13 and ending at 35, that our youth is supposed to be about skill-building and the creation of a family. With the introduction of higher education levels, the opportunity to build skills, start a family, or join the workplace has decreased significantly, even though schools were said to be created to do the exact opposite! Now, as seen in the video, men and women as old as 30 are living lives that revolve around drinking, partying, bar-hopping, lonesomeness, and a general aura of carelessness.

Most Americans today believe that educational and economic accomplishments are far more important than marriage and parenthood in order to become an adult. This overemphasis on attending university and finding a job before marriage has created a society in which individuals do not have to shoulder the responsibility of anyone but themselves. Furthermore, despite this overemphasis on education, only 52% of individuals aged 22 have completed school and found a job, further emphasizing that the experiences of youth seem to extend far into the 20s and even early 30s as most individuals simply do not have the tools to move up the ladder until much later in life.

Consider some statistics.

  • About 1 in 3 of all 18- to 34-year-olds rely on their parents for financial assistance.
  • Young people are delaying marriage. In the 1970s, 8 in 10 people married by the time they turned 30. Today, not until the age of 45 have 8 in 10 people married.
  • In 1975, nearly half (45 percent) of all 25- to 34-year-olds lived away from their parents, were married, lived with a child, and were in the labor force. As of 2017, the number is 24%.
  • Between 1975 and 2016, the share of young women who were homemakers fell from 43 percent to 14 percent of all women aged 25 to 34.

These statistics tell us a lot about how radically adulthood has changed in the 21st century. What is clear is that today’s young adults look different from prior generations in almost every regard: how much education they have, their work experiences, when they start a family, and even who they live with while growing up. The lives their parents lived and the lives they are living are worlds apart, which explains the frustration of many individuals. Advice from a previous era can simply not be replicated in a society with different structures and priorities.

Even financially secure individuals are not living with the same priorities their parents did. Consider these statistics:

Why Is This Happening?

At first glance, staying young forever like Peter Pan seems enticing. And for the first time in history, many individuals are being given the opportunity to do so. Responsibilities and rites of passages like owning your own house, getting married, and having children seem to be after-thoughts to their independence for most people. In the books, although Peter Pan remains young forever, he's able to feel longing and desire for human love, relationships and responsibilities, but because he refuses to grow up, he can’t learn from these feelings. Peter simply forgets that he ever had them, and starts his adventures anew. An endless cycle of superficial adventure and loneliness, as everyone he meets leaves him, over and over, to do the one thing he can’t ever bring himself to do – grow up, and in many cases, get married and have children. His inability to learn maturity leads to a near-total lack of empathy which drags a number of other characters down with him.

In Steven Spielberg's sequel to Peter and Wendy titled Hook, Peter Pan does finally grow up, get married and have children. Even when given the chance to be young again and stay with Tinker Bell in Neverland, he chooses to go back home to his family. At the end of the movie Wendy remarks to Peter that his adventures are truly over; Peter counters that "to live would be an awfully big adventure".

Just because we are seeing less individuals get married, have children, and generally live isolated and unfulfilling lives, does not mean that the majority of the population wants to live this way. The statistics show that most individuals aged 22-35 desire marriage but feel that they do not have the resources to commit to the responsibility. Many people emphasize having work experience and financial security as keys to getting married, yet as the statistics show, the pathway to adulthood in the modern world is complex. Today, more young people work full-time and have a college degree than their peers did in 1975, but fewer own their home. Additionally, young women have made economic gains, yet young men are falling behind. Compared to their peers in 1975, young men are more likely to be absent from the work force and a far higher share today are at the bottom of the income ladder.

Although our social structures have changed, our biology has not. Our desires remain the same, but the ladder to climb to them seems to have gotten much taller. Additionally, social roles have changed. Whereas men were the financial providers, they are less likely to be employed, and as the statistic state, women are less likely to be homemakers. The most common complaint I hear is that neither sex believes there is an incentive to marriage or having children in the modern world. These issues, and many more, create a society with a completely different atmosphere than 15-20 years ago, nullifying the advice and wisdom of previous generations. I don’t believe that the issue is that people want to be young forever. I think the issue is that opportunities to break through to adulthood have been limited, for which we are now beginning to see the consequences in events like falling birth rates.

I think part of it is that people have to choose which of their desires matter more, like Peter Pan did. Is it their desire to grow up and experience the beauty attached to adulthood, or their desire to remain careless all their lives that matters more? And just like Peter Pan makes the conscious decision to choose his family despite temptation to be young forever, we must do the same.

I’m not sure what the solution will be, or if there is one. However, even within my age group, I am beginning to see men and women adopt traditional ideologies. Perhaps people are beginning to recognize themselves the lies they have been sold disguised as progress. At least, I pray desperately for this to be the case.

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