The Human Species Grows Up: Transcending Our Adolescent Stuckness

January 2012

Duane Elgin asks us how mature we are
Since the publication of my new book – The Great Growing Up – in October I have been getting asked what I mean by, “as a species, we are still in the adolescent phase of our development.” I attempt to make a case for our choosing to evolve consciously – to intentionally “grow up” by letting go of less mature behaviors and habits and becoming responsible adults when it comes to how we relate to one another and our planet, our home.
Before I explain more about what I mean by adolescence, let me make one clear distinction. There are many adolescent behaviors that are fun, harmless and even healthy recreation. Mindfully chosen, these activities offer respite from an often stressful life and offer needed relief from time to time. These are not the behaviors I’m pointing to as evidence that our species is avoiding responsibility by habitually indulging in adolescent behavior.
The habitual behavior I am addressing consists of default behavior that remains ingrained in our culture, outside of our conscious awareness. It is more than a stage we are moving through; we seem stuck in this phase as if it is the best that we can do. You might call this dysfunctional behavior. This ingrained, immature and automatic behavior is the focus of this article and the kind of adolescent behavior I address in my book.
So, with that distinction clear, let me continue.
In my book, I include a brief description of the characteristics of adolescence provided by Jungian psychologist James Hollis. He writes:
The characteristics of an adolescent culture are: poor impulse control, short term memory and ignorance of history, addiction to novelty and new sensations, addiction to escalating intensity of sensation, susceptibility to the lethargic summons of drugs and intoxicants, susceptibility to the seduction of gurus, people in power, and authority, and mostly flight from independence and responsibility.*
Does this sound familiar in our society?
Before I go too much further, let me share with you that I have asked audiences over the years, mostly when speaking outside the U.S., where they think we humans are in our maturation process – Child, Teenager, Young Adult or Wise Elder. As a rule all the responses are very similar, regardless of country or culture – 80-85% vote teenager! Almost no one picks Wise Elder and the second most popular pick is Child for where we are in our evolution as a species. I bring this up to show that people know where we are in our maturation as a species. It is not much of a secret. The only thing secret about it has been no one is talking about the lack of adult supervision in the world.
My colleague Duane Elgin has made a habit of taking similar polls with his audiences. Here is a link to one of his videos showing him taking a poll of the audience. Duane asks them where they think we are in our maturity as a species.
Resorting to habitual and automatic adolescent behavior is so common that we seldom question it when we see others doing it. Nor do we question it when we find ourselves doing it. Largely, this habit serves to distract us much like teenagers seek distraction when faced with difficult challenges. As far as I can see, this habit is the chief factor in this mindless choosing of things to occupy our consciousness, distracting us from more meaningful matters.
Pioneering researcher and social psychologist Ray Baumeister reports** that adolescents “have a child’s power of self-control presiding over an adult’s wants and urges.” This is a dangerous combination which often results in teenage deaths and antisocial behavior of many varieties.
In addition to the traits Hollis identified, let’s look at a few others.
One of the more conspicuous adolescent behaviors is gossip in its many forms. Gossip serves no redeeming social value in modern society. Nor does it hold any personal value other than perhaps satisfying some pseudo-prurient curiosity or otherwise occupying one’s mind as a distraction from more meaningful issues. Some people justify their interest in media gossip as “being informed” so they can converse and share with their friends, hardly recognizing the complete lack of worthwhile purpose in such trivial exchange. In fact, all they’re really doing is stooping to lowest common denominator interests, rather than to raise the bar to a more meaningful discourse. After all, what difference does it make to anyone other than the parties involved in a celebrity trial whether you are informed on the daily progress of that court hearing? What real value is inherent in knowing the latest scandal about the misbehaving actor, sports superstar or the sexual adventures of some wayward?
Other behaviors I identify as adolescent include impatience, intolerance and cliquishness. These traits lead us to routinely choose violence rather than pursuing reasonable resolution when conflict arises, short-term fixes rather than longer-term, sustainable solutions, and to blame others rather than taking responsibility for messes we have created or had a hand in creating. They also lead us to separation between and among different groups, whether by ethnicity, gender, class or nationality, thereby perpetuating the “us versus them” stereotype. These attitudes also lead us to defensiveness and denial when backed into a corner, a behavior many a parent of teenagers is used to.
Some other manifestations of this adolescent behavior can be seen in politics, not just in Washington, DC but in capitols around the world, perverse nationalism which is rampant (including the new Space Race going on between China and India), readiness to blame someone else without taking responsibility, egocentricity throughout societies, and spending beyond our means – both as people and as countries.
Certain cultures or nations may act more like adolescents than others. Younger cultures may tend to act more this way than long-established ones but chronology alone isn’t the sole test for immature cultures any more than for people. I know plenty of immature people over forty and a few wise elders who are under twenty-five (I call them “old souls”). An attitude of invincibility, rebelliousness and machismo can grow out of this adolescence, and we certainly see plenty of evidence of this in the world today.
The good news is that this immaturity is being acted out more publicly around the world so greater numbers of people are becoming aware of this mass failure to act like mature people in our hallowed halls of government, diplomatic relations, and corporate boardrooms. Denial gets tougher when dysfunctional behavior is given the spotlight. The conspicuousness of our immature behavior may serve to help us launch ourselves out of this adolescent “stuckness” and transcend the condition on a global scale.
Conscious evolution is the wisest choice for us – to intentionally evolve into the next stage of maturity rather than succumbing to a more random or accidental evolution as we have in the past.
*The Great Growing Up, by John Renesch, 2012, page 44
** Willpower, by Ray F. Baumeister and John Tierney, 2011, page 205

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John Renesch

John is a seasoned businessman-turned-futurist who has published 14 books and hundreds of articles on social and organizational transformation.

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