Coming of Age in Times of Uncertainty: Redefining Contemporary Adulthood
Berghahn Books, Oxford
I recently saw a birthday card with the caption: '40 is the new 30'. In many respects, this phrase captures what is central to this concise and insightful book: the complex and changing nature of contemporary adulthood. Indeed, whilst transitions to adulthood have been subject to considerable debate, policy initiatives and social scientific discourse, all of which are clearly summarised and critiqued in this book, the constitution of adulthood remains elusive.
Blatterer's book is largely focused on discussing early or young adulthood in Australia, although it makes clear that it is applicable to young people in most advanced industrial societies. The book commences with a useful history of adulthood, including its place in social science. Blatterer notes that, with few exceptions, the social actor of sociology is de facto adult. Moreover, this representation uses a standard model of adulthood: a form of adulthood that emerged in the period of growth and stability that lasted from the end of the Second World War until the early 1970s. Blatterer contrasts this standard model with new adulthood. He locates the emergence of new adulthood in the fragmentary forces of individualization and flexibilisation unleashed over the past thirty or so years. Standard adulthood has lost much of its normative strength, but it continues to influence how young adults are looked upon, considered and ultimately institutionalised. Rather than opting for yet another well-worn analysis of this trend, as much research in the sociology of youth has done in recent years, Blatterer introduces a new way of considering this topic through his use of the theory of social recognition.
Blatterer's creative use of Axel Honneth's theory of social recognition reflects his own ambition to combine theory and empirical data in this book; although he himself acknowledges that it is skewed towards the theoretical. Blatterer asserts that there is a temporal lag, a form of misrecognition, between the understandings of adulthood of the baby boomer generation, including social scientists themselves, and the lived experiences of young people in contemporary Western societies: those new adults whose voices are heard in the latter chapters of the book. Also significant to this misrecognition has been an ideological shift in which the values of youth have now permeated the life course. Youth is something that any adult can acquire whatever her age (one wonders if this means 70 is the new 21?). Whilst Blatterer argues that this shift has, to an extent, lessened intergenerational tensions that once existed between the young and old, it nonetheless can result in misunderstandings and tensions that, in many ways, are unfair. As Blatterer concludes: 'the new adults of today may be without a center that holds. But, they are no more and no less than matchless actors in times of uncertainty.' (p118)
This book raises some very interesting questions about the changing nature of adulthood and, for me, questions about the experiences of all adults, across the life course. Certainly, there is, I think, an interesting comparison to make between the experiences of those 'new adults' whose experiences permeate this book and those of the 'new old', those ageing baby boomers who are currently redefining older age. Many of the issues that Blatterer raises about social recognition in times of uncertainty could equally apply to this group of adults. Indeed, this book provides a wealth of useful theoretical and empirical points that could be extended or subjected to further discussion. With the main content of the book weighing in at a succinct 120 pages, and written in a relatively accessible style, this book would certainly be of use to those teaching undergraduates and postgraduates in the areas of the sociology of youth and the life course. Additionally, it would be of use to academics and researchers writing in these areas. However, Blatterer has produced an interesting and thought-provoking book that really deserves a wide readership amongst the sociological community and beyond.