It's just a phase they're going through

5th July 1996 at 01:00
Rights of Passage, Social Change and the Transition from Youth to Adulthood, By Sarah Irwin, UCL Press Pounds 35 and Pounds 12.95

Transition has a comforting ring because, if it is only a stage young people are going through, they will soon grow out of it. Yet our society lacks shared communal rituals to confirm adult status, such as the secular ceremonies of the American school-leaving prom. Moreover, with most 16-year-olds remaining in education, the key transition young people in the past associated with becoming adult has been lost.

The new situation is reflected in concerns about the "immaturity" of young people, countered by the equally evergreen idea that they are maturing earlier. Many sixth form and college teachers have, however, sensed a youth culture change shared by many young people.

Sarah Irwin deals with these important issues in this oddly-titled book. However, the style in which she does so will put off all but the most persistent reader. This is not her fault but that of the present system of PhD study, which requires a review of literature to be regurgitated.

The way in which such theses are supervised also means that the "original research" they contain is limited to what individual poorly-funded and unsupported post-graduates can carry out on their own.

In Irwin's case, this is a strange sample of 92 16 to 35-year-olds working in insurance, retailing and construction in and around Edinburgh in 1988, interestingly including 20 of their parents. Unfortunately, it excluded the long-term unemployed who are, as Irwin says, the focus of most concern.

The rituals of PhD examination, plus further delays involved in publishing them, means that the research is out of date and lacks any references to recent publications.

It is a pity because this author at least has important things to say, particularly about the rising age of marriage from its low point of average at 22 for women in 1970 and the improvement of women's wages relative to men. Irwin points out that this relates not just to supply and demand but to the assumption that young people and women need less money because they are supposed to be dependent upon others.

However, unlike another book by the same publisher, Bob Cole's Youth and Social Policy Irwin does not raise the question of citizenship rights for all young people. This again relates to her orthodox sociological approach which accepts popular definitions of social class as either "middle" or "working", leaving unexamined the fracturing of both groups and the possibility that certain patterns - of early pregnancy, for example - are normal for some groups but no longer for others.

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