Recent opposing trends towards earlier physical maturation and later social maturation present a conundrum of apparent biological-social mismatch. Here we use life history analysis from evolutionary ecology to identify forces that drive these shifts. Together with findings in developmental science, our life history analysis indicates that adolescence is a distinctive period for biological embedding of culture. Ethnographic evidence shows that mass education is a novel feature of the globalizing cultural configurations of adolescence, which are driven by transformations in labour, livelihood and lifestyle. Evaluation of the life history trade-offs and sociocultural ecologies that are experienced by adolescents may offer a practical basis for enhancing their development.