Five hundred years ago, “out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it”, Martin Luther wrote his 95 theses, a rallying cry against corruption and the abuse of power, false promises, materialism and the deification of wealth within the Catholic church. As a young adult writer taking part in Hay festival’s 30th anniversary celebrations, I have been asked to take this idea of reformation and apply it to adolescence, “imagining the world” under a new set of rules, asking what “better” might look like.
What do we think adolescence is? A turbulent period of physical and psychological change. A transformation. A rite of passage into adulthood. When did we stop moving straight from children to adults? How did we get stuck in the space between?
The concept of the modern teenager was invented and co-opted by a generation that has clung to this idea of itself, dragging it all the way to retirement, creating and then justifying a political and cultural atmosphere of hyper-individualisation, the cult of the self and material wealth and pleasure as basic human rights.
As a result, Generation X has mortgaged learning, outpriced independence, turned the poverty gap into a chasm and citizens into disenfranchised consumers, run screaming from globalisation and declared war on difference. So, in this age of surveillance and social media’s declared intent to feed us what we have already eaten, how on earth can we still remember how to rebel?
Martin Luther said it himself. “Here I stand, I can do no other.” There is no “reformation adolescence”. It is change. It will defy all efforts to contain or define it and, if it doesn’t, then it isn’t adolescence at all. How am I then supposed to write the rules for something that dodges definition?
Just as Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door at Wittenberg Castle church, I’m nailing these thoughts to the door of the proverbial teenage bedroom. It probably smells of socks in there. Maybe weed. Someone has trodden make-up into the carpet. And quite possibly vomit. Behind that door, there might be a young girl who has already been forced to marry. A boy who works a gruelling 18-hour day to support his family. The editor of a community paper. Or a team of hackers. An environmental campaigner. A kid who (from where we’re sitting) never seems to do much apart from play with a phone. Asking any teenager how it feels is a start. Try and remember the symptoms if you can: frustration at lack of independence and self-determination; preoccupation with friends and social circle; anger at the existing order; questioning of authority. Then there are the feelings of powerlessness, issues of confidence, intense sense of self and extreme capacity for despair and joy.
We know much more about the physiology of adolescence than we used to, thanks to academic advances in neuroscience, biology and psychology. So why do we still fail to understand it? Our double standards prevail. We castigate and smother, woo and vilify, patronise and exploit. We think we know what adolescence is because we’ve been through it.
But it is not for us. We cannot legislate or proscribe or cudgel any generation into agreeing with the one before it. We cannot legislate or proscribe or cudgel it into agreeing with itself either. Adolescence is not a unified movement. It is a sea of difference and chaos. Rife with judgement and division and prejudice as any other part of life, just as capable of astonishing acts of empathy and community.
Adolescence is the shedding of a skin. We can stop flattering ourselves that we matter. It’s happening without us anyway. If that sounds like an abdication of responsibility, it is. The baton has been handed over and will be handed over again. Each generation deserves its chance to react to what has come before. This is evolution. Teenagers need more space to rebel and reinvent, away from the double-edged sword of the adult gaze.
Let them be and leave them to it. Adolescence is about potential and disasters, accidents and misdeeds will occur. So, too, will progress and breakthrough. Our default position is to despair of our adolescents because it makes us feel better about ourselves. We need to look again, reform our own assumptions, demonstrate the importance of empathy instead of just talking about it.
Social media might be a pulpit where the opinionated preach to the converted, a platform ripe for fake news, but it is also a phenomenal agent of change, where young people are communicating and empathising with each other across geographical, economic and cultural borders.
In the face of the curriculum’s suffocation and the dominance of the creative arts by their elders, young writers, artists, photographers, designers and bloggers are sharing their experiences and their talents with each other and the possibility of a global audience, despite all the obstacles, and regardless of financial reward. Frustration is the enemy of apathy. Disenfranchisement is the launchpad of activism. Ahead of June’s general election, hundreds of thousands of young people have newly registered to vote. The status quo needs to watch out.
Unprecedented numbers of effective youth-led movements are capitalising on the global reach of the internet to fight poverty, sexual servitude, gender bias and inequality and to campaign for education, human rights, health care and freedom of expression. From Brazil to Belfast, to Hong Kong to Afghanistan, young pioneers are launching tutoring websites, building recycled generators, standing up to gun crime and climate change, defying stereotypes, inventing, sharing, adapting, revolutionising. They are, in short, speaking out.
The reformation of adolescence is already (and continuously) happening. Young adults are driving their own change. By its very definition, that is what adolescence is – a redrawing of maps, a tearing up of the status quo, a constant rewriting of the rules. Adolescence is itself then a reformation.
Martin Luther’s Wittenberg declaration was about taking a stand. To return to that teenage bedroom door, and to whoever’s on the other side, my sign says the same thing to the encroaching grown-up: “Listen. Offer Support Only When Asked. Learn Something.” And remember (unless you are invited to cross the threshold) to “KEEP OUT”.
Jenny Valentine will deliver her lecture on the theme of adolescence at the Hay festival as part of 30 Reformations – 30 writers and thinkers reimagining institutions and orthodoxies. hayfestival.com
( Previously pubished on The Guardian, click here for more}