Opinion Articles

‘Children’ and the nanny state: shifting the boundaries of adolescence

  • RSS Feed Icon

Political parties on both the Left and Right are developing policies on jobs and benefits that would remove certain adult rights from the under 25s, building on a trend that has existed since adolescence was first defined in the nineteenth century.

When Prime Minister David Cameron announced his plans to strip jobseekers' allowance and housing benefit from 18 to 25-year-olds, which will feature in the Conservative manifesto for the 2015 election, he spoke of these citizens - who may be parents, husbands, wives, workers and young professionals - as 'school leavers' and, most tellingly, as 'children.'

As the New Statesman reported, Cameron told the Conservative Party Conference:

Today it is still possible to leave school, sign on, find a flat, start claiming housing benefit and opt for a life on benefits. …Instead we should give young people a clear, positive choice: Go to school. Go to college. Do an apprenticeship. Get a job. But just choose the dole? We've got to offer them something better than that.

Cameron positioned the state as parent to these wayward 'children', asking his listeners:

With your children, would you dream of just leaving them to their own devices, not getting a job, not training, nothing? No - you'd nag and push and guide and do anything to get them on their way. And so must we. So this is what we want to see: everyone under 25 - earning or learning.

Cameron's language recalls his comments on the 2011 riots in Britain; despite the fact that 47% of rioters were 21 or over, in his speech of 15 August, he said:


The question people asked over and over again last week was "where are the parents? Why aren't they keeping the rioting kids indoors?" Tragically that's been followed in some cases by judges rightly lamenting: "why don't the parents even turn up when their children are in court?"

Cameron and the Conservatives are not alone. Recently, the Left-leaning thinktank Institute for Public Policy Research proposed making 18-25-year-olds' benefits 'conditional on participation in purposeful training or intensive job-search'. While Labour have denied this is party policy, Labour Leader Ed Miliband has been calling for a 'Youth Jobs Guarantee' since his March 2012 speech to Labour's Youth Conference in Warwick, which provide jobs for all 18-25 year old jobseekers out of work for a year, but would also force them to take whatever job is offered or lose their benefits. This contrasts with a two-year entitlement to benefits for jobseekers over 25. Like Cameron's policy, Labour's jobs guarantee sees the state-as-parent extending more control over the lives of early-twenties 'children' than it does over adults.

These proposals represent a trend that has been developing since adolescence was first defined in the nineteenth century, separating this life stage from puberty and extending it to the early twenties. Despite shifting definitions of 'adolescence' in western industrialized countries, ending anywhere between 14 to 30, its characteristics have remained broadly similar. Adolescence is perceived as a time of 'storm and stress' and rebellion against authority, a time when the mind's higher faculties are still developing.

In her research into late nineteenth century adolescence, Sally Shuttleworth notes T.S. Clouston's suggestion (1880) that the mind and body were not fully developed until 25. Under 25-year-olds were unable, for example, to appreciate the genius of Shakespeare. Selina Todd notes that the age at which 'youth' ended fluctuated throughout the inter-war period, often drifting into the mid-20s. Arnold Gesell, who researched children's physical and psychological development, believed that 'youth' did not end until 25, although his major text, Youth, (1956) focused on 10 to 16-year-olds.

The growth of child psychology as a discipline extended the duration of childhood. Inter-war psychologists Cyril Burt and Susan Isaacs believed that 14-year-olds had reached their peak of abstract intellectual development. But by the 1960s psychologists debated whether 16-year-olds were intellectually and morally mature.

What factors contribute to the extension of childhood to the age of 25 today? Alongside political pressures, a significant influence is media coverage of neuroscientific research. For example, in BBC Online 'Is 25 the new cut-off point for adulthood?', Lucy Wallis reported that adolescents are 'hard-wired' for risk-taking, short-term thinking, and impulsive behaviour.

However, cognitive neuroscientist and psychiatrist Suparna Choudhury argues that such simplistic statements misrepresent the complexity of the brain. Brain development does not occur in isolation from the environment, but in interaction with it. For example, representing adolescents as biologically programmed to take risks ignores the ways in which cultural expectations of adolescence influence behaviour.

Researchers in cross-cultural psychiatry such as Gisela Trommsdorff have noted that perceived adolescent characteristics, such as rebellion against parents, do not necessarily occur in cultures where such behaviour is not expected, for example, among the Batak and Balinese peoples of Indonesia, and in Japan. Historical data on young offenders also suggests that 'anti-social' behaviour is determined by life stage as well as changes in the brain. Before and during the Second World War, the peak age for youth offences in Britain was 13; today it is 16 to 17. Historically, this figure tracks the school leaving age in Britain, so we can expect it to continue to rise after the leaving age is raised to 18 in 2015, further 'proving' that 18 year olds are not fully adult.

Cameron's speech is another example of how extending childhood can be expressed in the rhetoric of protection, while in reality limiting young people's rights. By conceptualising youth as hapless victims of a broken education system, he can justify denying them the basic package of entitlements available to adult British citizens. While less punitive, Labour's jobs guarantee still separates 18-25-year-olds from 'adult' jobseekers, denying them the greater autonomy in jobseeking of the over-25s.

Despite historical precedent, these proposals are novel in one sense. Legislative measures have rarely impinged upon those over 21. Stripping jobseekers' allowance and housing benefit from this group, or setting different conditions for access to these benefits, will make a clear distinction between 21 to 25-year-olds and over 25s. If any of these proposals are implemented in 2015, they will set a significant legal precedent for treating those out of their teens as not yet adults, and not yet full citizens.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


Papers By Author

Papers by Theme


Sign up to receive announcements on events, the latest research and more!

To complete the subscription process, please click the link in the email we just sent you.

We will never send spam and you can unsubscribe any time.

About Us

H&P is based at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, University of London.

We are the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of more than 500 historians with a broad range of expertise. H&P offers a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists.

Read More