Using the number of years to define the developmental phase of a human being has always been arbitrary. It is arguably the better way to describe whether a person can be considered an “adult” or a “child”. But, as our society continues to evolve and the social role transitions from adolescent to adulthood becomes increasingly blurred, this is where we face problems to conceptualise who exactly is an adolescent, and who is an adult.

A group of scientists recently declared that the definition of the adolescent should be widened from 10 –19 years to 10 – 24 years, in order to better reflect the underlying social changes where more people are delaying the time, willing or not, to reach certain life’s milestone. For example, the completion of education, marriage and parenthood. Does the suggestion to redefine adolescence succinctly describe the seismic shift in the growth environment that the millennials are facing, or it is simply a convenient excuse to justify the reluctance of the many "man-child" who refuse to grow up?

The rationale to support the claim

The academic group, led by Professor Susan Sawyer from the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne, Australia, argued that children today have to undergo different developmental phases compared to the previous generation. Not only these children have to go through a longer education period, usually well into the tertiary level, but there have been significant shifts in terms of the age where society believes adulthood should begin.

Several years ago, an excellent New York Times article by Robin Marantz Henig had eloquently described the phenomena in what sociologists define as “the changing timetable for adulthood”. The concept of “adulthood”, as encapsulated in the traditional sociology view, is supported by five distinct stages in life: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child.

At this point, many who have read the paragraph would sneer and scoff at the arbitrarily defined and hopelessly outdated "milestones of life". That much is true, as studies showed an increasing tendency for people today to make different life choices from what our parents did. What we decide to do today is not only deeply affected by the economic environment that is far more hostile than what our parents enjoy, but we also have to confront a whole new set of cultural norms that inevitably influence our judgement. Think about the astronomical student debt that we took upon ourselves, the increasing difficulties of owning a house, and also the rise of "narcissism in the age of selfie” where everything is about "me, me and me". Many of these changes trap millennials and leave them feeling helpless, both financially and mentally, to face the cruel world.

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The biological basis of adolescence

There is biological evidence that supports the suggestion to extend adolescence to the age of 24. Neuroscience studies over the decades have made important discoveries in revealing the fact that our brain will continue to grow well past the (arbitrary) age limit of adolescence. In particular, the prefrontal cortex that governs planning, working memory and organisation skills. In other words, the adolescent brain has yet to reach full maturity. This observation also, in part, explains why certain adolescents have difficulties in controlling impulses and take unnecessary risks.

“The connections within the brain don’t fully branch out until age 22 or so. The kinds of capabilities that connectivity contributes to – emotion regulation and impulse control – probably plateau in the early to mid-20s” said Psychology Professor Laurence Steinberg, of Temple University.

Caution is warranted nonetheless, as not all adolescents experience brain development at the same pace. The extent of brain development is being affected by a great range of environmental, hereditary and hormonal influences.

Empowering or infantilising our youth?

Since publication, the paper has stimulated much discussion among academicians. The response is rather polarised, where some experts acknowledging the suggestion to extend the upper limit of adolescent age as a strategy to "[empower] young people by recognising their difference", others argued that the move is "infantilising" our youth.

The impact of such change, if implemented, should not be underestimated. Not only does the seemingly innocent age limits have great influence over how we view adolescent, it also helps to inform policy and define the amount of support the society will provide. Careful consideration should be prioritised before any further action.

Regardless of the answer, we all should recognise that growing up is a part of life. The process can take decades, if not a lifetime, to complete. That is if we believe there is a definite end by which we can confidently proclaim: I am finally a grown up. MIMS

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