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Arrested Adulthood: The Changing Nature of Maturity and Identity

reviewed by Naomi Kroeger - 2002

coverTitle: Arrested Adulthood: The Changing Nature of Maturity and Identity
Author(s): James E. Côté
Publisher: New York University Press, New York
ISBN: 0814715982 , Pages: 245, Year: 2000
Search for book at Amazon.com

On first glance Arrested Adulthood: The Changing Nature of Maturity and Identity is yet another fusillade in the culture wars, representing the genre of hand-wringing over a golden past. Unfortunately, its descriptions of the current cultural scene and the people who walk across the contemporary stage -- from fractured families to young adults moving back to their parental home to schoolyard shootings to road rage to advertisement-soaked television programs to national leaders who assure us that we do not need to practice self-control or to conserve our resources but should consume more to grow the economy and produce more to feed our media stimulated appetites -- are all too recognizable from our own lived experience. All represent the narcissism that marks our age.

The author begins by reflecting on what is meant by adulthood, pointing out that until recently, this was a non-question since we assumed that we knew what adulthood was. Adulthood, by and large, was defined in terms of social roles -- work, marriage, and family formation. Marriage almost universally marked the end of childhood and/or adolescence, and this remained true until the recent past. The psychological dimension appropriate to the adult roles took on greater importance with the modern era as people faced the need to make choices that placed them along different life trajectories. Of particular importance were those personality and character traits relevant to the responsibilities involved in being economically self-sufficient, raising children and, if necessary, caring for parents. People were expected to develop identities, an inner sense of who they were which gave them the ability to negotiate their way through the choices of life with some sense of integrity. Persons who did not display this consistency of personality and/or who did not accept the responsibility of their social roles were considered to be deviant personalities.

Côté reviews the literature on maturation and identity formation, weaving together the works of David Reisman (1950), Erik Erikson (1958), Ruthellen Josselson (1996), Lawrence Kohlberg (1979), Carol Gilligan (1982) and Christopher Lasch (1979), concluding that the world of contemporary American society has become marked by the narcissistic, other-directed personality predicted by Reisman in The Lonely Crowd in the 1950's. As the mediating structures of society, especially the family and religion, have eroded and as technology has accelerated, parents are no longer able to guide their children. What is worse, parents who were caught up in the 1960's liberation movements that sought to cast off societal constraints in favor of self expression are themselves examples of the cultural narcissism that came from the therapeutic movement where personal desires are considered more important than are responsibilities or self-denial for future goals. Furthermore, fragmentation of the family has bred distrust in children, and post-modern parents are more inclined to give priority to their own right to self-fulfillment than to their children’s need for parental guidance. Because parents have not provided their children with structures that lead to stability and ego strength, each generation becomes less capable of becoming adult.

Côté suggests that, unlike the inner-directed personality that acts as a gyroscope in the face of competing and conflicting external demands, the adaptive personality of the present is fluid and responds to whatever are the expectations of those around him or her, expressed by a public persona communicated through the dress, style and mannerisms of the moment. Self-centeredness and a strong sense of entitlement reign supreme. Cote agrees with Robert Bly (1996) who claims that we are now in a "sibling-society" which produces a generation of "half-adults", where "grown-ups" regress toward adolescence and adolescents have no desire to become adults where they would be expected to take on commitments, traditions, devotions to causes.

Côté buttresses his argument in a back-handed way by citing Kenneth Gergen (1991) who argues that we need to embrace technological advances such as television or the Internet as ways for people to become increasingly relational, ultimately leading to higher forms of consciousness. Gergen believes that in the era of post-modernity, the older models of inner character and reason-governed behavior are being abandoned in favor of an externally oriented "relational self." Interaction is no longer so much face-to-face, but is mediated through technology such as the Internet, leaving the postmodern self free to slide from image to image, presented according to the whim of the moment with identities constructed from fashions, cosmetics and the like. Thus the "interior self" of the postmodern denizen consists not of an "inner core" as might have been true in earlier times but of images projected to and received from others, a "pastiche personality" that is liberated from essence and learns to derive joy from the many forms of impression management. Because there is no search for an inner self, there is no guilt at being a social chameleon.

How did this social transformation come about? Côté believes that it is the outcome of late corporate consumer capitalism that moved from production to consumption, especially in the last generation when the engines of industry had to be stoked by stimulating ever expanding consumer desires and spending. He points to television and mass merchandising as critical elements in the development of a consumer society by providing a passive audience with images of what they need to display to be fully acceptable persons. Côté charges that business has now become the new government and points to parallels in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) in which social control is maintained by removing people from institutional family roles and responsibilities, keeping them as perpetual adolescents, rewarding them for self indulgence and endless consumption.

What can be done now that postmodern society has evolved to the point where the sibling society of self indulgence has become "normal"? Côté cites Gergen, the advocate of the post-modern pastiche personality, who admits that in the last analysis, superficiality and impression management yield little satisfaction. Gergen believes that somehow individuals will develop a relational self based on the transformation of ‘you’ and ‘I’ to ‘us.’ Individuals supposedly give up their self-centeredness and recognize that they are nothing without others. Côté, having always implied that salvation rests in going back to the past, sets forth his own formula for setting society back on track. He maintains that many, if not most, people respond to the identity manipulation of corporate capitalism through passively acquiescing to the message, in effect admitting to Gergen’s position; however, some people respond differently by actively building personal strengths and keeping a sense of direction in spite of the lack of support for these from the social environment. He labels this the "identity capital model," an approach which means that individuals "invest" in who they are; this assumes that people learn interpersonal skills and acquire social assets consisting not only of educational credentials and social networks but also of ego strength, critical thinking abilities, moral reasoning abilities, willingness to honor commitments -- in short, the ego-synthetic and ego-executive abilities that marked the inner-directed personality. Côté has a vision of the mature adult as someone who has a "universalizing consciousness," able to apply the same principles of care to all people regardless of whether we know them or whether they are members of the groups with which we identify. His vision is laudable, but it is difficult to see how a society will be able to make the transition from supreme selfishness to compassionate universalism. As is so often the case with social critiques, describing the problems of society is easier than prescribing how to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.


Bly, Robert. (1996). The sibling society: An impassioned call for the rediscovery of adulthood. New York: Vintage.

Erikson, Erik. 1968. Identity: Youth and crisis. New York: Norton.

Gergen, Kenneth J. (1991). The saturated self: Dilemmas of identity in contemporary life. New York: Basic Books.

Gilligan, Carol. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Huxley, Aldous. (1932). Brave New World. London: Triad Grafton.

Josselson, Ruthellen. (1996). Visiting herself: The story of women’s identity from college to midlife. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kohlberg, Lawrence. (1979). Measuring moral judgement. Worcester, Mass: Clark University Press.

Lasch, Christopher. (1979). The culture of narcissism: American life in an age of diminishing expectations. New York: Warner Books.

Reisman, David. (1950). The lonely crowd: A study of the changing American character. New Haven: Yale University Press.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 104 Number 5, 2002, p. 924-927
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10792, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 7:07:49 PM

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About the Author
  • Naomi Kroeger
    Hunter College
    E-mail Author
    Naomi Kroeger is a member of the Sociology Department of Hunter College, City University of New York. Her scholarly interests include identity transformation and social transitions, especially in times of rapid social change.
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