We have a choice: either to shape our lives by freedom and the desire to possess more and more material goods or to fashion our lives around duty and the goal of spiritual freedom, the release from cultural dictates and a narrow self…
Maybe you are different than I am, but I drifted through life, somnolent, not questioning the predominant cultural opinion that everyone passes through four stages of human life: infancy/childhood; adolescence/young adulthood; adulthood; and retirement/senility. These stages are a modern version of the seven ages of man given by Shakespeare in As You Like It: the infant, “puking on the nurse’s arms;” “the whining schoolboy… creeping like a snail unwillingly to school;” the soldier “jealous in honor, sudden and quick to quarrel;” the middle-aged man “round bell… full of saws;” the emaciated old man “with spectacles on his nose…[with] childish treble [of voice]”; and the last stage, a “second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
Not until I tutored a college class on comparative cultures and read “Indian Culture: Its Spiritual, Moral and Social Aspects,” a brilliant, short paper by B.L. Atreya, did I wake up to realize that the modern four stages of human life are an amalgam of biology and Western culture. The corresponding stages of Indian life as laid out by ancient Hindu sages are based primarily on the universal properties of the interior life. My students and I were shocked when we discovered that the categories childhood and adolescence used in the West underwent a remarkable change over the past two hundred years, especially in America.
Even in colonial America, childhood, as we know and understand it today, did not exist. Seventeenth-century portraits show children dressed in clothing normal for adults; the children in these portraits are miniature adults. From the age of six or seven, children were given a regular round of tasks about the house or farm, such as caring for domestic animals, gardening, spinning wool, making candles, and preparing meals. Children attended adult church services and accompanied their parents on visits to relatives and neighbors.
Around 1800, distinctive children’s clothing appears; children spend more and more time playing together, not with adults; and, toward mid-century, Sunday schools are instituted. On the farm, a male child still grew up working the land and tending animals, most likely thinking that when an adult he will be a farmer like his father. In farm families, children and adults shared the same friends, entertainments, and expectations. Small-town life was essentially the same as farm life; the son of a carpenter or a shopkeeper grew into his father’s occupation.
From his study of family life in America, historian John Demos concludes that by the mid-nineteenth century “circumstances seem to isolate the child in a profound way, and to create a gulf between the generations that had not been there before.” The gap between children and adults increased throughout the nineteenth century. By 1900, the word “adolescence” became commonly used to designate a stage of development between childhood and maturity; the word “teenager” first appeared in Popular Science Monthly, in 1941.
Unlike puberty, which is biological and thus universal, the confusion, rebellion, and search for identity that we assume to be natural in American teenagers is in truth a product of culture. In colonial America, youth was not an awkward age fraught with confusions and vulnerabilities. Before extensive contact with the West, the Chinese did not recognize adolescence as a period of human development and had no word for it. The students in the Comparative Cultures Tutorial were surprised to discover that the most turbulent period of their lives was a cultural phenomenon, not the direct result of the hormonal changes of puberty.
In non-Western, premodern cultures, young persons followed easily in their parents’ footsteps, learning work skills and acquiring virtues by imitating their elders. In traditional China, for example, to instruct his six- or seven-year-old son, a Chinese father in business would take him to executive conferences. The son witnessed and later participated in adult negotiations. In general, parents were proud of a child who acted older than his or her age, for that indicated the child was entering smoothly into society. In the ups and downs of life, parents made little effort to hide their problems and real selves from their children. In triumph, the children celebrated with the adults; in disaster, the youngsters suffered with them.
At twelve or fourteen, most Chinese children were already full-fledged members of society and had known the joys and disappointments of living with other people; they had unobtrusively entered into the world of the adults. Secure in their place in society and comforted by knowing they could depend on others emotionally and financially, high-school students had no great desire to form cliques or join a gang.
In America, the relation between the city-boy and his father was entirely different than the farm-boy and his father for two reasons. First, the city-boy usually did not have an economic role within the family, especially after World War II. Second, the father worked in an office or factory, far from home sociologically, if not physically. The boy did not experience his father’s work and had at best a sketchy understanding of what his father actually did in the workplace. The child had no reason to assume that his vocation would bear any resemblance to his father’s. Consequently, the city-boy’s future was uncertain. Confused by the myriad possibilities offered to him by a modern economy, he did not know who he would become, and thus “identity” becomes an issue.
In the mid-twentieth century with the baby boom after World War II, corporate America discovered that a great deal of money could be made off children. Today, most current movies, popular music, and video games are directed at adolescents and young adults. The TV commercials for cereals and toys that surround the cartoons on television are aimed at very young children. American children, aided by their parents, develop a world of their own. Unprecedented in history, American children own a staggering amount of materials goods—clothes, toys, cameras, computers, televisions, smartphones, PlayStations, and iPads—all purchased by parents or grandparents. One young woman in the Comparative Cultures Tutorial from an affluent, Connecticut home sheepishly confessed that as a pre-teen she had two hundred and forty-eight dolls, including a hundred and sixty-five Beanie Babies; her room was a private sanctuary, strewn with clothes and toys, with no path to her bed. Cultural critic Elizabeth Kolbert claims that “the imperial offspring of the Ming dynasty and the dauphins of pre-Revolutionary France” were not as indulged as contemporary American children.
In America today, adolescents—and even preteens!—are viewed as adults with no further need of character training, as individuals with their own legitimate desires that are to be encouraged. They are indulged and entertained in every possible manner. Adolescents are expected to enjoy themselves, to do little or no work around the home, and to create a world of their own, safely insulated from the real world of work and responsibility. With no clear rites of passage to adulthood, adolescence tends to extend indefinitely.
In most premodern societies, very young children are seen as incapable of receiving verbal instruction. “Up to about the age of four, a child was considered to be a creature who could not reason and therefore could not benefit from training and punishment,” psychologist Mariella Doumanis writes in her study of rural Greek mothers. “The notion of spoiling a baby, especially during the first two years of life, appeared to be inconceivable to the rural mothers I met. Their attitude was that the best thing they could do for their child’s future development was to meet his every need as well as their means allowed.”
In India, too, the mother indulges the infant’s wishes and demands. “An Indian emerges from infancy into childhood believing that the world is benign and that others can be counted on to act in his behalf,” observes psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar. “Many character traits ascribed to Indians are a part of the legacy of this particular pattern of infancy: trusting friendliness with a quick readiness to form attachments, and intense, if short-lived, disappointment if friendly overtures are not reciprocated; willingness to reveal the most intimate confidences about one’s life at the slightest acquaintance and the expectation of a reciprocal familiarity in others.”
Later in childhood and in young adulthood, in Greece, India, and other traditional societies, a person undergoes character training to build a strong, healthy body and a tough, disciplined soul. Lakota children learn generosity, truthfulness, and bravery by imitating their elders. When mothers give food to the weak and old, they give portions to their children, so they can perform the service of giving with their own hands. A young boy does not listen to long speeches on “how to be like father.” A boy learns to do the things his father does by watching him closely. In this way, he learns to ride a horse, to make a bow and arrows, and to sing songs of praise and joy when he gives to others his most cherished belongings. All the men in the tribe contribute to toughening up the boys. On cold winter mornings before breakfast, the men may take the boys for a plunge in a stream. An uncle may send his nephew for a long run without water, so he will learn to do without, as braves and scouts must often do.
In Japan, training in friendliness, sacrifice, self-discipline, and persistence begins as early as pre-school. Children are encouraged to struggle with difficult tasks rather than giving up or looking for an easier way. Childcare specialist Irene Shigaki cites one example: “A group of children was practicing for an athletic event by running across a large college playfield. The youngest at two-and-one-half fell when he was only halfway across the playfield. The caregivers at the finish line yelled encouragingly: ‘ganbare!’—‘Don’t give up!’ Though crying, the child picked himself up and finished the course where he was warmly embraced and praised for his perseverance.”
The child in most cultures is apprenticed in domestic or other work at an early age, learning from parents and older siblings how to behave and function as an adult. For instance, anthropologist Ronald Rohner writes that among the Papago of the Sonoran Desert, the children, as adults-in-training, “receive a great deal of instruction—not in how to do things but in why they should be done. Children are expected to cooperate and to learn work tasks by imitating their elders. In the evening, grandfathers and often fathers include among their stories lectures on the importance of industry, honesty, and peacefulness.” At age eleven, a Papago girl assumes the full range of household chores, and in a few years, she will move seamlessly into adulthood, marrying, becoming a mother, and managing her own household.
In traditional India, before a young man becomes a householder, he has learned how to acquire wealth in accordance with the dharma—truth, honesty, justice, kindness, and self-control—and has been taught to enjoy life as a productive member of society with moderation and restraint. His principal duty as a householder is to fashion a happy home for his wife, children, and old parents.
For most Americans, indeed for most modern Westerners, adulthood is fraught with difficulties. To enter the adult world of work, a person must give up the self-indulgence and the freedom of adolescence; in the workplace, a person must obey the boss, no matter how rude, stupid, or ignorant he is. Furthermore, as Karl Marx observed 175 years ago, under the division of labor of industrialism, the worker “does not confirm himself in his work, but denies himself, feels miserable and not happy.” He feels to be himself only when not working; at the factory or at the office, the worker feels alienated, or estranged, from his work and himself. To enter into the workforce is to accept “forced labor.” No one would willingly accept industrial work, and the factory and the office are “shunned like the plague.”
Even with the affluence brought about by capitalism in the twentieth-first century, work is “shunned like the plague;” most of the educated, young adults I know dream of retiring at fifty. The rhythm of their lives is a dreaded week of work followed by a weekend of real life—shopping, clubbing, and entertainment—with the hope of now and then spending a week’s vacation in Hawaii, Cancun, or Las Vegas. “It is only in modern societies that man feels himself to be the prisoner of his daily work, in which he can never escape from Time,” observes the great scholar of religion Mircea Eliade. “Hence the bewildering number of distractions invented by modern civilization.” Outside the workplace, what fills the interior life of most workers is entertainment, and that usually means watching television or images on a laptop or a tablet and texting on a smartphone.
I do not know how many adults in their twenties and thirties hold the old romantic notion that “some enchanted evening” they will find the one person destined to fulfill them and after marriage will live in a house with a white picket fence and a dog named Rex. I do know from personal observations and sociological data that in modern life many people are desperately lonely and see marriage as a way to escape the misery of having no close friends and only “wedding-and-funeral” relatives. But using another person to escape from loneliness seldom works out. From years of counseling, psychologist Rollo May points to why many marriages founded on the desire to overcome loneliness spawn negative emotions: “Spouses expect the marriage partner to fill some lack, some vacancy within themselves; and they are anxious and angry because he or she doesn’t.” One-third of couples married for the first time will not celebrate their fifteenth wedding anniversary.
Many Americans look forward to retirement, where they will have the freedom to indulge themselves as moneyed adolescents. For upper-middle-class retirees, consumerism extends beyond cars, clothes, watches, and electronic devices to include life-enhancing experiences. Just over the past year, friends of mine have hiked the Canadian Rockies, vacationed in Miami, meditated at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado, traveled to Thailand for R&R, safaried in Tanzania, gone on a National Geographic cruise to the Antarctic, and bought spices and textiles in Morocco. A dear friend of mine, a woman retired from college teaching, told me the week before she left for the Galapagos Islands that she now had no duties, no responsibilities, and the time and the money to embody her lifelong dreams of travel and adventure. For my friend, an atheist and thoroughgoing materialist, the final stage of life is a much-feared senility, a “second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
The ancient Hindu sages envisaged a different stage of life to follow the householder. Ideally, after the age of fifty-five or so, a person should withdraw interests from the family, retire to think about deeper problems of life and thereby be of some service to society. He or she is now fit to take an interest in social and political activities and to become a legislator, an adviser to governments, or an educator. If so inclined, a person may write works on philosophy, ethics, and science.
The last stage of life is withdrawal from all attachments to the world. If possible, a retired person should settle in a secluded and peaceful place to meditate upon the deeper problems of life. He or she should practice some kind of yoga and aim to become a jivanmukta, a liberated person, freed from the restrictions of caste, creed, custom, and scriptures, seeking happiness for all around him or her. He or she can direct those who ask for guidance, yet prepare for the next life in order to achieve a peaceful death.
To summarize, the four stages of modern life follow the oscillating arc of freedom, beginning with the helpless infant, completely dependent upon adults and thus with no control over his life. The adolescent with no social or economic duties is completely free to live in his own world, passing much of his time being entertained by mass media, connecting to other adolescents through posting on Facebook and texting on a smartphone. In adulthood, the loss of freedom and independence occurs upon entering the workplace, where an individual must act contrary to his desires, for he must show up to work on time and obey the boss’ orders. Once retired, a person regains the freedom of adolescence, and can do whatever he wants. The final stage is death, the complete annihilation of the self.
The four stages of life according to the ancient Hindu sages follows the ever-expanding circle of duty. The student must develop his innate gifts to serve his future family and at some point society. After twenty-five years of family life, a person should withdraw to serve society as a legislator, a teacher, or a writer. The final stage of human life is a total withdrawal from worldly attachments to meditate, to seek enlightenment, and to prepare for the next life.
We moderns, of course, can never become ancient Hindus; nevertheless, we have a choice: either to shape our lives by freedom and the desire to possess more and more material goods or to fashion our lives around duty and the goal of spiritual freedom, the release from cultural dictates and a narrow self.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
 Erik Erikson, in his influential book Identity and the Life Cycle (New York: International Universities Press, 1959), gives eight stages of psychosocial development that are subdivisions of the four stages given in our text. In contrast to Erikson, we emphasize cultural formation and the interior life, not biology and psychosocial crisis. The bestselling book in the mid-70s Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life (New York: Dutton, 1976) by Gail Sheehy relied heavily upon Erikson’s work.
 John Demos, “The American Family in Past Time,” American Scholar 43 (Summer 1974): 440.
 Elizabeth Kolbert, “Spoiled Rotten,” The New Yorker (July 2, 2012).
 Mariella Doumanis, Mothering in Greece: From Collectivism to Individualism (London and New York: Academic Press, 1983), p. 52.
 Sudhir Kakar, The Inner World: A Psycho-analytic Study of Childhood and Society in India, rev. ed. (New Delhi, India: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 82.
 Irene S. Shigaki, “Child Care Practices in Japan and the United States: How Do They Reflect Cultural Values in Young Children?” Young Children (May 1983): 22.
 Ronald P. Rohner, They Love Me, They Love Me Not: A Worldwide Study of the Effects of Parental Acceptance and Rejection (New Haven: HRAF, 1975), p. 132.
 D’Vera Cohn, “At Long Last, Divorce,” Pew Research Center.