Stanley Hall coined the term “adolescent” with his 1904 book, Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relation to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion, and Education. Hall was a psychologist, the first president of the American Psychological Associationand the first president of Clark Universityin Worcester, Massachusetts. What came to define “adolescence” by the mid-20th century was legally mandated school attendance and the exclusion of humans ages 13-19 from most of adult life throughout the industrial societies.
While Hall was correct in his insight that child and youth development recapitulates human evolution, he misunderstood the capacities of youths in the ages 13-19 years, focusing more on their negative potentials than their positive ones. From this starting point, our cultural misunderstanding of adolescence has only grown over the past century.
Adolescence comes from the Latin adolescere, meaning “to grow up.” Youths in these years are growing up in many ways, but the fact of this ongoing growth does not limit the capacities to which youths already have access, for example, critique of the limitations and failures they perceive in the adult society, creative imagination, a call to purpose and meaning in their lives now, and a willingness to work hard to see their own aspirations come into being.
It is time for the term “adolescence” to be discarded.
We know now that the brain does not reach its full maturation until the mid-20s in most humans. But this does not mean that the youth’s brain is insufficient for making a positive contribution to the world.
“Teens” and “teenagers” are labels that only came into usage in the 1950s, by which time the vast majority of people ages 13-19 had been conscripted into legally mandated schooling, the teen ghetto, in the United States and other industrial nations. These terms are often used to disparage people in this age group. They should also be discarded.
Youth is defined as “the appearance, freshness, vigor, spirit, and so on characteristic of one who is young.” Those humans who are between the ages of 13 and 19 are young, and these characteristics are accurate for the vast majority of humans in this age group.
Youth is also a time of seeing the world with fresh eyes, of feeling the world with a new heart, and responding to the world with the potential for creative imagination.
Youth is by far the better term.