A friend of mine was turning eighteen. Being a thoughtful person, she was asking her older friends what they thought it meant to be an adult. I thought that was a fantastic idea, and it really made me stop and think. What is adulthood?
I’m “only” 25. Compared to the human lifespan, adulthood is still relatively new for me. But on the way to growing up, I’ve encountered several misconceptions.
Adulthood is not an age – not in any meaningful sense. The idea of ‘growing up’ entails certain practices, beliefs or characteristics. These don’t automatically come with age, as the infamous “man-child” demonstrates. Sure, we might expect someone to grow up eventually, but a given number of trips around the sun doesn’t just make it happen.
Neither is it individual milestones like being allowed to drink, vote, or drive. People always made a big fuss about them when I was a teenager. I didn’t care so much; maybe because I am a boring person. But truthfully, these are individual activities and they might be very meaningful to individual people. They might even enable true adulthood (more on that later) but they aren’t the thing itself. We shouldn’t mistake expressions of adulthood for the substance of growing up.
Most importantly, growing up isn’t about independence from people, like your parents or your family. I think this was the most common vision of adulthood I heard, and it’s nuts. We drum into young people that they need to be individualists and get some space from family life, and then wonder why they struggle to adjust to the constraints of living with another person when they get married. Healthy adulthood is not about separating ourselves from other people, because all individuals need community. The question is whether we will find a supportive community while living in the same house as adults who are related to us, adults who are not, or by ourselves. I appreciate that moving out of home or living with different adults can be exciting, healthy or formational, but I question the individualist spirit behind the “move out of home” mantra. Being an adult is not about keeping a healthy distance from deep relational bonds.
Then what is adulthood?
As I understand it as a young adult myself, adulthood is an attitude that “the buck stops with you”, that you answer for your choices and what becomes of them. Disney has sold us the lie that we can be whoever we want to be, and so by extension, our world can become whatever we want it to be. This is a fantasy. So much of what dominates our lives (politics, economics, social contexts, other people) lies beyond our control. Maybe Millennials resent Baby Boomers for the difficult world we’ve inherited because we’re slowly realising our own powerlessness.
No, adulthood is the conviction that it’s up to you to make the most of whatever happens in your life. No one else is going to do it for you. The hard part is that it takes effort, initiative and courage to experiment as you figure out how you’re going to make your life happen.
And there are many ways to practice and live out this philosophy. Despite my apathy towards cars, learning to drive enabled seventeen year old me to get a job and to more vigorously pursue the social opportunities that interested me. Those were ways that I started
to own my own choices in my head. Conversely, I was blessed with a supportive adult family and living at home wasn’t an obstacle to that type of ownership. There is no one path to adulting because it’s a character trait and not a set of cultural norms.
Naturally, your ability to live out this conviction expands as your body and mind matures. In our society, there are limits to how many responsibilities under 18-year olds can adopt. Biologically, puberty in the early teens (and the subsequent mental development for the next decade or more) also grows your capacity to respond proactively to life’s challenges.
Adulthood isn’t an on-off switch either. There are many ways teenagers can take responsibility for parts of their lives, and some people might consider themselves overall responsible at a different age to others. Owning your choices is such a varied and far-ranging concept that we should probably understand ‘adulting’ as a muscle we can start at a surprisingly early age, and continue to develop for the rest of our lives.
Adulthood isn’t an age, a milestone or a living arrangement. It is the headspace that you answer for your choices and their consequences, and that you’re willing to learn how to do that well.