Emerging Adulthood: with the world at their feet (yet another essay for uni)

Graduation from high school is often seen as a rite of passage into the life stage of ‘emerging adulthood’ (Schwartz, Cote and Arnett 2005), a time when young people expect to become empowered by their new status as adult. However, capitalist ideology is increasingly reducing the control young adults have over their own lives so that instead of having ‘the world at their feet’, as the cliché goes, they are actually powerless and marginalised. Urlich Beck argues that capitalism has led to individualism in a risk society where globalisation has increased the pressure for individuals to contribute to economic growth at the expense of community cohesion and at the risk of being ostracised from mainstream society. Additionally, Michel Foucault presents institutional power as a driving force in this process. Until young people reach this post-school period they are held back from maturing and taking on responsibilities by the institutions of schools and families and high school graduation acts to signify the end of these restrictions and an emergence into the adult world. One of the main ways capitalism exerts its power is through the expectation of linear career paths running from formal education to professional careers and hierarchical progression. Three texts with protagonists resisting these forces are the novels The Messenger by Markus Zusak (2002) and no worries by Bill Condon (2005) and the film Ghost World directed by Terry Zwigoff (2000).

The Messenger tells the tale of Ed, a nineteen year old floating through life. Ed had obtained many of the signifiers of adulthood by being in a stable job and enjoying financial independence, including living away from the parental home but in current western society more is required to be accepted into the adult world. In Australia, increasingly more students are staying to the final possible year of school. There is then an assumption of linear progression to university or some other career pathway due to government policies and social expectations (te Riele 2004), whereas upon the completion of his schooling, Ed had merely fallen into driving taxis. This job acts as a strong metaphor for his life where he took people on journeys but went nowhere himself.

During the course of the novel Ed becomes more focused and purposeful as he takes control of his behaviour and actions. However, the book continually undermines the power of Ed and other individuals with plot and character development, but also via metafiction, “a kind of fiction that openly draws attention to its own fictional status” (The Oxford Companion to English Literature 2000).

The plot of the novel involves Ed being on a quest to fulfil the requirement of mysterious cards with cryptic messages written on them. A parallel plot is Ed’s quest to find his place in the world. Any self-determination involved in this pursuit was undermined by the institutional structures entwined in the plot. For example, the catalyst for the plot was an attempted bank robbery. The bank robber tried to assert power through the force of his gun but the first line of the book has Ed stating, “The gunman is useless” (p.3). It then appeared Ed’s friend Marvin may gain the upper hand with his wisecrack remarks but Ed says Marvin is “more useless than the gunman” (p.3). Then Ed thwarts the robber by seizing the dropped gun and momentarily has control but then the police arrive and take over the situation. This sets the tone for the subversive element of the book, continually pruning any hold of power its characters achieves.

Soon after the failed robbery Ed is required to attend court. Various people within the law institutions act superior to Ed including a police officer calling him “son” (pp.12-13), the judge being sarcastic (p.39) and a lawyer looking at him “with disdain” (p.40) and thus reinforce class categories but through humour and a cheeky attitude Ed is positioned as a resistor. In modern society people are expected to be able to break down these class categories through education and mobility rather than simply resist the pressures. Ed’s younger brother had broken from the suburban fringe and was attending university, “He’s on his way to becoming a lawyer” (p.21). Within the institution of law Ed was being sneered at for his lack of an esteemed career and for being a compulsory participant instead of a power-player like his brother was due to become. It is through these institutions and others such as school, that society dictates what separates normality from deviancy (Foucault 1977, p.304). Schwartz, Cote and Arnett write of the commercial career paths they expect young people to take:

...emerging adults who adopt more passive or procrastinatory approaches may have trouble forming coherent identities, and the resulting lack of identity coherence may prevent them from taking full advantage of the opportunities presented within affluent but unstructured Western societies.

(Schwartz, Cote and Arnett 2005, p.203)

They argue that without full immersion in capitalist society one could have difficulties forming an identity outside it or at its fringes. It is assumed by these institutions and sociologists that participation and progression in capitalist ideology is the best course to follow and it is considered against an individual’s best interests if they choose not to do so.

The characters of The Messenger are subjugated to the ideology of individualism as a direct result of capitalist ideals, and character development is confined to these parameters. Individualism is increasingly prominent as an ideology within capitalism almost to the extent that if someone is sick, it is considered their own fault for not maintaining a healthy lifestyle and if they are unemployed it is because they have failed to gain the necessary skills (Bauman in Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002, p.xvi). Society views each person as in control of their own destiny and therefore Ed only has himself to blame for failing to leave his suburb contaminated with teenage pregnancies, unemployed fathers and drinking and smoking mothers (p.18). This stereotypical portrayal of the suburbs places Ed geographically and socially but it also defines him through class structures and judgmental values of how people should contribute to society. Any power he hoped to have as an individual is diminished by association with the suburban fringe. Hence, as Bullen (2006, p.47) discussed, the discourse could be seen as adding to the class structure by defining the town as underclass through typecasting many of the secondary characters in the novel as violent or dysfunctional in some way, so that even though the main characters show resistance to capitalist ideological assumptions the descriptors of the secondary characters and the town itself reinforce them. Yet, power was granted to the primary characters at the end of the story as they overcame their supposed individual dysfunctional circumstances. Character development led Marvin to taking responsibility for his sweetheart and their child, and thereby taking one single Mum off the books (p.357); Ritchie to looking for a job (p.330); Audrey to finding love (p.385); and finally Ed to making himself better, “worth something” (p,372). Hence even the primary characters reinforced class structures as defined by dysfunctionalism.

Generally metafiction occurs to demonstrate that a story is artificial (Bell 1993). As The Messenger unfolds the author’s sleight of hand is increasingly felt. It is mostly told in the first person, from Ed’s perspective, but occasionally the second person has Ed addressing the reader and thus attempting to assert power over the reader. It starts with foretelling such as “You’re going to love my ma” (p.17), “tell you more about that later” (p.20) and “I’ve told you already” (p.23) and then moves to demanding reader involvement with questions such as “What would you do if you were me? Tell me. Please tell me!” (p.96). By the end of the book the author himself enters the story, confessing to be the deliverer of the cards (pp.381-384).

Despite all the progress Ed has made in his journey of self discovery by helping others and gaining confidence in himself, the control he thinks he has is undermined by the author pointing out Ed is make-believe. This metafiction serves as a representation of the myth of self-determination in society. Western society likes to believe individuals direct their own lives through their own decision making. Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (2002, p.163) argue there are so many individual decisions to be made in our modern world, such as what to buy and what to wear, that freedom has actually become a burden and true liberty would be a reduction of choices. The author’s assertion of control in The Messenger is an analogy of social construct where individuals are shaped by the society around them and in the western world that society is a capitalist society where institutions hold the real power, not individuals. All the little decisions people make on a daily basis hide how little self-determination they truly possess.

The emphasis on individualism and the reflected reduction of community cohesion has led to a risk society as conceptualised by Beck, “with the risk regime, people are expected to make their own life-plans, to be mobile, and to provide for themselves in various ways” (Beck 2000, p.70). No matter where participants are in the career hierarchy there is an element of uncertainty and risk, partly due to increasing flexibility in the labour market on a global scale. Positions are tenuous as they can be taken by rivals whether they be the colleagues alongside them, by foreigners in a cheaper labour market or by technological capital. As youth emerge from the school setting where daily life and the means of progress has been mainly determined for them, they are suddenly faced with overwhelming responsibilities and associated decisions to be made, to be able to reduce risk in their lives. Some studies have shown post-adolescents as “adapting to living with insecurity; anticipating instability over their lifetimes” and “some positively embrace it” (Bradley and Devadson 2008, pp.131-2). Many see further education as a risk protector but options are limited according to performance at the school level. Emerging adults are granted the power of choice but are often trapped by their particular level of academic attainment. Ed loved reading but in subjects other than English performed poorly due to self-confessed laziness (p.18). A love of reading isn’t enough to participate in the commercial world except at the lowest level. The educational institutions determine what abilities are valued in a capitalist society.

In no worries Brian achieves a few of the milestones perceived as markers of adulthood during the period covered by the story. He loses his virginity (p.174), obtains his driver’s licence (p.184), takes on some of the responsibility for his mother suffering from depression and enters the workforce. He left school at the age of seventeen, prematurely in today’s terms, upon being ridiculed by a teacher for being awkward and shy. His reserved personality had railed against the dominant institutional power of the school, inherent in his teacher.

After a couple of false starts Brian secured a job at a milk factory. Brian felt disempowered and sought to regain his identity and self-esteem in the workplace, “Going to work when other kids my age were bludging. It sucked” (p.1). He had moved from school to factory, one institution to another but quickly learnt some differences, “No put-down lectures. Norm talked to me like I was an equal” (p.4).

He also felt powerless in the family home due to the separation of his parents and his mother’s spiralling depression. During the course of the story Brian slowly learns his father’s support is mostly empty words. This family structure and behaviour is an example of the increasing risk Beck (2000) refers to in his evaluation of modern capitalist society. When Brian’s mother, Mrs Talbot, is fired from her job, mainly due to a manic episode from her depression, Brian approaches the shop owner, Joe, attempting to have an influence over the situation but again fails. Joe would have liked to support Brian’s mother but says “I have business here. Your mother no good for me. No good for business” (p.65). The capitalist prerogative overrules compassionate care.

During the course of the novel Brian and his mother battle various forms of the Australian mental health system. Ferguson (2005) wrote about Beck’s concept of risk in relation to the health system and child protection but the same analysis can be applied to mental health care. Over the years society has been convinced it is operating in a logical and structured fashion, that there are solutions to almost all arising problems, including in the field of health.

Although it is even less controllable there is a similar attitude to mental health care. In no worries Brian’s mother is disillusioned with her psychiatrist when the psychiatrist demonstrates a lack of interest and watches the time intently (pp.53-54). The psychiatrist does not provide a solution nor a truly manageable course of action. After a major breakdown a new doctor is found. At first the institutional forces of health care are clearly displayed through the general respect most patients offer doctors and the time being controlled (again) by the system, causing Mrs Talbot to ask “Why is she late” Why are they always late? Why are these doctors so bloody arrogant?” (p.135) but once an audience is secured the new doctor appears to be a more caring person than the previous psychiatrist (p.137).

However, after Mrs Talbot attempted suicide the system disappointed hopes again. There weren’t enough beds at the hospital (p.193) and when the new doctor was eventually contacted she initially lacked compassion and care, leaving Brian feeling powerless in the situation, “I would have hung up if I hadn’t needed her so much” (p.201). Then the doctor suddenly offered hope in the form of a cost-free bed in a private hospital (pp.202-3) only to withdraw the offer moments later (p.205). All power laid in the hands of the health system, particularly because the Talbots hadn’t obtained private health insurance – a capitalist risk reducing device.

By the end of the novel Brian recognises he is living in a risk society but is having difficulty accepting it, “Things were pretty bad but I kept telling myself it would work out all right...I just wanted to come out from under and breathe. I wanted to be a kid. Seventeen. No worries” (p.207). He wants freedom from making adult decisions and choices that are continually derided by the institutions in power. Nevertheless he stays firm in his role-reversal of being the responsible adult in the family, in the face of a completely uncertain future.

The film Ghost World also supports Beck’s concepts of individualisation and risk society. It contrasts Becky, passively accepting the constraints of the capitalist world, with Enid, who typifies Foucault’s deviant, resisting the power of the capitalist ideology (Foucault 1977, p.304). To resist she avoids all signifiers of popular culture as principally demonstrated by her immersion in alternative music. First the movie starts with an Indian dance number which Enid watches and imitates but then she discovers old blues music through an older man, Seymour, who also does not fit the norm of society expectations. As she begins to realise she cannot join Becky by taking a job and acting out a role in a corporation she starts to behave in a more subversive manner. For instance, when Becky tells Enid how to dress for improving rental prospects Enid dyes her hair green. She later pushes the resistant behaviour into more recognisable deviant action by visiting and buying from a pornography store and sleeping with Seymour. Through these actions Enid attempts to assert her own power and influence in society as she seeks to find her place. Sperb (2004) describes Enid as seeking depth and authenticity.

Giroux (2003, p.159) criticised Ghost World for making a film separate from political context but to examine an ideology in detail it is sometimes important to study it isolated from a bigger picture. Ghost World is a study of the effect of individualisation in a risk society. Becky passively became part of this individualisation ideology. Her one goal upon leaving school was to find a place of her own and thus made compromising decisions in order to achieve this. She met the “conventional markers of full adult status: financial and housing independence and stable employment” (Bradley and Devadson 2008, pp.130-131) but in reality was just moving from the institution of education to the institution of corporations. The true individual of the film could not live under this ideology. To illustrate that there wasn’t a way for Enid to be authentic under the influence of the risk regime the film had her leave on a non-existent bus going nowhere in particular, truly powerless.

Under the risk regime and corporate ideals Becky is seen as the maturing adult and Enid as the child unwilling to grow up, whereas in reality Enid’s search for authenticity illustrates the need for other means of assessing adulthood, beyond the symbolic house, marriage and job. The power of the capitalist system hides who people truly are under these masks.

In each of these texts the protagonists emerged from school disillusioned with their schooling. They sought to find their place in the world but since they did not follow the expected linear paths they were marginalised by society and the institutions that form it. The Messenger focused mainly on society as a whole and demonstrates institutional power through the law system. With metafiction it showed individuals are merely a social construct without any real power and thus lacking self-determination. no worries was more concerned with the micro level and depicted the devastating effects institutional power can hold over ostracised individuals and their families, particularly in relation to the mental health system. Finally, Ghost World, with a more pro-active resistant protagonist used surrealism to demonstrate that resistance is impossible. In a risk society, capitalist ideology has the power and individualism is just a fallacy about choice.

Reference List

Beck, Ulrich 2000, The Brave New World of Work, Polity Press, Cambridge, UK.

Beck, Ulrich, and Beck-Gernsheim, Elisabeth 2002, Individualization, SAGE Publications, London.

Bell, Madison Smartt 1993, ‘Where an author might be standing. (on William T. Vollmann)’, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol.13, No.2, pp.39-45, retrieved 6 October 2008, Expanded Academic ASAP database.

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Condon, Bill 2005, no worries, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, Queensland.

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http://www.oxfordreference.com.ezproxym.deakin.edu.au/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main entry=t113.e5047

Ferguson, Harry 2005, ‘Trust, Risk and Expert Systems: Child Protection, Modernity and the (Changing) Management of Life and Death’, Trust, Risk and Uncertainty, by Sean Watson and Anthony Moran, Palgrave Macmillan, Hampshire, UK, pp.89-105, Electronic Book Library, Deakin University Library, Geelong, Victoria.

Foucault, Michel 1977, Discipline and Punish, the birth of the prison, Pantheon Books, New York, pp.293-308, retrieved 29 July 2008, Electronic Chapters, Deakin University Library, Geelong, Victoria.

Giroux, Henry A 2003, ‘Neoliberalism and the Disappearance of the Social in Ghost World’, Third Text, Vol.17, No.2, pp.151-161, Academic Search Premier database.

Jeffrey, Craig, and Linda McDowell 2004, ‘Youth in a Comparative Perspective: Global Change, Local Lives’, Youth Society, Vol.36, No. 2, pp.131-141, retrieved 2 October 2008, SAGE Full-Text Collection database.

Leishman, Kirsty 1999, ‘Australian Grunge Literature and the Conflict between Literary Generations’, Journal of Australian Studies, no.63, pp.94-102, retrieved 27 September 2008, Australian Public Affairs Full Text database.

Schwartz, Seth J, Cote, James E and Arnett, Jeffrey Jensen 2005, ‘Identity and Agency in Emerging Adulthood: Two Developmental Routes in the Individualization Process’, Youth & Society, Vol.37, No. 2, pp.201-229, retrieved 19 October 2008, SAGE Full-Text Collection database.

Sperb, Jason 2004, ‘Ghost without a Machine: Enid's Anxiety of Depth(lessness) in Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World’, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Vol.21, pp.209-217, retrieved 28 July 2008, Communication & Mass Media Complete database.

te Riele, Kitty 2004, ‘Youth Transition in Australia: Challenging Assumptions of Linearity and Choice’, Journal of Youth Studies, Vol.7, No. 3, pp.243–257, retrieved 2 October 2008, Academic Search Premier database.

Zwigoff, Terry (director) 2000, Ghost World, Granada Film, London, DVD distributed by Paramount, Australia.

Zusak, Markus 2002, The Messenger, Pan Macmillan, Sydney, Australia.


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