Are you a mature, fully developed being? Can you take the world's punches, or at least block? Are you a "grownup"? If you're not sure, welcome to today's world, where figuring this out is a mishmash of mixed messages and blurry lines best stumbled over on your way to that Meeting of Grown People With Adult-Like Responsibility Who Aren't Sure How They Feel About It.
As we've all been told since forever, being an adult used to be a breezy, clear-cut pit stop on the path of How to Be. You graduated high school, got a job, got married, had a kid, embraced the straitjacket and shut the fuck up about it. But then the 1950s burst into flames and released the hounds of shifting attitudes about gender roles, technological advancement and higher education, and our concept of the working world and the path toward the responsibilities therein changed forever.
A debate over at the New York Times from earlier this year asks when kids become adults, and proves, if nothing else, that adulthood is a multi-faceted concept that could designate anything from military eligibility, voting or driving to reproductive age, employment or even just plain old brain maturity.
The U.S. is particularly unfocused about it: whereas other countries shove you out of the nest all in one go with the granting of all your adulty rights at once, America prefers to stagger them willy-nilly: you can drive before you can watch an R-rated film, and die in a war before you can purchase a beer. Also: Your brain is still dumb until you're like, 25. Truth.
But at least the NYT debate frontloaded adulthood as something that still occurs somewhere in those first 25 years of life. What ever would they do with these dudes over at Atlantic Monthly, who remind us that adulthood to thirtysomething men can be like feminism to Katy Perry: It's apparently never too late to doubt if you qualify.
In a debate that asks "What are the milestones in modern male life?", three clearly adult-aged men spend the time wondering if they feel like adults or not.
First though, semantic quibble alert! The Atlantic debate keeps conflating becoming a "man" with becoming an "adult" in these chats. Adulthood is gender-neutral. Menstruating and boners are not indicators of adulthood. Those are biological changes that signal a shift in biological maturity that we call becoming women and men. Adulthood is also a subjective concept, sure, but it is at the very least useful for legal designations that transcend mere hoo-has and ding-dongs.
Besides, if we asked these men if they thought they were men or boys, I have no doubt they would all self-describe as men. Sure, they could be manchildren, but that is not mutually exclusive with adulthood.
Guy #1 is a reporter who just got back from a trip to South Africa, where he notes that you become an adult when you are 11 or 12 and get to eat chicken, because people are poor and do not come by chicken easily. He laments the lack of chicken-type, man-validating rituals that come from the Romans or religion or other scenarios that are not applicable to his life; cites factoid that Disney World is the top vacay destination for adults without kids. He has children, but mentions that he totally played a game on his iPhone during a long flight. Is he an adult?
Verdict: Yup. Adult. Playing an iPhone game — a harmless pastime enjoyed by people of all ages — is an irrelevant indicator of adulthood, UNLESS that iPhone bill is paid for by his mother.
Guy #2 has a kid, shops the Brooklyn farmer's market for actual vegetables, deals with hot water heater issues in his abode, and was told he was a "grownup" by a co-worker, a descriptor which threw him into a tailspin of identity confusion. But I was a freelancer up until now, he says! I'm 38! I'm married! I have children! I have a mortgage! I bought a blazer! But I'm not my father! I feel powerless! But feelings! He mentions that he feels sympathy toward kids today and still totally gets their plight, and assumes they look back at him with similar feelings of kinship.
Verdict: Total, complete, utter, unequivocal adult. Feeling powerless as he does is a sign of marginalization, sure, but not lack of adulthood. Also, solipsism! Kids today do not look back at him with feelings of kinship. They look back with feelings of utter indifference, as the one defining thing about the kids is their lack of interest in anything beyond their particular sitch.
Guy #3: Two ex-wives. Joint custody of kid. Spends evening with new girlfriend's friends being irritated at their concerns, which range from which couch to purchase to whether to use two or three pillows, while he sweats Important Childcare Issues in his mind. Incorrectly attributes his parental concerns to adulthood and their interest in furniture to lack of adulthood.
Verdict: Dude, adult! Also, conflating adulthood with parenthood! (P.S. Grownup but childless people with finance jobs are still adults, even if they are sitting around thinking about couches.)
I'm in my thirties just like these dudes, am married, have a kid and a house. And I also don't feel like an adult. I'm not sure anyone I know thinks of themselves as proper adults, either, based on these milestones alone. But the difference between us and those dudes is that we know we are adults anyway, because we are grownup, autonomous people. That's pretty much all it takes. (Yes, even that definition can be parsed until it totally breaks down.)
But feeling uneasy about the designation says more about us than it does about what constitutes adulthood, dig? And maybe that's a generational shift in our super casual culture.
Sure, I get it, adults are stuffy, boring working-stiff people who wait patiently in long lines thinking about remodeling the garage and improving their credit score. And yet, perhaps this image of adulthood is merely an antiquated association that needs revisiting. In a more relaxed society where the lines of demarcation are blurrier than ever, maybe adulthood needs a makeover, or at least a good PSA letting everyone know it's OK to be the same complex, spontaneous individual you were as a youngster, only now you are super jazzed about geting a good refi on your home loan. Just like George Clooney.
No, thirtysomething dudes, it's not as exciting as the devil-may-care free-for-all of your twenties. But everybody's gotta grow up sometime.
Image by Jim Cooke