I have this theory that you come of age the moment you start eating broccoli on purpose. Every now and then I’ll be standing at the supermarket checkout, admiring the various vegetables I’ve chosen to purchase, and I’ll look around for my congratulations. What is it about these insignificant moments that make them feel like landmarks?
There’s an old, widely shared meme which says something like: “the horrifying moment when you’re looking for an adult, then realize you’re an adult. So you look for an older adult, someone successfully adulting… an adultier adult.” There’s a reason this sentiment has been circulated to the point of essentially being a proverb: It speaks to the way grown-up life never feels quite like we expected it to as kids, and especially the way that creates a gulf between how we view ourselves and how the rest of the world views us. Maybe buying broccoli sticks out because it’s one of those rare times both perspectives line up.
Most of the time, though, they don’t. Consider my job: While I still think of myself as a plucky young upstart, I’ve noticed more and more junior-level people seeking me out for career advice. And every time it happens, it creates one hell of a case of cognitive dissonance. Me? In those moments, I have to remind myself that I’m a professional writer (my dream job since I was a child); that I live by myself, in an apartment that I can (mostly) afford; that while I work in my pajamas most days, I also meet deadlines. I may not think of myself as a “grown-up,” but I’m 32 years old. If not now, when?
The word “adulting” gets thrown around a lot, and can be applied to anything from doing laundry to paying your bills on time. Referring to the completion of basic tasks as “adulting” sets a pretty low bar for what it means to be grown up, but our relationship with daily life is changing. We’re in a time of socioeconomic and political turmoil, the daily influx of bad news exacerbates anxiety levels that are already through the roof, and our late-capitalist-inspired compulsion to be professional and personal productivity machines is causing greater and greater numbers of young people to burnout. Is it any wonder that the simple domestic tasks of yore feel increasingly difficult, or that finding the time and energy for them is a growing challenge?
UC Berkeley recently started offering a class in “adulting” for this very reason. The course covers a variety of practical skills, life admin, and general common sense that, curiously, doesn’t get taught in high school. “We realized the things we don’t learn in school are topics like taxes and just how to take care of yourself,” says Belle Lau, a 20-year-old student who co-created the class. “We don’t really know that much, so we’re all learning together.”
It’s a compelling (and long overdue) idea, but its framing begs the question: Is this what being an adult is all about? Cooking, budgeting, changing a tire? Or is there more to being a grownup than simply aging out of your teens and knowing where the fuse box is?
Back in the 17th Century you’d be married off at thirteen and expected to conceive and raise children before many of us even get married today. Now that we live in an aging society, where the average global lifespan is 79, we have more time to put off the previously established milestones of growing up, like marriage, home ownership, and parenthood. Many people in their twenties and thirties today live in what older generations might consider a state of permanent adolescence.
But there are other reasons to delay these goals beyond simply arrested development. According to Amy Blackstone, sociology professor at the University of Maine, and author of Childfree by Choice, the sheer expense of having a baby is an increasing deterrent to starting a family: “We know that’s a particularly difficult issue for millennials who are facing all kinds of college debt,” she says. “Certainly, having a child has an impact on the environment… other top reasons include the desire for autonomy, spontaneity, freedom and the ability to travel.”
The media might like to say we’re the generation squandering our mortgage money on “avocado oat milk latte toast” or whatever, but it would be more accurate to say that we simply don’t all see home ownership as the aspirational milestone it was for our parents, when such a prospect wasn’t so expensive (and owning property wasn’t so publicly tied to social issues like gentrification and the wealth divide). The cost of living is at an all-time high, and having savings is something that only the most privileged can afford, forcing us to carve out our own, newer ideas about what it means to be mature and successful.
Still, the old markers of adulthood persist in the cultural consciousness—leading many of us to feel immature even with plenty of evidence to the contrary. But I’ve written before about the ways in which I’ve evolved my thinking regarding adult relationships, to think of friendships as being equally important as romantic connections, and to see the value in short-lived flings as much as long-term commitments. Maybe we need to be similarly flexible in our definitions of what it means to grow up.
Not everybody is going to follow the same life path, because we don’t all share the same priorities, socioeconomic backgrounds, sexual identities. What leads one person to greater self-knowledge and self-actualization, be that through work, marriage, or starting a family, may leave another feeling entirely unfulfilled. The traditional rites of passage our parents and grandparents went through may still hold an appeal for many, but heteronormative domestic bliss, with all of its inherent responsibilities, is not the only way to mature. Of course, changing a tire or buying broccoli voluntarily isn’t either.
Maybe the secret to being a grownup is that nobody knows what they’re doing, and they never have. As a child I always thought my parents had the answers to everything, that they were reading from a handbook passed down through generations of wise adults. Of course, there’s no such thing—“adulting” classes notwithstanding. And while that can feel scary, it’s also oddly liberating. Because we get to write it ourselves.
Graphics by Coco Lashar.