All around the world, many cultures have initiation rites to mark — no, scratch that, to cause — the transition from childhood to adulthood. As I’ve written before, these rites of passage usually take place during late childhood or adolescence, and they can be…intense. You might get rounded up with all the other boys of your age cohort, stripped of your clothing, and forcibly circumcised with a sharp rock. Or you might be exiled to a hut far out in the jungle and denied food for a week, all while encountering adults dressed up as terrifying spirits who teach you the songs and lore of the tribe.
Usually, boys and girls undergo separate initiation rituals, although some cultures initiate everyone at once. The common factor is that, at the end of the ordeal, you’re a full-fledged adult member of your tribe, clan, or group — with all the responsibilities, rights, and expectations that entails. Only a few days ago you were a child. Now childhood is past, although your body hasn’t changed at all. (Unless you’ve been circumcised with a sharp rock, of course, which isn’t exactly a standard biological step in development.)
The Initiation-less West
In the modern West, though, we don’t really have much in the way of initiation rites. For us, the transition to adulthood is a long, messy, and rather undignified process with no clear endpoint. When do you feel like an adult — when you graduate from high school or college? When you get your first job? Get married? Buy your first house?
Maybe it’s when you have your first kids. Or when they graduate from high school. Or have their first kids. Gosh, is retirement the threshold? You’ll be 70 years old and still half-suspecting that you missed something somewhere — any day now, the Adult Police are going to show up and force you back to middle school.
Maybe it’s not that extreme for everyone. But it is true that the transition from childhood to adulthood is much less clearly defined — and longer — in modern industrialized society than it is in many small-scale and traditional cultures. If you define the pre-adult stage of life as the years when you’re still training for an occupation or trying to secure your adult role, it often lasts until age 30 or beyond for Westerners. Once you finally complete that medical residency and get your first job, you’re easily twice as old as your just-initiated counterpart in a traditional society.
Part of the reason for the length of modern adolescence, of course, is that it just takes a lot longer to prepare for life in our über-complex society. You need a lot of patience and investment to prepare for all the hyper-specialized roles that modern people fill. It wouldn’t be adaptive to artificially arrest development at age 16.
But, more importantly, there’s also the fact that we don’t really share a common culture. Rites of passage don’t just initiate you into adulthood — they initiate you into a particular group, your tribe’s specific way of life. You start off life as a kind of generic proto-human, a ball of organic potential. You could just as easily grow into a fully functional Walbiri tribesperson, a Peruvian villager, or a British noble, depending on where you happen to be born.