!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: Modern Maturity

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Modern Maturity

One of the 74 items that the New York Times Magazine included in its December 10 "Year in Ideas" feature was "psychological neoteny" — i.e., the phenomenon of a person retaining well into adulthood the characteristic behaviors and attitudes of youth.1

In his short piece, Clay Risen explains this concept, crediting it to Bruce Charlton, an MD and lecturer at Newcastle University in England:
... Charlton argues that unlike previous, more settled societies that could afford to honor a narrow and well-defined worldview (that is, a "mature" one), modern life is tumultuous and ever-changing. Accordingly, it rewards those who retain a certain plasticity of mind and personality. "In a psychological sense, some contemporary individuals never actually become adults," he writes.
I found both in the Risen write-up and in Charlton's short article in Medical Hypotheses,2 considerable ambiguity concerning just what we are to consider "mature" in contemporary society. On the one hand, Charlton offers a list of traits that represent immaturity:
... short attention span, frentic sensation- and novelty-seeking, ever-shorter cycles of arbitrary fashion and (so cultural intellectuals would argue) a pervasive emotional and spiritual shallowness.
On the other hand, there is no similar list of traits that are markers for maturity, and it doesn't seem adequate to just assume that such a list would consist of the opposite of the traits listed above. At one point, Charlton says that psychological neoteny delays "adopting a stable, integrated adult personality," but this too is problematic. For instance, Mary Catherine Bateson, emerita professor at George Mason University, offered this perspective in her well-received book, Composing a Life, published back in 1989:
It is time now to explore the creative potential of interrupted and conflicted lives, where energies are not narrowly focused or permanently pointed toward a single ambition. These are not lives without commitment, but rather lives in which commitments are continually refocused and redefined. We must invest time and passion in specific goals and yet at the same time acknowledge that these are mutable.3
In Bateson's view, what Charlton calls a "stable, integrated adult personality" is a work in progress over many decades. During the process of "composing a life," one is not prevented from doing a good job of handling adult responsibilities.

The fact is we're dealing with a complicated subject. Maturity has many dimensions, meaning that people have wide latitude for presenting a complex picture of seeming mature in some ways and then immature in others. Furthermore, some of the value judgments that lead to calling a person "immature" are nothing more than overbearing meddling. In such cases, "maturity" isn't even a relevant category.

My own view is that Charlton (in part, inspired by the work of Berkeley sociologist Martin Trow) places too much emphasis on completion of formal education as a milestone in a person's development. Charlton argues:
Probably, the main proximate cause of psychological neoteny in modernizing societies is the prolonged duration of formal education — which may be why the boy-genius arose in an American context where mass higher education and extended schooling was first established. [Here Charlton cites Trow.] So long as a person is in formal education, or is open to the possibility of returning for more formal education, their minds are in a significant sense "unfinished."
As best one can judge from Charlton's article, he has not investigated how people are increasingly expected to be open to continuous learning once they have entered the work force. To anyone in the training world, the idea of maturity includes being willing to respond to training by making appropriate adjustments over time in attitudes, behavior, skills, and knowledge.

I would also note that in flattened organizations, where increasingly people of different generations work together as peers, and it is not uncommon for a manager to be younger than some of people who report to him or her, working relationships are enhanced when everyone goes easy on age-based expectations concerning behavior and attitudes.

In addition to recognizing generational differences in people's formative experiences, one is well-advised to think in terms of different behavioral styles, cultural attitudes, and motivational profiles. Then you can concentrate on developing skills that enable you to work effectively with a diverse group of colleagues who fall idiosyncratically along the various dimensions of maturity.

1 "'Neoteny' refers to the biological phenomenon whereby development is delayed such that juvenile characteristics are retained into maturity." "The Rise of the Boy-Genius: Psychological-Neoteny, Science and Modern Life," Bruce G. Charlton, Medical Hypotheses (Vol. 67, 2006, p. 679).

2 Ibid., pp. 679-681.

3 Composing a Life," Mary Catherine Bateson (Plume paperback, 1990), p. 9.