When you think of yourself at age 15, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Or better yet, if you have a 15-years-old at home – like I do – how would you best describe them? I have to admit I found an entire range of relevant adjectives, varying from ‘crazy’, ‘inspiring’, ‘funny’ and ‘deep’ to ‘irresponsible’ and ‘committed’. Do these terms or concepts contradict one another? And how can they all be relevant to a single 15 year old individual?

In Israel, there is a unique expression in Hebrew we use to refer to youths ages 12-18, the ‘stupid age’ (in Hebrew: “tipesh esre”). They are never called ‘youth’ or ‘teens’. Rarely are they denoted as ‘adolescents’, which, like all Hebrew words is anchored in a root term and derives from the verb that translates to ‘grow up’/’mature’/’become an adult’. Instead, Israelis use the expression ’stupid age’. That’s it. A person who is, say, 15-years-old, belongs to the ‘stupid age’.

Teenagers around the world are generally experiencing the same challenges. However, the way societies refer to this age and the role it gives it, varies from place to place. Brown B. Bradford, author of The World’s Youth: Adolescense in Eight Regions of the World, wrote “one can learn a lot about the nature of adolescence in a given culture simply from the way it is defined”. Interestingly enough, many cultures do not even have a term defining the period of adolescence, which suggests that those cultures do not regard it as a distinct or important stage in a person’s life. “Until recently”, says Bradford, “this was the case in many East Asian societies. Often, such societies were organized so that children take on major adult responsibilities at an early age; in their activities, young people are not commonly segregated from adults. Other societies, such as India and Japan, use the umbrella term, ‘youth’, to refer to people in their second and possibly even first decade of life. But that only further points out how differently youth, adolescents, or however one wishes to call them, are perceived in every culture. The Indian term for youth, which includes a range from 11 years of age to 35-year-olds, would certainly bring about different associations than the American ‘teenager’, which is more likely to be associated with recklessness, rebellion, irresponsibility, and so on.

Evidently, definitions go a long way in providing clues to how a culture perceives its youth. So being coined ‘stupid’ in Israel, would hardly seem flattering. Admittedly, it’s around aged 12-18 when youth tend to do stupid things. Probably all over the world. So why is Israel the only society that refers to this age group as ‘stupid’? Unlike in cultures such as India or Japan, the Israeli ‘stupid age’ is clearly marked between 12-18 years of age. The demarcation of youth to a person’s second decade of life is not unique to Israel. Most countries in fact, define 18 as the threshold of adulthood, meaning that person ceases to be considered as a child and assumes legal control over every aspect of his or her life. However, there is more to being a youth than its numerical definition. Transitions between different periods of life have more to do with experiences and moving from one framework or stage to another.

Many Western cultures, including the US, Canada, and Western European countries, typically define the period of ‘adolescence’ as beginning at the first notable changes of puberty to assuming an adult status, typically signified by marriage. Till a century ago, this meant adolescence ranged from mid-teens to the early 20s. However, by the end of the 20th Century, the boundaries of adolescence had been stretched in both directions. Youth in their 20s are treated by society as adolescents (with all it entails), and perhaps as a result, they also experience an extended period of feeling only ‘partly’ adult. When asked whether they consider themselves adults, young people, from teens to mid-20s, tend to abstain from a solid yes-no response, but answer with the ambiguous “in some ways yes, in some ways no”. It’s not until age 30 a definite majority of young people believe they have reached adulthood.

Unlike other Western societies, Israeli youth have a clearly marked period where they are afforded an opportunity to act stupidly without harsh consequence – a limited period, 12-18, during which they can experiment. Like most teenagers around the world, Israeli youth are busy partying and exploring music, fun, fashion and friends. They also find themselves struggling with existential questions, with a growing sense of independence and a need to break free from social conventions and the control of their parents. However, at 18, most of them enter a completely different chapter in their lives, the military service. So, unlike their European or American counterparts who have an extended adolescence period that eases them into adulthood (by going to colleges, which doesn’t truly allow for a life transition as they remain within the boundaries of the same system they have been in since the age of 6), Israeli youth have only 5-6 years to be teenagers. They have a limited and intense period of time to be ‘stupid’. Luckily, they are still under the care and supervision of their parents, and their actions, hopefully, do not have devastating consequences. Finally, the knowledge that adolescence is clearly separated from adulthood by military service, serves as one of the clearest transitional signifiers. In sum, Israeli youth are not expected to make life-changing decisions at the age of 16. Rather, they are awarded a grace period to behave foolishly without impacting their future.

By addressing them as being in their ‘stupid age’, teenagers are expected and even encouraged to explore aspects of life that will not be accessible once they join the military. But how do youth perceive this period of their lives? Adolescents understand they are living independent lives similar to their adult counterparts but free of responsibility. They appreciate the indulgence. Keren Aharon, author of The Secrets of the Israeli Consumer, contends there is a widespread phenomenon among adolescents of “experimenting without having to pay the price”. In other words, youth are aware of the limited opportunity they are given and take full advantage.

Professor Ofra Mayseless, a renowned Israeli scholar in the field of developmental psychology, conducted a survey among teenagers from both Israel’s secular and orthodox sectors, in which youth in the ‘stupid age’ were asked questions regarding their lives in Israel, their understanding of the security and political situation, and their take on military service. The survey included questions such as “To what extent do you feel yourself to be an Israeli? Are you certain you will continue to live in Israel in the future? Do you believe there will be another war between Israel and the surrounding Arab states? Do you perceive Israel’s deterrence as strong or weak in the eyes of the surrounding Arab states? Do you believe acts of terror are a permanent part of life in Israel?” Even without reviewing the answers to these questions one can derive from this the significance of these issues, which Israeli youth face on a daily basis. More interestingly – the extent, complexity and thoughtfulness of their answers:

  • 76% believe that life in Israel involves dealing with terror attacks, while at the same time 93% believe they will continue to live in Israel their whole lives.
  • When asked about personal values and beliefs, 82% of the subjects chose working in an interesting profession and 64% chose developing and living up to one’s full potential over making a lot of money, or spending a lot of time abroad.

In general, says Mayseless, “Israeli youth are highly attached to their country despite believing that life in Israel poses a constant danger”. Interestingly, values that usually characterize adolescents in Western countries, such as living in the moment or traveling abroad, are low level compared to other values such as self-fulfillment or starting a family. Other characteristics such as rebelling against the older generation and its values, self-searching, and pleasure-seeking, are also less characteristic of Israeli youth. All in all, beyond the global issues all adolescents deal with, Israeli youth are faced with pressing questions regarding politics and social life. The intensity of these questions, however, is contrasted with the safe borders of adolescence.

As they grow older, peers take on an extremely prominent role in Israel’s teenagers’ lives. ‘Israeli adolescents’, explains Mayseless, “enjoy close and involved relationships with their peers.” Independence regarding their social life is intensified when they reach adolescence. Compared with other Western countries, data regarding relationship with peers is striking: “Whereas 30% of 15-year-olds in France and Belgium (or 15% in Germany) report they do not spend even one night during the week with friends, contrasts with only 6% in Israel. Similarly, more than 80% of 15-year-olds in Israel report they find it ‘easy’ and even ‘very easy’ to talk with their same-sex friends on things that bother them, and 60% feel so in regard to their non-same-sex friends.

Unfortunately, the role peer groups have in adolescent life also tend to have negative outcomes: “In line with the high stress evident in daily life in Israel, because of the low scaffolding and supervision of peers’ interactions by adults and the societal expectation to fend for oneself, relationships with the peer group are also marked by constant friction and aggression. More than 40% of Israeli 15-year-olds (54% boys and 34% girls) report that they were victimized by peers at school, compared with 26% in Belgium or 22% in Canada. Similarly, 60% of boys and 30% of girls report bullying another peer at least once, compared with 45% and 26%, respectively, in Canada. Among Grade 11 students, 57% of boys and 17% of girls report being involved in a fight at least once during the year”.

These numbers are disturbing. But at the same time, they indicate for better or worse, Israeli teens experience high levels of emotional involvement. As Mayseless puts it, Israeli youth seem to be highly involved and invested emotionally and instrumentally with others and are highly expressive, demonstrating strong emotional displays of both warmth and intolerance, closeness and anger.

In his book, Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, Dr. Dan Siegel suggests that adolescence should be viewed as a period for great adventure and exploring, rather than a period where teens just need to “grow up”. He encourages us to think of it as one with “the most power for courage and creativity.” Actually, this is not that different from what we would all expect from passionate entrepreneurs, trying to make their vision and dream come true, despite all obstacles in their way.

Back to my teenager at home: ‘crazy’, ‘inspiring’; ‘funny’, ‘deep’, ‘irresponsible’ and ‘committed’. So many emmotions exist in him at the same time. Refering to him and his friends as going through the ‘stupid age’ enables them to act “stupidly”, or creatively, with courage and passion, while at the same time being aware of the hard truths and complex futures they face and while developing their own beliefs and opinions. Just like any entrepreneur would do.