7 Ages of Man Revisited

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Audrey Kawasaki

If you’re a devoted reader of this blog, you’re undoubtedly highly intelligent, impressively learned, and therefore familiar with Jacques’ “All the World’s a Stage” speech from As You like It:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the canon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything

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William Mulready: The Seven Ages of Man

Note, tweens and pre-sexual adolescents are missing from the above. We jump from “whining school boys” to lovers/soldiers, who seem much more like young adults than the high school seniors I teach who for Spirit Week come to school costumed as characters from video games (Mario/Luigi) or as insects (bubble bees/lightening bugs) or even as consumer items (e.g., Junior Mints). Surreal – a dozen highly intelligent adolescents arrayed with false mustaches and zombie make-up and insect wings seated around a Harkness table discussing how the limited omniscient point-of-view in Mansfield’s “Miss Brill” relates to the short story’s themes of alienation and illusion vs. reality.

It almost makes one wax nostalgic for the draft.

Paradoxically, as childishness stretches into the third decade in the West, girls are menstruating and boys ejaculating earlier and earlier.

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Jennifer Linton Catholic Girls

Yet, even though humans are capable of sexual reproduction much earlier, the latest brain research proclaims that the human brain doesn’t reach maturity until 25 or so. In fact, the NY Times reports that:

JEFFREY JENSEN ARNETT, a psychology professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., is leading the movement to view the 20s as a distinct life stage, which he calls “emerging adulthood.” He says what is happening now is analogous to what happened a century ago, when social and economic changes helped create adolescence — a stage we take for granted but one that had to be recognized by psychologists, accepted by society and accommodated by institutions that served the young. Similar changes at the turn of the 21st century have laid the groundwork for another new stage, Arnett says, between the age of 18 and the late 20s. Among the cultural changes he points to that have led to “emerging adulthood” are the need for more education to survive in an information-based economy; fewer entry-level jobs even after all that schooling; young people feeling less rush to marry because of the general acceptance of premarital sex, cohabitation and birth control; and young women feeling less rush to have babies given their wide range of career options and their access to assisted reproductive technology if they delay pregnancy beyond their most fertile years.

So, if adulthood doesn’t really start in earnest until our late twenties, then over a third of our lives are spent in immaturity? Is this phenomenon also true in developing and third world countries? Is evolution retarding industrial countries’ citizens’ independence so that their brains can fully form while along the Steppes Mogul nomads skip emerging adulthood for the rigors of survival?

Over here in sitcomland and on Nickelodeon, we’re seeing children cynically wisecracking and forever flummoxing inept adults. Worse, (at least to me) advertisers manipulate the images of babies to lip synch in bored adult voices as they shill products. Certainly, true innocence seems lost ever earlier.

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At any rate, what a bountiful kingdom childhood has become, a continent of enchantment stretching from Candyland and jump rope to beer pong and bungie jumping. Kids get to boss their parents around until the “youngsters” verge on thirty yet get to enjoy the financial wherewithal those pushed-around progenitors have accumulated. Pity our poor ancestors, their playtime cut short by plagues, famines, and wars.

Take, Master Will, for example, here in his 30’s whining to young Southampton that he – the Bard of Avon – is getting fairly long in the tooth:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

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One thought on “7 Ages of Man Revisited

  1. Remember the 30 something Will lived at a time when average life expectancy was about 35-38. Even adjusting for infant mortality, a child who made it to age ten could only expect to live to late 50’s. Now a baby at birth in the US can expect to live into their mid 70’s. Maybe what has changed is for the young person now the question is what’s the hurry.

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