Nick Maviglia asks what adulthood means for twentysomethings in a post-baby boomer world.
It’s hard to pinpoint that exact moment when we as a society began to notice that the age bracket between twenty and thirty was some sort of weird existential quagmire that sucks in teenagers and spits out maladjusted man-children. Whenever it was, I think easy enough to recognize the phenomenon now. Young people including myself are increasingly forsaking serious commitment to anything, whether it’s marriage, a job or a house. We’re perpetually stuck in our parents’ basement because we cannot or do not want to find a job. In short, we seem to be passing up or passing by every serious age milestone that defined a person’s emergence into adulthood for past generations.
I don’t think it should surprise anyone that this change has come about. The world has completely transformed from the one the baby boomers grew up in. It went through a cold war, the death of God, the legalization and normalization of abortion and the development of contraception, the end of job security and the rise of awesomely pernicious existential threats including global warming, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the rise of global terrorism.
These changes negated, destroyed and made the world our grandparents and parents knew impossible. In the span of a few decades we lost the proscribed meaning to life and predetermined social roles that organized religion so benevolently provided us every Saturday or Sunday. The shotgun weddings that had instantly thrust so many people into adulthood have been made archaic with the rise of contraception. Finally, we’ve grown into a society that has most of the wealth concentrated in the bank accounts of baby bombers who are also consuming an ever greater portion of resources as they age.
Still, without regard to the changing circumstance of society, we 20-something are constantly asked—even berated—with prodding questions from our parents like “When will you grow up?” or its synonyms “Found a job?”, “When are you moving out?” or “When are you to getting married?” I never seem to have an answer to these questions when asked, but I don’t think I can be faulted for this: so many of these things are simply outside of my control. For instance, I couldn’t compel my girlfriend through threat of legal or social sanction to keep our child and instead get married, and I can’t move out with a minimum wage “McJob” (the sole type of employment opportunity that seems to exist for someone with a degree in the humanities).
These questions use to bother me, and not being able to answer them bothered me even more. I asked myself why I hadn’t moved out, why I didn’t have a job that promised a pension and the possibility of career advancement, and why I never considered “settling down” with any of my girlfriends. However, the more I reflected on these troublesome questions the more I realize that I shouldn’t have to answer them. I’ve been born into an age where I don’t have get married to have sex, I don’t have to fight a war and I don’t have to farm in order to not starve. Why should I have to answer questions and conform to a standard that reflected the realities of a past epoch?
So what then are the standards which we 20-somethings should live by and what demarcates a child from an adult in the 21st century? Well, my generation has been presented with an immense opportunity to reset the standard for what it means to be an adult. We’re no longer born into a world that hands us a life plan complete with life milestones and some deep metaphysical sense of meaning and purpose. It is entirely up to us to figure out a meaningful existence, to live ethically and to become responsible and autonomous individuals.
I think the first time I realized both the opportunity and gravity that comes with being born in this age was at a Vagina Monologues performance in which a friend of mine was taking part. I remember sitting in the audience watching this fantastic performance and realizing that people my age were capable of doing some really cool, interesting and exceptional things. Each cast member had come together of their own accord to challenge themselves as individuals and create something. I realized then that being a 20-something in the 21st century isn’t an excuse to avoid responsibility and challenge but to find it and test yourself against it.
Photo credit: Flickr / VSF Digital Design