08/21/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Another Casualty of the Financial Crisis: Extended Adolescence

In March 2006, New York magazine published a story called "Up With Grups." The term "grup," borrowed from a Star Trek episode, was used in the article to describe grownups (Gen X leading the charge) stuck on the precipice of adulthood. Having actively rejected the version of adulthood demonstrated by their parents and their parent's parents, these 30somethings were caught in limbo between their carefree twenties and an immediate future they couldn't yet see. The article was a celebration of all things immature.

Within the halls of advertising agencies, creative directors and strategists rejoiced. "Up With Grups" gave a framework to the trend we'd been seeing but hadn't yet articulated: the mainly urban phenomenon of parents refusing to relinquish their grip of cool in the name of growing up and settling down. For years we'd watched the closing of the generation gap as moms and daughters shared Juicy sweat suits, and fathers and sons argued the relative merits of various hip hop acts. Collectively we celebrated as the media helped un-age us: "50 is the new 30," "40 is the new 20!" Even as we got older we were getting younger.

Of course, there was nothing new about extended adolescence at the time. Since teenagers were first identified as such in the 40s and 50s, growing up has gotten less attractive. With the Boomers, adolescence, once a tortuous period of awkward physical change and social seasoning, shifted to a glamorous period of carefree sexual exploration with a rock-n-roll soundtrack. The media developed a youth obsession and suddenly 20somethings everywhere looked at the next step and said, "What's the rush?" What was new in 2006, was the permission granted to adults to act like kids, aggressively and publicly.

Around this same time, social scientists proclaimed the delay of adulthood a permanent condition of our New Normal. They dubbed it "extended adolescence" and embarked on the task of identifying the implications of this new life stage.

All of this seemed plausible during high times. When life's a party there's nothing like an adult to kill the fun. But, as the chickens come home to roost, adulthood is starting to look like the only way out of this mess. The pronouncements of social scientists on the immaturity front might have been...premature.

What is becoming clear now, as we undergo a collective assessment of priorities, is that extended adolescence for all its good times, is also characterized by juvenile behavior. We've confused being young at heart with being outright childish and we're suffering the consequences. As if it needed more significance, Michael Jackson's death is in some ways a giant mirror to our own reluctance to grow up; the ultimate self-identified and professionally diagnosed Peter Pan.

Why is it so hard to grow up? Because we have so few examples of what it means to be a man or a woman; because it requires discipline and hard work; because it is associated with advanced age and therefore, with death. Recently, David Brooks wrote a gorgeous column in The New York Times about what he calls the Dignity Code, a code of ethics and behavior that made men like George Washington much admired and formed the foundation of our country. His perspective is that this code of behavior has nearly been lost to us, but is showing signs of life in the words and actions of men like Barack Obama.

All of this is tough news for advertisers. It's much harder to sell "stuff" to adults than it is to children. In my own business, I'm seeing increased interest from brands that feel estranged from their customers. These brands had been leaning on temporal pop culture references to make a connection, to establish relevance. Now, it's not working and they need to know: "Who are these people and what do they care about?" How do you sell fashion to women who are not yearning to look younger? How do you sell expensive sports cars to men who are happily married? And vice versa.

For me, the subtext of all the talk-and finally some action-that's happening in the economy, with the environment, and in culture is that we're growing up. Slowly, painfully, we're leaving behind a dream of eternal youth and settling into a new idea about maturity. As we take the leap, we're going to need some role models. And while much of our hopes for a brighter future are still pinned on the youth, as these new adults emerge -- in entertainment, in politics, in business -- we'll see that they are the ones with the confidence to change industries.