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Adolescent Nation

By John Townley

It was in the airport taxi to Paris that I discovered my father spoke gibberish.

He just opened his mouth and out it came: nonsense syllables with no apparent meaning that reminded me of passing road signs before I knew how to read, or of the crazy din surrounding me before I learned to speak. It was horrible.

It shouldn't have been a surprise, really. At age eight I knew we were going to a foreign country, but I had no idea how foreign. I suppose I should have expected the cab driver to speak a different language (these days they all do, often not the local one), but when my father replied to him in the same urgently meaningless babble, I was shocked - no, betrayed. The man whose lap I daily sat on was clearly someone I didn't even know. He had become something else, and in the process hurled me back into the bearingless world of childhood chaos I thought I had escaped...

I should have been proud. My dad was fluent in French, having spent years as an American expatriate in Paris in the 1920s. He and F. Scott Fitzgerald even got thrown out of Harry's New York Bar together! He was a part of an internationalist American sect that was totally out of sync with our native culture - then, and still today. He was a man ahead of his time, and ahead of my time, even by the time I finally reached the age he was in that taxi in 1953.

But it's the French connection that's important. No culture has more criticized America for its childishness, its provincialism, its total immaturity than the French, although that kind of observation is common across Europe. My dad later told me just that, and after that, everybody else did. How many times I have been scolded, "You Americans are so adolescent, so immature." Well, maybe. We must feel deep inside there is something to it, as America for generations has looked to France as an example of sophistication and adulthood - be it in sex, wine, food, or philosophy. But at the same time, American culture (rock and roll, Coke, McDonald's, Disneyland) seem so threatening that the French themselves enforce airplay quotas to block out the flood of American music. Does the fast-food-gorging, blaring electric guitar cartoon culture of a so-called teenage adolescent nation truly threaten the grownups of the world?

It does, if you view nations as people. If you thought that the hamburger-greedy, music-crazy, drag-racing teen down the block was packing nuclear weapons it would give you pause for thought. After all, shouldn't adults be running the show? Wouldn't the neighborhood be a very dangerous place if pistol-packing, self-obsessed kids whose main concerns were food, sex, cars, and drugs had the same power as the police? You bet it would. Worse -- maybe that's just how it really is.

Which depends, of course, on the country/kid connection. Is America, after all of its sobering wars, depressions, conflicts, cultural and technological revolutions, and graduation to become the world superpower just a teen with growing pains among a host of other older and younger world playmates? Are we globally living the dynamics of the playground, with its laughter and tears, teachers and bullies, pleasures and perils simply blown up to a larger scale?

Sure we are. To see it, just look into your children's eyes, look into the mirror, and then read the newspapers. It's all the same. It just depends on how close you are willing to get and then how far back you step to get a good look at yourself.

So let's look.

Europeans have for years accused us, as a culture, of being immature adolescents. So many of our characteristics fit the picture of a teenager just now coming into our late teens:

·          We think we are immortal, and thus neglect the problems of health, aging, and retirement, by which older cultures who care for their own are horrified. A compulsively youth-oriented culture, we prefer nostrums to delay aging rather than embracing maturity. In fact, in all respects,

·          We only see what is immediately ahead of us, the short run, and usually wind up paying double for it. That’s because in our growth time-frame, the immediate future seems quite distant. This leads to runaway generosity and inordinate selfishness, depending on the immediate situation. We promise more than we deliver, because we have not yet learned follow-through. We borrow and spend, rather than save, and invented the credit card to make it easier. Prevention is ignored in favor of costly after-the-fact remedies.

·          We wolf our food in large quantities and are only beginning to realize there is more than steak, potatoes, and fast food. Yet, we are food and diet faddish (ever watch how kids carefully separate different food on a plate, never mix?), loving and fearing food at the same time.

·          We're sex obsessed, yet totally ambiguous about it, because we don't really know its place in life, it's still too new, though we're getting better at it.

·          Because our desire level is high and our wisdom level low, we are born suckers for every kind of get-rich quick scheme, instant gratification, point-of-purchase scam, and the like. We don’t look before we leap because we are overpowered by the desire of the moment. We’re more easily taken in by a big lie than multiple small ones, because simplification is the hallmark of impatient, urgent desire. We seek simple and often inappropriate solutions to complex problems, and then get angry and confused when caught up by errors which anyone with some experience and forethought could have predicted/avoided (this is our specialty in foreign policy).

·          We tell our kids that it’s not about win or lose, it’s how you play the game. But that’s for grownups – for us, it’s all about winning, getting there first, a competitive, still-evolving ego that doesn’t yet have the maturity of having already gotten there. Where are we trying so hard to get to first? Like most teenagers, to the “success” that lies in adulthood.

·          At the bottom line, it’s all about us, right now, right here – yesterday, tomorrow and other people are simply characters and props on our own stage for us to play with. We are not so much selfish, as just totally self-centered, utterly unaware of what else is going on onstage. For instance, our history courses in school teach only American history from 1776 on, as if the rest of the world dropped off the stage when we made our entrance.

·          Accordingly, we are innocents abroad and can't understand the unintentional swath we cut through cultures we impact - and then wonder why others disparage, ridicule, or despise us. Individually, they often like us because many of us seem closer to adults that way. But as a group we never lose that adolescent overlay that holds us back, prevents us from seeing through others’ eyes, which would be one of the marks of true adulthood.

On the other hand,

·          Our vibrant, insouciant youth makes others envious as we export our early works of inspiration - from Coke, to jeans, to rock and roll - which make aging cultures feel young again. We are careless, in both good and bad sense of the word. Older cultures courting this youth can often be overwhelmed and/or degraded, however, as France has found and reacted accordingly. And, to nations younger than ours, we try to be helpmates and mentors, though in the process of pretending to be parents we often spoil the soup.

·          We don’t really know the difference between fantasy and reality, so sometimes when others would fail, we actually make dreams come true. If you don’t know it can’t be done, sometimes you can do it. And although our short memory makes us endlessly repeat the same mistakes, it also makes for early forgiveness even after the most extreme wrongs.

·          Despite dire predictions to the contrary, we seem never to run out of steam, even when we’re tapped out and overextended. That may not last, but deep pockets and boundless optimism paper over mistakes that regularly cripple other countries.

But, if we really are an adolescent nation, what about our earlier childhood? Is this part of a bigger picture of growing up from infancy and eventually reaching adulthood? How does it all fit together?
The trick is to view nations as people, as larger organisms that mature more slowly than their individual constituents -- but follow the same pattern on a bigger scale (fractally, if you will). The implications are provocative, sometimes alarming.

Growing Pains: An Astrological Baby Book

Dog Years, Cat Years – Let’s say America, as a nation, is growing up at an expanded time pattern that mimics human growth and maturity but at a grander scale. It’s common wisdom that your dog or cat ages seven “years” of its life in just one of yours (7 to 1, dog/cat to people), The processes of development and aging are basically the same – infancy, youth, adolescence, maturity, old age -- but for us it takes longer to complete than a pet, because we live longer. But with a nation it would be a different ratio (say, 12 to 1, people to nation, because nations live lots longer than we do). Roughly, that equates the 12-year cycle of Jupiter with that of  the Sun. America ages just one of its bigger, “nation” years for every twelve of ours. In an average human lifespan, the nation only ages a little over six of its larger years. By that calculation, twelve years after the Revolutionary War began in 1776, America was only one year (or twelve “months”) old, a toddler barely standing alone and just getting its faculties together in time to draft the Constitution in 1789. Bring things up to the current date, and America is now sophomore college age, 19, while older nations like England and France are mature, experienced adults, further along in years, sophistication, and sometimes world-weariness.

As you trace the U.S.A.'s growth in 12-year (= 1 human year) segments, it appears to have gone through all the traditional child psychology growth periods, from the terrible twos (leading to the War of 1812) to sexual schism (age 7-8, our Civil War) to traumatic early teens, complete with alternating aggressive and passive yearly reversals, dietary preferences, sexual development and repression, and more. Further, the country has attracted immigrant cultural styles appropriate to its age along the way, and still does.

Timeline table:

U.S.A. Scaled Growth Timeline


American Staircase


Baby’s Steps


Declaration of Independence, birth of a nation

0 – 1 mo.

Birth, eyes open and begin to focus


Battles of Princeton, Saratoga, winter at Valley Forge – recognizes the enemy, but it’s a struggle

1 month –

8 months

Lifts and moves head from side to side, makes jerky arm movements, brings hands to face, strong reflex movement, manipulates objects, learns to crawl.


Treaty of Paris, Revolutionary War officially ends. End dependence on father/mother country, French ally

8 months – 1 year

Average age of weaning from mother’s breast (8 mos). Stands upright, begins to walk independent of supporting adults


Constitution adopted, government formed

1-2 yrs

Organizational, separation abilities continue, ending in speech, articulation of concepts and objects


Louisiana Purchase, conquest of Barbary Pirates

2-3 yrs

terrible twos, establish independence, personal territory


War of 1812, acquire Florida, Monroe Doctrine

3-4 yrs

After confrontation approach fails, consolidate personal space by other means – coaxing and promise


Indian Wars, expansion of the Midwest

4-5 yrs

Playground status, pecking order appears, others impinge, challenge


Mexican War, opening of the West

5-6 yrs

Playground status, pecking order congeals, resolves, others are included


Gold Rush, major entry into world trade

6-7 yrs

(grade 1)

Higher social and learning goals/structure appear, comparative achievement becomes a motivating force


Civil War, Reconstruction

7-8 yrs

(grade 2)

Hidden sexuality wars, separation, bifurcation of sexes as sex roles begin to split


Financial recovery, sexual repression, money rules, expansion

8-9 yrs

(grade 3)

End, resolution of hidden sexuality wars, separation, sex roles established, goals externalized


Statue of Liberty, major immigration begins, women suffrage and temperance begin, capitalism rampant, unions begin

9-10 yrs

(grade 4)

Established roles take root, empathy and social understanding develop hand in hand with selfishness and acquisitiveness


Spanish American War, Panama Canal, imperialism begins, annex Hawaii, Samoa

10-11 yrs

(grade 5)

Self-assertion (positive) and bullying (negative) rise as goal-orientation and performance demand are thrust to the fore. If you want it, take it.


Sidle onto world stage, WWI, League of Nations

11-12 yrs

(grade 6)

Success in personal assertion is tempered by learning that cooperation, sacrifice, may pay off even better


Roaring twenties, America on top of the world, prohibition, women suffrage

12-13 yrs

(grade 7)

Peak (and end) of childhood, got it all together, thinks it’s in charge, calling all the shots


The Great Depression, World War II, new burdens all around

13-14 yrs

(grade 8)

Puberty, new set of issues destroys old world, catapults into new internal and external challenges, rules


A temporary rest through imposed order, Cold War

14-15 yrs

(grade 9)

New rules accepted, but conflicts still remain troubling, underground, repression


From beatnik to Black Panther, revolts against the grey flannel suit, Vietnam War, social unrest, generations clash

15-16 yrs

(grade 10)

Bottom of adolescence, separation, rebellion, suicide, generations clash as individuality asserts


Exit war, social progress consolidated, from race to women’s rights

16-17 yrs

(grade 11)

Individuality coalesces, socializes, learns and masters the rules


time to cash in on rampant wealth and commerce, as old rivals crumble

17-18 yrs

(grade 12)

Peak (and end) of adolescence, on top of the world


A sudden superpower without the knowledge yet to deal with it

18-19 yrs

(college 1)

First shot at adulthood, first chance to blow it, often clueless, too gullible or too arrogant



19-20 yrs

(college 2)

Lessons learned, behavior modified, time to pretend to adulthood for the moment, the wise fool, while it lasts

(Childhood growth stages distilled from Piaget, Erickson, Kohlberg, Tanner, Money, Greenspan, Shanker, and others)

What do you make of a nation of adults that, collectively, behaves as a child? It brings up some serious issues. Children are strange and, given the power, can hurt other people more than adults do. Should they be tried as adults? Should America be tried as an adult for some of the worst crimes in history – like rape, assault, robbery, patricide, fratricide, genocide? Can a still-growing child be rehabilitated? Can we? If so, how? Why did America both love and hate Abraham Lincoln, and why did we kill him? And, why did we totally worship JFK and then murder him, too? When a growing child/nation crosses mere mortals, it can kill them, even without meaning to…

On the other hand, no one can love – and give – like a child. It is in the eyes of the innocent that bravery, sacrifice, idealism, and heroism thrive. Adults don’t dream about saving the world, children do. And America has done just that, often in childlike fashion, when no one else could or would. We believed what our parents taught us, even after they stopped or were stopped, and we acted on it, often at great price. How do you reward a child like that – how do you preserve the innocence but squelch the selfishness? America’s got plenty of both, all right there in the chart, all grown and developed by the numbers, as any child psychologist might predict.

And for the future? After we get over being put in our place in the first college years (now in progress - we still think that winning battles by youthful strength means winning the war, which we then lose down the road), we will find ourselves in our twenties, the very age where most great scientists, inventors, creative artists, and many more make their greatest discoveries and contributions. The best is yet to come. When our politicians boast that we are a young nation with our best years ahead of us, for once they’re right. We will in time outgrow our learning years and get on to our real contributions, still ahead.

But the bottom line of this is not that upon seeing our juvenile ways, we can promptly correct them. Natural growth cannot be hurried along very much, for political and social evolution is a slow process. We will continue to grow while attracting, emulating, rewarding, and especially electing mainly those who reflect our current subjective age. If you want to live in a more mature culture you probably need to move to one, or have the patience to remain here and help our culture grow up, over the next few human lifetimes. What we learn in our own personal lives is ever available to impact the larger picture.

Even in a sophomore class, there are some advanced students who should be leading and some who should have been left to repeat the freshman year. The former should be our leaders, but for the moment don’t seem to be, by our curious choice to run with what the modern political equivalents of P.T. Barnum are trying to sell us. And then there are those upper classmates, and the ones even further along with PhDs and successfully more mature outlooks: we have only to look to our “parental” cultures in Europe for some sobering tips. Right now, we mock them, as teenagers mock adults – at our own peril, because the wisdom of age almost always trumps the strength of youth. The question is: can we grow up fast enough without having to be propelled by our own self-undoing? Can we learn to play, and play fair, before the playground takes a much more terrible toll on us for our behavior? Not yet 21, will our symbolic underage bingeing get the better of us, or will we learn to hold our liquor in time? These are some of the critical issues that any astrologer could tell you face us now, but is anyone listening?

[Birthday Note, 7-4-09: this article was written in early 2004, before the elections showed America still preferred fear and beer over less sophomoric aspirations, and the binge continued. Now that the money's all spent, will we manage to make it to graduation?...]

[And yet another note, spring 2013, after so many obvious lessons are so slowly being learned, change still seems so painfully gradual. No one ever said growing up was easy...but one must remember, this is on a 12-to-1 scale, so it's moving twelve times slower than in a real individual...]

I hear music...
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