The Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood, by Steven Mintz

E. Stina Lyon on a complex account of the trajectory of adult life in the modern world

April 30, 2015

This original and comprehensive book interestingly sets the far-reaching changes in contemporary adulthood in historical perspective. It is mainly a history of adulthood in the US, with occasional comparisons with developments in the rest of the world; however, given Steven Mintz’s inclusive approach to the rich diversity of American peoples, it is no less interesting for its one-country focus, only a bit more modest than its title suggests.

In comparison with childhood, adolescence and old age, adulthood has not had the historical attention it deserves. Mintz’s aim is to correct the powerful myth that things were somehow “better” and more stable in the past. Adulthood has never been easy in any of its core stages, nor in facing the pressures exerted by changing environments. Moreover, as he importantly shows, the very concepts of “adulthood”, “life stages” and “life cycles” have been given different meanings over time, particularly in response to scientific and medical advances that have brought a more detailed understanding of each stage. Lengthened schooling and increased overall longevity have also served to shift boundaries between life stages. Drawing on evidence from across the social and behavioural sciences, as well as personal archives, biographies and literature, Mintz shows that there is no “normality” when it comes to adulthood.

In this complex account of what he calls the “arc of adult life”, Mintz organises his material under the broad, largely individual-oriented headings of transition to adulthood, achieving intimacy, the evolution of marriage and its alternatives, parenting, work and finally the angst of adulthood. Under each heading, he shows how over time the full trajectory of adulthood has become socially more diverse in domains such as education, marriage, illness and employment security, and across lines of class, ethnicity and immigration status, due in part to inequalities in parental “scaffolding”.

At the same time, however, it has become less diverse between genders, for example in the distribution of the burdens of work and childcare. In focusing on the relationship between life course rituals and their relationship to social institutions at home and at work, Mintz rather evades the perhaps thornier problems of adulthood in the civic sphere.

Despite a prevailing ideology of individualism, American adults do spend time in socially participatory civic activities, many of them political or child-oriented. Interestingly, the real advances have accrued to children, who are healthier and better cared-for than ever before, despite a weak welfare state and the high turnover in the adult relationships around them. Contemporary adults, despite suffering from collective angst and what Mintz sees as a rather dubiously therapeutic approach to the problems of life, are clearly getting some things right.

In the absence of a more detailed analytical framework for organising this kaleidoscope of evidence, in the end, Mintz’s history of adulthood becomes a rather exhausting cacophony of selective evidences and perspectives. It is hard to see the wood for the countless individual trees surviving against the odds of life’s harsh realities, with each generation, gender, class and ethnic group drawing different lessons from those experiences. With notions of moral progress through social transformation disappearing from historical narratives such as this, there is little to be done except give a fuller picture of continuing social, psychological and cultural fluidity.

Such a morally sanitised history may teach students a great deal about how the present came to be, but it will do less, I suspect, for their ability to sustain vigorous, morally engaged arguments about what makes for a good and socially responsible person in the prime of his or her life, whatever the external circumstances and whatever the historical era.

The Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood

By Steven Mintz
Harvard University Press, 432pp, £25.95
ISBN 9780674047679
Published 30 April 2015

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