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Life Cycle

AdolescenceConceptualizing Adolescence, Anthropological Critique, Contemporary Perspectives, Bibliography

Many social historians have argued that adolescence emerged as a distinct life stage only with the advent of industrialization. Using case studies from regions where the historical record is plentiful, such as France, England, and the United States, scholars contend that prior to the industrial revolution, the physical processes of maturity did not necessarily signal a change in life status for the individual. Rather, adolescence as a distinctive stage in the life course emerges only in societies where certain social characteristics are present. While the processes are complex, in general the characteristics include the formation of an indeterminate period of "dependence" on parents that occurred most often in urbanizing areas where old rules about land inheritance and marriage were obsolete, child labor was unnecessary or of questionable value, and where investing in children's education became profitable. Noting that prior to the mid-nineteenth century there was no word for "adolescence," historians point out that words such as "child" might be used to encompass children as young as eight or as old as nineteen or, in the transition stages prior to industrialization, the word youth often referred to semi-independent unmarried children who were often removed from their parents' homes to work on large estates. While the concept of adolescence first emerged among the middle classes (those who could afford to send children to school and not to the sweat-shop), by the end of the nineteenth century, adolescence had become "democratized" (Gillis) in western societies, and teenagers of all social classes were experiencing this life stage.

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