Adolescence in the 21st Century: Constants and Challenges

reviewed by Debbie Sonu - November 07, 2014

coverTitle: Adolescence in the 21st Century: Constants and Challenges
Author(s): Frances R. Spielhagen & Paul D. Schwartz (Eds)
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1623964962, Pages: 260, Year: 2013
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The chapters in Adolescence in the 21st Century: Constants and Challenges, a book edited by Frances R. Spielhagen and Paul D. Schwartz (2014), began as presentations given at three conferences sponsored by the Center for Adolescent Research and Development (CARD) at Mount Saint Mary College. The call for proposals invited submissions from scholars around the world, in a variety of professions, who are interested in better understanding the unique and perennial issues related to adolescence in the world today. As framed by the editing authors, adolescence is defined as a developmental stage that begins at the end of childhood and ends at the beginning of adulthood. It is about a confusing and complex search for identity amid the enormity of physiological, sexual, cognitive, and psychological change. Commonly represented as a “coming of age” measured against the characteristics of normal adulthood, more recent concern, according to the editors, has begun to focus on the phenomenon of “extended adolescence,” a phase lengthened by early onset puberty and a “failure to launch” into adulthood. By drawing from the work of academics and program directors in the field of business, law, clinical psychology, and nursing, the result, as described in the introduction to the book, is “a rare interdisciplinary collection of research that explores the phenomenon of adolescence in the changing and fast-paced world of the 21st century” (p. xii).

The book is clearly divided into three sections. The first examines “the universal and historical constants of adolescence, the development of a sense of new and multidimensional identity” (p. 1). Chapters in this first section include a qualitative study with college females who reflect back to their youth and identify struggles and coping strategies; a phenomenological investigation of mothers and their ways of communicating with their daughters; a quantitative approach to parent religiosity and the development of conscientious and prosocial habitus; a focus on new technologies and the vernacular literacies of adolescents; and a discussion of the external and internal factors that incite alienation for Russian youth in their emerging capitalist economy.

The second section asks readers to consider the role of adults in helping young people find purpose, agency, and motivation in the world. With an assumption that “how successfully the individual navigates adolescent years will be manifest in the degree to which he or she defines a purpose in life” (p. 101), the authors in this section present work that identifies positive goals and cultivates the motivation in youth to progress towards them. They include a research study on college-level service learning projects and their future youth participation in organizational citizenship behaviors (OCBs); a report on the Minority Youth Teaching Initiative, a small program incorporating social issues, dialogue, and critical thinking activities in their curriculum; a discussion of individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and interventions for successful social interaction; and the work of two university professors as they share the role of language and experiential encounters in the cultivation of peace.

The third, and final section of the book, focuses attention on contemporary issues related to adolescents and the ways in which they “approach and overcome” challenges specific to modern society. As stated by Schwartz, “young children are displaying behaviors well before they are ready to act on, or understand their meaning, and older adolescents are staying perpetual children” (p. 168). This is attributed in part to advanced technology and the advent of “digital natives,” a resulting loss of personal intimacy, and a sense of generational entitlement. Positive changes over time, says the author, include a reduction in cigarette smoking, teen pregnancy, and an increase in knowledge and information about the world. The chapters focus on, for example, an analysis of how suburban and urban teenagers modify standard written English through their use of digital media and writing; case studies of homeless adolescent mothers in a weekly psychotherapy group; a longitudinal qualitative case study of a child born with positive toxicology to crack cocaine; narrative research on youth and self-injury; and the adaptive uses of music for emotional regulation.


If the purpose of the book was to reach widely across professions to gather empirical research on adolescence as a subject of development, then the editors have succeeded in affirming such approaches. Most certainly, adolescence can be interrogated through the lens of constants and challenges, insofar as human experience is the perception of commonality and uniqueness, within a condition and in relation to others. In the remainder of this review, I will highlight what I find to be the strongest contribution of this book. This is filtered through my experience as a professor of education who carries out research with young children and young adults around issues of social justice, violence, and urban schooling. Always, my commitments have centered on the educational opportunities afforded people of color, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, not because they are “at risk,” but because they are oftentimes side railed for their astute and intimate knowledge about systemic and structural injustice. Through this lens, I will make two critical comments on the subject of youth and research in order to extend the conversation laid out by the scholars in this book.

This book surveys the kinds of research that are currently being conducted on behalf of youth wellbeing and could serve very well as an introductory text on research practices in the field. Each chapter begins with research questions that unfold into background literature, methodology, data presentation, and conclusions or implications for practice. They are organized and consistent. The language is clear and accessible, less complicated by the critiques of theory and more heavily weighted by what we can do next. For those oriented toward clinical practice, each study does a wonderful job of evidencing conclusions with data and drawing suggestions on how to move forward; for some, this may be the very purpose of research itself. Yet, what I believe is missing from the overall discussion is, in the least, some introductory remarks that situate what the authors even mean by adolescence. I would argue that what the editors consider “constants” of adolescent development has been highly challenged and critiqued by scholars who question the epistemological assumptions laden within the cultural construction of adolescence itself. In what follows, I present two assumptions of youth that I found hidden yet pervasive in the text. To this end, I hope to work more generatively, creatively and compassionately, in not only understanding the issues young people feel today, but also in carefully examining how the hopes and fears impressed upon them by adults and society, can become places of self-study as well.


First, in her book, Act Your Age!, Nancy Lesko (2012) describes how common characterizations of youth trap us in a circular reasoning that first begins with a deficit, requires a solution, then poses a deficit again, and that such “sealed systems of reasoning” (p. 178) make difficult any conception of youth outside this discourse of intervention and development. This reasoning does two things: 1) it conceives of youth as in constant need of mediation, most likely by adults who claim authority over ways of being in the world, and 2) it provides legitimacy for professionals who work with youth in institutionally-mediated ways, including educators, clinical psychologists, counselors, and directors of youth-oriented programs. The grandest contradiction here lies in the presumption that adults can, through corrective measure and method, emancipate youth from an immaturity that adults continue to inscribe and forward about youth. Therefore, I commend the chapters in this book that shift focus towards young people representing themselves. Such studies not only challenge conservative and conserving discourses that push youth out into the margins of what it means to be a fully recognized human being, but they also dispute adulthood as a kind of fixed achievement in the hierarchy of human evolution. Adolescence can be understood as something other that a transition towards some enlightened state of adulthood. I find adulthood to be no less challenging than my teenage years, riddled with constant changes and challenges. I find myself no more knowledgeable about the ways of the world than those of future generations. Perhaps we share the same kinds of questions, albeit from divergent perspectives and degrees of responsibilities.

Secondly, I support the studies in this book that recognize adolescent identity as an open-ended process that emerges from the particulars of one’s condition, not as an evaluation of goodness or morals. Adolescence then becomes a social space to talk about the characterization of certain communities of people, a process of identifications that is continuous and contingent on the changing needs and hopes of the nation-state, of the adults who construct them, of the current economic and political ideals of the time. I wonder if my emphasis on discourse troubles those in the field of development and clinical psychology, if it presents a nuisance, if it is inappropriate or misses the point entirely. Certainly, broader questions such as this do not lend themselves easily to practical implication, but what I do think it offers is a way to conceive of youth outside the deficit and interventionist frameworks that only increase the rift between young people and adults. As Greg Dimitriadis (2008) states in his book, Studying Urban Youth Culture, youth is “a category that evokes both timeless and transcendent innocence as well as deep-rooted fears and anxieties, often at the same time.” The study of adolescence, then, is inflected by middle-class normative definitions of health, the commodification of young bodies in the media, moral panic over their delinquency, a hope that they will carry the nation’s economic prosperity into the future. It is precisely this panoply of mixed messages and expectations that contributes to what the authors call “sea-changes” in the lives of young people. In order to “look behind the adolescent persona to what is really happening in their lives” (Spielhagen & Schwartz, 2014, p. xiii), I believe we must take a very honest look into what adolescence means for us adults, what does the governing of their bodies say about our desires and fantasies, can we work through a coevalness with youth, recursive approaches that evaluate our own lives with respect to young people, a way of understanding how adults occupy the same world as those who are younger and different than us.


Dimitriadis, G. (2008). Studying urban youth culture. New York: Peter Lang.

Lesko, N. (2012). Act your age! A cultural construction of adolescence. New York: Routledge.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 07, 2014 ID Number: 17751, Date Accessed: 12/8/2021 10:00:23 AM

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