In the space between childhood and fully becoming an adult, there have been customs performed by young men and women to signify or test their right to become full adult members of society or their tribe. Once those were successfully completed, they were expected to act as an adult, fully responsible for themselves.
For young men in pre-industrial societies, it usually involved physical challenges demonstrating their ability to hunt, fight, track, or other skills necessary to the survival of the group. There might be contests or ceremonies involved. In some cultures, choosing a mate was an important part of the coming of age. In hunter-gatherer cultures, the rites could include a risky life-or-death struggle. The weak or unskilled may not have survived. Later, in feudal times with strict class structures, those rites depended on your station in life.
In the industrial age, we have schools to help students tackle mental challenges, even when their future work requires manual labor or soldiering. Every mechanic or tank commander is required to have their three “R’s” – reading, writing, and arithmetic – plus more to perform their jobs effectively. Contemporary rites of passage include graduations, proms, one’s introduction to the fine art of romance, and more. Nowadays, the rites are seldom physically dangerous, but not achieving them can lead to a lower survival potential.
In the current “information age,” the emphasis on mastering a good education is very pronounced. Unlike in the past, graduations may end without a good job waiting. Only by advancing through training within certain positions in high demand can some find employment sufficient to support a growing family. The full transition to adulthood is not achieved until later than the teen years. If a person is lucky, they will become a fully functioning member of society by their mid-twenties.
There are exceptions, and I am not dismissing them. I’m speaking of the passage into full adulthood, with expectations of being a valued and respected member of the tribe, society, or nation. In early societies, there was a clear-cut passage. One day you were a boy or girl, the next, you were expected to be an adult, to be responsible for yourself in a sometimes harsh world.
In our modern world, there is no single rite of passage that is agreed upon by everyone. Rather, we each must cross our own invisible line when ready. It may be the reason for much of the stress on our youth today. With great freedoms come many choices, but also the responsibility for the results of whatever we choose. For most, there is no clear line now to cross into adulthood that results in immediately gaining a position of value, with recognition of worth. We now travel forward by many small steps, each only a prelude to the next step, with the end goal still beckoning in the distance as we accrue skills and recognition a bit at a time. Young people in centuries past may have completed that in hours, days, or weeks. Now that stretches to years or decades.
Each stage of humankind’s evolution seems to bring about a longer span between childhood and adulthood. We are living longer than our ancestors, but our methods of education have not kept pace with our need to learn greater skills and knowledge within a short length of time. Research and innovation in the very ways we educate is the key to solving this far longer journey to adulthood. We need to teach smarter, individually, and with further use of technology. We can do better and should.