When does adulthood begin? I read an interesting article recently about a college professor who taught a class on adulting, all about coming of age in today’s society. In teaching this class, the professor discovered that most of the students did not consider themselves adults, despite being over 18. They were asked to write about what they felt were the markers of adulthood, something that has become increasingly unclear as we experience some major societal shifts as Millennials and now Generation Z are coming of age. It got me looking inward and thinking about whether I feel like and adult and what I believe makes one an adult. I also decided to do a little more digging into what the supposed markers of adulthood are.
I’m going to start by dispensing with the idea of turning 18 being the marker of adulthood. We have many milestones of that sort, at 16 (or some places 14) you’re adult enough to work many jobs, at 18 you’re adult enough to vote and join the military, but at 21 you’re adult enough to drink, and only at 25 are you adult enough to rent a car, etc. These are also relevant to the United States, but vary greatly in other countries, which does evidence in some ways how we’ve picked arbitrary lines to draw there. Yes, they are a general guideline for when we believe a person can handle certain responsibilities, but they aren’t actually very helpful in determining what will make someone feel like an adult.
I found a few analysis of adulthood from a psychological perspective, with such traits meant to define adulthood such as rationality, and non-defensiveness and openness. Well shit, that precludes the current President of the United States and a good many other political officials, many in their 60s, 70s, and above. It also leaves out a lot of the shitty parents of folks I’ve been close to throughout my life. People who have raised a now adult child, paid the bills, and often been little manipulative abusive shits who probably couldn’t grasp rationality and non-defensiveness anymore than they could bench press the Empire State Building, but there you go. So maybe that isn’t the perfect milestone either in determining what would make the younger generations feel like we are adults. Our elders certainly have not done a stellar job at modeling that as a determining factor in adulthood.
Going back to the article that started this line of thinking, there was a discussion of the students responses. Many felt that marriage, having children, and home ownership were markers of adulthood. I can certainly understand that, we’ve been raised by a generation that often followed a very clear life path, fit a certain mold, and taught us to do so as well. I don’t remember a time where I didn’t just “know” that you were supposed to go to school, get into a good college, graduate, get married, buy a house, and manifest a few loin spawn to raise who would do it all over again. There is a script to this, one many people in my generation haven’t been able to follow, or have decided to toss to the wind as we make our own path. Which does explain why many of us are left not feeling like adults as we enter our 20s and 30s.
It is interesting, because many of the Millennials I know spend more time focusing on traits mentioned in the psychological articles on what makes an adult, than members of earlier generations I know. That is of course not a conclusive study, just my personal experience. Many of us suffer from mental illness, often times created by or exacerbated by our circumstances. We are treated as children by the media and by older generations, accused of destroying industries when we don’t buy into consumerism. We bought into the dream of college opening all doors to success in life and graduate with bachelors degrees and 60k in debt, only to find our only job option is to be a manager at a Papa Johns unless we want to get even more in debt for a higher degree. We put off marriage and having children because we can’t afford it, or we choose different ways of relationshipping or to be childfree because we recognize that we don’t actually have to fit every mold they made for us. We find the middle class we aspired to has all but disappeared, so we work two jobs and still need food stamps to get by. Then we wonder why we suffer from depression and anxiety in such high numbers. We learn rationality because we have to fight irrational systems of oppression and crumbling aged lawmakers who refuse to understand that we are more interested in being allowed to express our love regardless of gender and make sure every town has clean water, then we are in corporations getting more tax cuts. We learn to be open and non-defensive because we have to nurture each other and promote self care every day and across social media platforms or in person with our friends, because we have to wonder how many more friends we’ll lose to suicide this coming year. This isn’t true of everyone in my generation, but its what I see growing around me in my small communities and in the thousands I connect with through online platforms every day.
For me, adulthood begins with disillusionment. It starts when we realize the lies we have been fed, that the boxes we were taught to fit in are unneeded, that the life path we were taught to follow was unrealistic. It continues as we start to unpack all of that and struggle with the impact it has had on our psyche, our morale, our self esteem. We grow more into adulthood as we gain the ability to remove ourselves from the system, to choose which pieces of it work for us, and which to discard as soon as we gain the power to do so. Adulthood is that determination to find that power, within ourselves to stand up for who we are, and within the system as we elect as more and more of our number to office so we can change the way the oppressive system functions. Adulthood is being able to kiss your same gender partner in public after years of fear. It is taking a moment to breath into yourself after two retail shifts, telling yourself it is okay to break out a coloring book if that is your self care, as you bat away the dread that you’ll be doing the same thing every day for the rest of your life despite the shiny diploma tucked away in a box in the wore out apartment you share with three friends. It is choosing to not have children because you are comfortable not wanting any, or because you desperately want them but can’t face bringing them into this broken world or know you can’t afford them. It is having four children and having to coordinate between family who takes care of them as you each try and work the hours your employer pretends to graciously give you, wishing you’d be taught about safer sex during the abstinence only age. It is getting divorced for the third time because you have found the inner strength to leave people who abuse you. It is deciding against marriage because you love all three of your partners equally. It is wanting to get married but knowing that disabled people still don’t have that right equally, because you can’t survive without the disability benefits that cover your life sustaining medication, and your partner makes too much for you to keep them, but not enough to cover the prescriptions if you wed. Adulthood is rebellion, against all that we were taught, and it is finding our own way instead and paving a better way for generations to come.