Paul Howe

Oct 16, 2020

Teen Spirit

How Adolescence Transformed the Adult World

Cornell University Press 2020

Paul Howe's book Teen Spirit: How Adolescence Transformed the Adult World (Cornell UP, 2020) is a “big idea” book. It proposes that some of the woes of contemporary life can be traced to high school. Award-winning author and economics professor Paul Howe suggests that when our society moved to a near-universal adoption of high school education, it accomplished many intended goals such as a better educated populace, but it also had unintended consequences. By grouping adolescents together for four years, we immersed teens in a “society of peers” at a key point during development, creating a lasting influence that has encroached into adult life, eroding many of the trappings and responsibilities that are often considered as the signature of adulthood.
Through the first part of his book, Howe builds his case for how adolescent qualities have seeped into adult life over the decades of the twentieth century, by presenting the historical adoption and influence created by concentrating teens into an enclave where they formed their own subcultural influences that shape the adults they become. Howe connects this to the Big 5 character traits identified in psychiatry: openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, and extroversion, pointing to how teens tend to differ from adults but the teen influence has driven society in the direction of a specific flavor of individualism.
The second half of the book turns from presenting the key features of his argument to outlining its consequences. How argues that the expansion of teen influence into adulthood has reshaped attitudes to work, leisure pursuits, and family, with a special emphasis on the role of parenting. In the public realm, he argues that “teen spirit” has had a corrosive influence on civility but may also have led to a more open, creative, and tolerant society.
Teen Spirit concludes with an observation that millennials may be the generation that bucks the trend toward adolescent influences in adult life. Despite their characterization in the media, millennials may mark the end of a century long trend that has infused adolescent character into adulthood. Howe’s compelling theory has an intuitive appeal that may lead you to reflect on the instances of “teen spirit” that surround you.

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Michelle Newhart is a sociologist who teaches at University of La Verne and Mt. San Antonio College, where she also works as an instructional designer.

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