The Wall Street Journal had an excellent article on why our teenage pre-adult years are so long, and why they are so strange. I only want to touch on one of their ideas here.
First they note that in your traditional society, children of even very young ages would often work around their family, learning the basics of child rearing, hunting, farming, clothes making, etc. Children generally crave social acceptance, and are very willing to learn these tasks. By the time the youthful exuberance of the teenage years is arrived at, they are actually equipped to take on the challenges of making a go of it on their own.
Alison Gopnik, Wall Street Journal, 28 January 2012
In contemporary life, the relationship between these two systems has changed dramatically. Puberty arrives earlier, and the motivational system kicks in earlier too.
At the same time, contemporary children have very little experience with the kinds of tasks that they'll have to perform as grown-ups. Children have increasingly little chance to practice even basic skills like cooking and caregiving. Contemporary adolescents and pre-adolescents often don't do much of anything except go to school. Even the paper route and the baby-sitting job have largely disappeared.
The experience of trying to achieve a real goal in real time in the real world is increasingly delayed, and the growth of the control system depends on just those experiences. The pediatrician and developmental psychologist Ronald Dahl at the University of California, Berkeley, has a good metaphor for the result: Today's adolescents develop an accelerator a long time before they can steer and brake.
I have seen studies that indicate that children from farm families tend to be a little bit ahead of their peers when they get to college: a time when many children are first on their own. Likely this is not because there is a resemblance between working with a combine and Calculus, but the very fact that children raised on a farm have some experience with tasks that have real responsibilities with real consequences. As the saying goes “It’s not their first rodeo.”
Some of the current problems are somewhat a matter of accident, rather than design. Teenagers are in less demand in the workforce, as we already have a glut of semi-skilled adults to do this type of work, and the extensive prep-time of some students makes a part time job difficult to manage.
It does indicate that our education system does not give much in the way of experience with practical responsibility outside of the rather artificial requirements of homework and studying: activities of learning, rather than doing. But I will concede that it does somewhat beg the question of what exactly we are willing to allow our teens to be responsible for?