When Does a Person Become an Adult? And Should I Be Worried if I’m Not Sure I Have Yet?

 

Allan Mott insists that no matter how much we wish it were true, becoming a grown-up doesn’t mean everything suddenly makes sense. 

My nephew Lynden would have been nine or ten the afternoon he looked over at me while we were playing video games and asked, “Uncle Allan, are you an adult or a teenager?”

I was around 32 at the time.

I understood it as a compliment, because I knew—like many kids his age—he worshipped teenagers and often spoke excitedly about how many birthdays he had left before he would become one himself. He asked the question not because he sensed an innate immaturity or lack of gravitas on my part, but because I seemed too cool to be a normal adult—I wasn’t like the other grown ups.

But I found the question a bit depressing nonetheless, because when I was his age I always assumed there would be a moment where the switch was clicked and the transformation would be made (perhaps with the same “Shazam!”-induced lightning bolt that turned young Billy Batson into the almighty Captain Marvel) and here I was 20 years later, still waiting for it to happen.

♦◊♦

It took Facebook to alert me to the reality I had already suspected existed. Even though it happened to my friends all the time, I almost never ran into people I went to school with. But once I began to find my old classmates via social media, it all started to make sense: They were adults, with adult jobs and adult responsibilities, and I was still living like the university student I had been at 20. Of course, we never ran into each other—we lived in completely different worlds.

And that’s not to say I was entirely lost in a Never-Never Land of Peter Pan slackerdom. By that time I’d published a dozen books and could proudly tell people I was a writer and really mean it, which had always been one of my major life goals. Because of this I was able to occasionally form my observations into little word nuggets that bore a passing resemblance to cultivated wisdom. Still, despite this, it was entirely reasonable for a guileless tween to look up at me and ask, “Are you an adult or a teenager?”

A few days ago, The Atlantic ran a piece in which three men discussed their own transitions into adulthood. The verdict I came to after reading their stories is that this transition is so personal and encoded in what we each believe adulthood is that it is essentially impossible to generalize it. The best any society can do—as one of them notes—is create arbitrary rites and symbols of adulthood that allow its members to mark the passage, even if they don’t necessarily feel it inside.

Western society has mostly abandoned the most overt of these practices, leaving us each on our own to figure it all out—the result being what can most accurately be described as a buttload of confusion.

The biggest problem in determining whether or not you’ve “become a grown-up” is that it depends entirely on what your definition of a “grown-up” is. For many of us, this vision of adulthood will be inspired by our own parents—for good or ill—while for others it’s been acquired from a lifetime of cultural observation.

Because of this, we’ve created new rites and symbols in place of those we abandoned. Today if you ask people about it, they’ll mostly say the same things. Adulthood means no more crazy haircuts, and more conservative clothes. It means getting married and having children. It means owning a home. It means being fiscally responsible. It means having a good, stable job. It means becoming disdainful and afraid of the music the kids these days are listening to.

I’m 37 and have done none of those things. By that standard, it would appear that I have failed to grow up. Yet when Lynden asked his question, I didn’t hesitate for a second to answer him.

“I’m an adult,” I told him as we raced our imaginary video game cars across the imaginary video game track.

I said this because—despite what I may have felt inside—I knew that the reflection in my mirror wasn’t that of a child. As much as we may like to think of being an adult as a feeling, it’s really nothing more than an inevitability of nature. We grow up because we grow old. To suggest otherwise to a ten year-old would be dumb.

Growing up is one of those things that just happens, regardless of how we feel about it. It isn’t some magical moment where your life comes together and suddenly makes sense. Life is too strange, wonderful and too complicated to be summed up by such random epiphanies. We just have to accept that life moves forward and some of us figure it out to greater success than others.

Every experience is different. Mine apparently still involves video games.

 

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About Allan Mott

Allan Mott was once accused of being a narcissistic goth lesbian by a disgruntled Amazon reviewer. That pretty much sums up his writing career (which includes 12 and 1/2 books and frequent contributions to such sites as XOJane, XOJaneUK, Canuxploitation, Bookgasm and Flick Attack,). His most personal writing can be found at VanityFear.com, where he uses the subject of B-Movies to mostly talk about boobs and stuff. Tweet him on the Twitter at @HouseofGlib.

Comments

  1. This is great! I just recently decided (like, within the past 4 years) that it was grown-up time. You know, now that I have 2 kids and 2 ex-husbands and a college degree. Still don’t own a house or make much money though.

  2. wellokaythen says:

    I wish I had a good answer to the question.

    I’m 42. At some point I went from having pimples on my face to having pimples and a gray beard on my face. There must have been some turning point there somewhere…..

  3. I think the confusion occurs because “adult” is used as a noun, rather than an adjective. As you said, there’s no transformation that occurs between childhood and adulthood – because you don’t turn into an adult. It’s just a way people behave sometimes (or don’t).

  4. Doc Holligay says:

    I still don’t feel like an adult. I’m 26, own my own car, rent is always paid on time, bills too, full time job, have one degree, honor student in my accounting program….and I still feel like a child. I feel like I have no idea what it means to be an adult, but that person probably does not have 6 sets of car keys because she keeps losing them, or spends so much money on makeup, or wastes Sundays watching movies instead of cleaning. I keep waiting for this mature, wonderful person to come out, but at the end of the day, all I see in the mirror is me.

  5. loveandhatela says:

    i was 8 when i asked my mom “is Pascual a kid?” it was her uncle and he was wearing shorts while Barbecuing . i wasn’t too smart (but cute) because i had forgotten about the beer can in his hand :( so were you wearing shorts? lol

  6. Penney Knightly says:

    Allan,

    I agree with what you said. Adulthood is an eventuality, not a rigid concept. I think we equate adulthood and maturity as the same thing, and they are synonyms in the culture.

    I have recently redefined adulthood as this: It’s like being a kid, only better! You get to do what you want within reason, of course, and you get to be the parent to yourself that yours may not have been to you when you were a kid. Adulthood means power and world manipulation. How awesome is that?!

    Your life is your own. Have fun, play with games, finger paints, dance all around, have water balloon fights, do things because you feel like doing them. It’s important, it’s invigorating and it’s necessary – otherwise your soul drys up into a prune, and then you really will be old.

    I had a niece say a similar thing to me recently, “Are you a kid or are you an adult?” I said, I’m both – mostly I’m a kid, sometimes I have to do grown up stuff. She seemed satisfied with this answer and was anxious to get back to playing Minecraft with me – which was enough of a validation for me.

    So, what’s life for but to enjoy and love? It certainly isn’t about paying the bills and going to work — those are artificial constructs. It’s about loving and be loved, meeting your obligations as best as you can, and tell society and “responsibility” in the proper, irrational, Nazi-esque fashion to shove it — you’ve got fun and happiness to attend to!

  7. Hey Allen,
    I have tried to write this comment like five times. haha. Anyways, I just wanted to say that I think that the very fact that you are questioning what is going on in your life shows that you are a man. Regardless of how many approved activities you participate in. It seems that your not trying to be something except who you are and what you want to be. I believe that the best definition of a man is to understand the person that stares back at him in the mirror. Instead others incorrectly (in my view), pin a figurative picture of a man on your bedroom wall and say “that is what you need to be”. But a picture, even a picture of you is only a snapshot into the past, not a man starring back at you in the mirror.

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