There Go The Grown-Ups

Last weekend, M and I had a really nice chat about all of these articles on adulthood. Everyone wants to talk about it, because things are changing, aren’t they? It’s temping to label it as generational fighting, but I think it’s a simple communication breakdown. The rules are changing, and everybody knows it.

I mentioned that I don’t feel any particular social pressure to take on the trappings of “grown-uppiness.” I’ll draw a line between being a “grown-up”—which comes with all the expected obligations like marriage, children, home-ownership, etc—and being an adult—living well within a dignified role in society, educating yourself so you can contribute, honoring responsibilities, having empathy, being a citizen, defining and living the life you want, and the other good stuff that makes the world get along a little better than it would otherwise. I am an adult, but I am not a grown-up. There are many, many more like me.

After thinking about it for a few days, it seems to me that the bad articles are looking for grown-ups instead of adults. Grown-up is a flavor of adulthood that’s been the dominant version for the last century or so. Grown-up is the 20th century adult. Here in the 21st century, the changes that sprung up at the end of the last are finally taking root—choices about how to live a life, educate yourself, participate in a community, and rear a family (whether that’s with a partner and kids, a network of close friends, or some combination of all that). There’s greater variety in adults, so if you have a narrow criteria, you’ll leave worrying that the world is stuck in arrested development. You might even go off and write an opinion piece for the Times.

The bad articles mistake choices as requirements and requirements as choices. A few common examples I’ve seen:

  • Most articles cite children as a requirement for adulthood. But between women’s reproductive rights, the pill, and a larger scientific and socially-acceptable window for child rearing, the grown-up requirement of having children is now a choice—not just of timing, but whether to have kids at all.
  • Home-ownership is a “requirement” that is less and less likely as my generation becomes increasingly urban and property costs soar. Home-ownership is a very North American ideal, however. For example, most Germans don’t own their homes—they rent.
  • The older generations participate in a double speak when it comes to education: faulting my generation for not launching into careers and stable income by their 20s, while helping to produce a world that necessitates more and more formalized education for roles of diminishing consequence.

The social pressures around becoming a “grown-up” are lessening. This doesn’t mean people aren’t becoming adults. I’m actually glad the grown-up is dying—we need the space to have versions of adulthood for people who don’t happen to be straight, white, and cis-gendered. I look forward to fewer noun-based versions of adulthood (spouse, house, kids) and more verb-based visions of adulthood. The future is a lot less scary if you believe an adult is someone who wields autonomy, empathy, and responsibility with an even hand. I’ve been looking around, and come to realize that there’s just as much of that—and maybe even more—than ever before.

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