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History Table of Contents
1991 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1991
Growing up on the Edge: The Emerging Generation and Canada's Future


Author; former Director, Clarke Institute of Psychiatry

To a large extent, our images of youth, or being young, have two components.

There is a perennial component, which everyone in the world, in all cultures, recognizes, a kind of flush beauty about being young, which is very much a property of the age.

There is a sense of energy and discovery and seeing the world for the first time, which seems to be the essence of making new solutions. Much of what we call creativity, seems to reside in this moment of seeming to come upon the great new world as though you were its first discoverer.

Goethe said that the secret of remaining creative was, in fact, to be eternally adolescent. The social historian Phillipe Arrease said, "The invention of childhood is something that each society does for itself."

Certainly the invention of youth and adolescence for people like us is, in the Western World, largely a product of the last couple of hundred years.

In most of the world to this day people move from childhood to puberty to a very short period of transition that we might like to call youth and adolescence, and then they work. They work not to find a place for their personality to be plugged into, which respects or responds to character and talent. They work for food.

Last year the United Nations published reports of literally millions of children as indentured slaves in India. In much of Africa the notion that you need a couple of years to find yourself would be a very surprising statement.

The notion of adolescence, of a period somewhere between about 15 to 25, or 30 is relatively new. Some people would say, essentially, it was after World War I and really only comes to be fully after World War II, because it is a question of time and money.

The richer a society is, the longer it gives its young the opportunity of being, as we call it, adolescent.

To put the matter very quickly into perspective, Lafayette was 19 when he was a General in Washington's Continental Army. He had been married at fourteen, as many of his aristocratic peers were at that time. And certainly among peasants, this was the norm.

The general life span for most people was such that the idea of a sustained, almost decade of opportunity for development, self discovery and self expression, would have seemed preposterous.

The idea that Eric Erickson advanced, and he is the great theoretician of adolescence for our time, that this was a time of moratorium; a kind of period of time out, when you could discover who you were and try on different guises and then you settled into an adulthood, is a very luxurious one.

It's almost, not entirely, almost an invention of the world in the years following the French Revolution, in the Industrialized Developed parts of the globe. It implies tremendous luxury.

Certainly for the Western World, there has never been in history a time when such a mass of people have so much dental work, so many music lessons, so much corrective orthodontics, so many allergy shots, so many years of education, so many holidays, so many junior years abroad, so many colleges of their choice — things that were not even in the purview of the few aristocratic males who were given a couple of years to make the grand tour, find themselves before returning to very restricted world of army, church, politics.

Yet, this invention of adolescence, which is an expression of some of the greatest achievements of our society, carries with it a considerable burden. The burdens of the society as a whole.

You may say that adolescence and youth as we perceive it, this time of energetic opportunity, and so on, is the heroic expression of all the movements in the Western World that started with the English Revolution, then a little bit more with the Dutch Revolution, which followed the American Revolution, which followed the French Revolution.

But the cutting point is, probably for our world, let us say the French Revolution. When suddenly the fixed boundaries of society and the rules from above — knowing your place in the world — were blown apart.

On the eve of the revolution in 1789, a young provincial French lawyer probably articulated it in this phrase, "why should we be like our fathers were before us?"

The modern ecology movement would be shocked at what it was like to live on a farm in the pre-industrial era, in what Marx called "The Idiocy of Rural Life". However horrific industrial slums were, they were the first historical step away from tyranny. From the tyranny of the seasons, from the tyranny of the landowner, the squire, the boss.

And almost everyone of us here represent this extraordinary movement to shape ourselves and our contexts, and to become what we think we are entitled to be. And this expresses itself most in adolescence, which is seen as that period in life when you leave home, become yourself, step out.

It has a psychological, political component as well as an industrial-geographical one.

But from the moment that this opportunity was first given, it carried with it a price. And that is the down side.

The down side is a kind of bewildering freedom in which subjectivity takes over from objective standards and suddenly you are on your own. The great theoretician of this, the great articulator of this, was probably Nietchze, who said to the young: "You must build your houses on the sides of volcanoes."

What he didn't know is that you didn't have a choice.

Freud psychologically articulated this feeling of perpetual uncertainty that we all have to live with in adopting the historical notion of the dialectic of the constant trust of contrary forces that never stops, there is no resting point out of public or personal history.

It never stops; it is the way that we are made, society is made and history moves. And anybody who yearns for a quiet and safe place is looking for a place that you will not know when you are there. In psychological terms, this loss of certainty was the breeding ground for what seems to be a particular contemporary difficulty.

This is pre-figured in the extraordinary book by Durkiem at the turn of the century. And very little has changed. He coined the term "anomic suicide," as he looked at the figures in Europe.

His figures were lousy, his conclusions were marvellous, because they haven't been changed. People who are unattached, who are worried about their values, who have no sense of imbededness in a society or a history, may live their lives in a kind of despair in which the present has little meaning and the future is everything.

And so we come to the down side of being young.

Between the ages of 15 and 25 the suicide figures since World War II, every time a successive study is done, show a frightening increase. And no one really has a fix on this. The genetics of depression hasn't changed. Poverty is not an explanation, the poor don't necessarily kill themselves. Wars paradoxically don't breed despair, but everybody comes together.

That is one of the most extraordinary things — attendance at psychiatric clinics go down in war time because war, in a terrible way, has a purpose. As William James, the American pragmatist said, "What everybody is looking for is the moral equivalent of war, some integrating purposeful vision that takes away the sense of loss and frivolity from existence."

That is the down side.

In the middle, and we were reminded of this by the splendid collection of figures from Decima last night, most people live the kinds of the lives that most people live.

You know that if 25 percent of people are having divorces, three quarters of them aren't. It's like the business of unemployment figures; 10 percent are unemployed, 90 percent are employed.

To be young is a product of history and technology and not of ecology.

I'm for the environment, like everybody else, but I come from Africa and when I was just old enough to know that tigers eating up all the sheep and killing people, of elephants laying waste to huge territories of forest land and the tsetse flies...were all part of nature.

Nature is not a granola bar.

A great deal of our image of ourselves in a comfortable world is a product of a very complex history that we must not throw aside too quickly or too easily because most of us are doing all right; there are young who are not killing themselves.

There are people who are terrified about the future of the planet which is moved, I suspect, from being a very realistic concern into a kind of pseudo-religion. In the absence of secure religion, which you can't invent, people with a yearning for belief, for law, rush around and remake them.

When you see a good cause transformed into something that excites an almost vindictive passion, than you know that something has happened in a religious sense.

Animal rights, child abuse, violence against women, the environment, all absolutely splendid causes and not one of us against it. But, just watch the rhetoric with which it sometimes becomes tinged. That desire to punish, that desire to seek out the evil doer, that desire to impose your will and righteous indignation is very much a property of the young.

Just watch it.