When Every Day is Casual Friday: Anxiety Hangs Over a Culture When Adults Act Like Children

Another highly anticipated January Series speaker, Frederica Mathewes Green left a chorus of lively debate behind her. Taking as her title “When Every Day is Casual Friday: Anxiety Hangs Over a Culture When Adults Act Like Children” she developed a thesis that the baby boomer generation, brought up by parents well used to hardship, generally developed a negative perception of adulthood and as a result have engendered a culture that doesn’t know how to be adult.

Contrasting modern film heroes with those of the films of the 20s and 30s, Mathewes Green made a compelling claim that the filmstars of that era carried a far greater gravitas than those of today. She pointed to later marriage and extended time in education as causes, and the emergence of films such as Garden State and books like Quarterlife Crisis as evidence, of an increasingly extended adolescence.

She cogently argued that a greater degree of maturity is good for a society, not saying that adulthood involves claiming that the world is simple (she was questioned on this and clarified there) but that it is a developmental stage that allows us to effectively engage with the world, rather than spending our time searching for a place within it. Her analysis shed more light on the plight of the orphaned children Paul Farmer had discussed on Monday.

Mathewes Green believes that one answer to this maturity-deficit is (while making a point of reinforcing some peoples’ calling to celibacy) earlier marriage. Her own children were all married in their late teens and early twenties and she pointed to statistics that show that 50 years ago when the average age of marriage for a woman in the US was considerably lower the divorce rate was also lower. She argued that marriage and child-rearing considerably increase maturity and that biologically we are wired to want this earlier than it often takes place in the modern west.

These claims naturally drew strong reactions. Questioners pointed out that there are a range of other factors involved in getting married—it’s not so easy as simply deciding to get married early! Sadly time was limited, and I for one would have liked to question Mathewes Green on whether perhaps having children and marriage have these effects because of particular innate characteristics that they share with other activities, whether this could perhaps lead us towards other models of developing maturity within society, and where the line comes between the essentialness of childlikeness and this maturity.

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  1. Frederica Mathewes-Green is a complete mystery to me. I find her viewpoints paradoxical and unpredictable–which I think is a good thing. It’s interesting to me that she and her husband share a joint, hyphenated last name, yet her attitude towards marriage is (in my opinion) so conservative it’s practically liberal.

    I hated to think how my single girlfriends would respond to her lecture–most of them are unmarried, not because they’ve deliberately decided against it or because they’re selfish and childish, but because they either (a) haven’t met anyone they’ve fallen in love with and consider worth marrying or (b) live in Africa (as a for-instance) where they’re serving God and lots of other people in a rather selfless, sacrificial way. Youthful marriage as a sign of an unselfish person and therefore a healthy society seems to me quite arbitrary. She also didn’t seem to take into account another reason many of our peers resist marriage–we’ve watched those of our parents and their contemporaries fall apart, or worse.

    I’m curious what you and Kari thought about the marriage portions of her lecture, as people who married “late” (according to M-G). I mean, I don’t think of you guys as old. And I’m only 25 and I felt berated!

    I have to go so more will have to wait, but thanks for your thoughts on this.

  2. I’ve heard or been part of more conversations about this talk than any other January Series lecture yet this month. It’s obviously taken people aback, but also struck a chord. The response has been largely positive.

    I absolutely loved it for several reasons. First of all, she’s so eloquent and well-spoken and non-confrontational while making her points. You get the sense that she has very strong opinions herself but is also very open to dialogue. Secondly, as James pointed out immediately after the talk, she obviously is a fan of film and doesn’t just watch movies in order to be able to be able to give ‘relevant’ examples. Thirdly, she had such a fresh perspective and forced me to think about things in ways that I wouldn’t have necessarily otherwise. That’s what I want lectures to do for me – get me to think about things in other ways.

    That said, I think that there’s a lot of fuzziness out there regarding what she was proposing as cause-and-effect relationships. I’m not sure that she would say that extended education and late marriages are what lead to extra-long adolescence so much as that they too are evidence or symptoms of it. Similarly, I’m quite certain that while she’s obviously a proponent of early marriage, I don’t think she would propose it as a solution that’s right for everyone or that she would think Kate’s friends are ‘doing things wrongly.’ Maybe I’m wrong about that. She sure didn’t seem to be saying that it might be better for a woman to get married and have children early and accommodate her post-secondary education around that instead of putting marriage and family off until she has completed her college education. Then again, maybe she wouldn’t state it so strongly as that. It’s hard to say. It would have been good to be able to dialogue more with her about it.

    In any case, I’ve said before and I’ll say it again: I got married at age 30 and wouldn’t give up having been single for all of my 20s for anything. And I don’t think it’s because I wanted to hang on to adolescence. I didn’t move back home after I graduated from college – didn’t even consider it. I bought and paid for my first car by myself. I had to sacrifice some things that I might have been able to afford had I moved back home, but I was an adult now and ready to take on the adult responsibilities of the world.

    Anyway, this is already way too long (sorry, honey) so I’ll let my 23-year-old husband comment more about getting married younger and having other non-marriage and family opportunities to grow into maturity. Obviously I wouldn’t have married him if he wasn’t on my level as far as maturity is concerned…

    Kari

  3. So in case you missed it there Kate, I’m actually younger than you 🙂 I’m sure our speaker would very much approve of my marrying habits 😉

    But I did have very similar concerns to some of those you mention. I had no intention to marry relatively young, and if I hadn’t met Kari when I did, I probably wouldn’t have. I think she fell into a trap of lifting up the past as the answer to the future, rather than learning from it and then creating something new.

    I was glad for the admission that the talk was full of generalisations, but marriage did seem to be some sort of panacea for her and it’s never going to be that simple. Even if it is the answer, it wouldn’t work if it were forced on people.

    So yeah, she’s definitely a mystery. Part of me wonders if her goal was more to start a conversation than to suggest an answer? If that was it, she’s succeeding….

  4. ‘I think she fell into a trap of lifting up the past as the answer to the future, rather than learning from it and then creating something new.’

    ‘She’ being Frederica, not Kari. I was a little confused there… 😉

  5. One reason that I’ve heard for the reason that divorce rates used to be lower is that the average life span ended in the early 50’s. Don’t like your husband? Just wait a bit. He’ll kick off first. No need to divorce then.

    Similarly, it’s worth mentioning that:
    1. During the Great Depression (the 1930’s) the average age of marriage was pretty late due to the threat of poverty when you had kids. Thus people were getting married as late as they are now. If it’s just age, then they should also have been immature.
    2. Divorce rates going up may be among a number of things that change as a result of the percentage of women in a society. Basically, when there’s a higher percentage of men in society women’s freedoms tend to be more restricted. When there are more women than men, women’s options are more open. Women have outnumbered men for a while now, one possible reason that divorce is easier.

    That isn’t to say that her thesis is impossible, but I can’t help but question the facts she uses to support it.

  6. Also, in periods where the rate of actual divorce was lower, “de facto” divorce by husbands simply abandoning their wives and moving away was, I vaguely remember hearing, much more common, making the “sad state of marriage” merely a matter of making official what was once unofficial.

  7. First of all, James, I had NO IDEA you were 23!!! I just assumed (yup, we all know what THAT does…) that you were older because you’re so intelligent, mature, well-read, etc, in ways that most people in their early twenties are not(myself included… oh wait, I forgot, I’m no longer in my early twenties–dammit!). Also, since I knew Kari and many in your group of friends are older than me, I suppose I gauged your age de facto. Also, you’re really tall. :)This is crazy. I’m going to have to reorganize my view of the world completely now. 😉

    So, congrats on being a Frederica poster child! 🙂

    Kari, I actually agree with everything you said, particularly about what made her lecture a great one. I certainly didn’t agree with everything she hypothesized (obviously), but I noticed the same qualities about her presentation you did and have immense respect for the woman. I thought it was especially interesting that, as you pointed out, she never denigrated women continuing their educations or participating fully in demanding careers–which is what one might usually expect from someone with “young marriage/focus on the family” views.

    That’s what I like best about M-G, in the end: she’s hard to pigeonhole. You can’t tell from one belief she holds (ie, “there should be more teenage pregnancies”) what others may fall in line with that (ie, “I don’t think war is defensible”), which is really refreshing in an era when even radicals adhere to a predictable party line.

    In the end, my problems with M-G’s talk were summarized much more articulately by James: “I think she fell into a trap of lifting up the past as the answer to the future, rather than learning from it and then creating something new.
    … Marriage did seem to be some sort of panacea for her and it’s never going to be that simple. Even if it is the answer, it wouldn’t work if it were forced on people.” That’s what rubbed me the wrong way (along with bragging on her kids and grandkids, who have thankfully fallen in line with her philosophy–I wonder how her perspective might be different, or at least articulated differently, if she had, say, a 28-year-old daughter who hadn’t yet married).

    OK, must get to work here on my catapult column. This has been a bad month for writers block everywhere but blog comments. 🙂

  8. James, et. al.,
    This has been a fascinating blog conversation to read. Must find more on Mathewes-Green.

  9. Thanks. Her personal website is at http://www.frederica.com/ and contains a number of articles she has written.