As the girl on the street walked past me I could read the writing on her sweatshirt. It said:
“Who let me adult? I can’t adult.”
I laughed but inside I felt an uncomfortable sadness bordering on disappointment, like my soul was groaning. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen the word adult used as a verb.
This idea of “adulting” had started as a meme and become an inside joke amongst people my age. Individuals leaving their 20s were reticent to embrace adulthood. Clearly, the fear of growing up had resonated.
As we live longer the amount of time we humans spend in each stage of our lives increases. This has allowed us a certain gratuitous self-reflection. A newly prolonged adolescence is followed by a quarter-life crisis where we grapple with the unanswerable question: what should I do with my life? It makes sense that many are now seeking a postponed adulthood.
The challenge is adulthood no longer has a universal definition. A lack of a specific commencement is partly to blame. The law says you become an adult at 18. However, in this day and age, an 18-year-old isn’t what most of us see when we picture an adult.
Today adulthood has developed a reputation as a collection of laborious and unexciting tasks we accumulate as we get older. Those who fear adulthood tend to resist its arrival the more imminent it becomes, sometimes successfully. Which makes being an adult seem like more of a mentality than an actual age.
It is interesting how our society has so many milestones and signposts, whether religious or secular, for the maturation of girls and boys into women and men but a clear arrival into adulthood is still a nebulous concept. The word itself separates adults from those younger than them but that separation is contextual.
As a child, I remember the public pool in my town had this ominous announcement that would come on over the loudspeakers during the summer session.
“There will now be a 15-minute adult swim.”
All children were to get out of the pool so adults could stand and gently swirl the water around in peace. It was easy back then to know who the adults were. I was just a child unable to stand in the deep end of the pool. But I do not know what I would have done at 20 or 25. Would I have felt obligated to leave or been comfortable staying?
Would the lifeguards have kicked me out?
Even literature can have fuzzy boundaries. The “Young Adult” genre has received so much attention not just for the explosive bestsellers that have emerged (and the movies that followed), but for its appeal to those outside its target demographic. Our always busy, never quiet adult lives inundate us with thousands of decisions. So it is not surprising books with simplified conflicts garner the affection of a broader audience. Those youthful themes can be more attractive and easier to connect with.
Our exteriors rarely match our interiors. Being classified as an adult doesn’t necessarily make somebody identify as one. The mental regression between adult and young adult has become fluid.
Growing up I always thought about what kind of man I wanted to be. I never once in my life thought about the kind of adult I wanted to be. Being a man had the air of adventure and excitement. Being an adult just seemed boring. The anticipated benefits of adulthood quickly disappeared beneath responsibilities and obligations.
Adulthood no longer feels as inevitable as it once did. For thousands of years, humans simply did what they had to in order to get by. Today technology has created so many efficiencies in our life that we now have time to get mired in existential musings of where we are on our own invented timelines. A progression that once happened automatically is now questioned and evaluated. Our hyper-awareness of others’ accomplishments has fostered a prolific insecurity encompassing an entire generation like a floodwater rising right out of the earth. We fear we do not have the tools we need to succeed as adults. We spend more time worrying about our arrival than working towards it.
What has felt most disheartening is this resistance to embrace what comes next. The paradigm through which we view adulthood has become warped. Yes, it is hard, but it also increases the agency we have over our lives. Instead of seeing adulthood for what it could be (anything), we see it for what it isn’t (our 20s).
There is an attractive hedonism in gathering with our friends and reveling in our lack of adulthood. “Oh my god we are so incompetent, I can’t believe how broke we are, what the hell are we doing with our lives?”
Many, if not most of us, have felt that same panicked confusion at some point. What surprises me is how many desire to stay in that freewheeling “I don’t ever want to grow up” state. Perhaps we fear letting go of the identity we’ve created. Or maybe it is the fear of screwing things up for others instead of just ourselves.
While I didn’t do every single thing I wanted to in my 20s, I also know I did what I could handle, and pursued the experiences I was passionate about. I understand why I chased the things I did and how my relationship with my life changed as I grew. My 20s were a symbiosis of what I wanted and what I needed. While I wasn’t always, I am now comfortable with that.
Several years ago I stopped thinking of life in terms of a process of discovery and more as one of creation. The idea of trying to find myself, or uncover the mysteries of existence is overwhelming. But the idea that I can learn something every day, build something, make something, that immediately becomes a part of me is very exciting, even if I don’t always act on it.
I will probably never feel as proficient as I think I should as an adult. While that sometimes terrifies me… I also know it is OK. There is no perfect sensation of what adulthood is. It is something we are fortunate enough to create and to shape as we like. Nobody lets you, adult.
It just happens.
You just do.
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