Death of the American Adult

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The late, great linguist, Michel Thomas, whose method of teaching languages built on his students’ intuitive knowledge of their native tongues, was fond of saying, ‘What you understand, you know; and what you know, you don’t forget’. In other words, when we really understand something, there is no need to rehearse it or indeed to think very deeply about it at all. The same is true of what we know of human relationships. We do not need to study ‘loving’ to fall in love, or ‘friending’ to be a friend. We might reflect on our relationships from time to time, but we don’t need to be told how to do them. We are simply lovers or friends, husbands or wives, sons or daughters.

This is why the recent invention of the verb ‘to adult’, in 2008, should set off alarm bells. When the universal and authentic human experience of adulthood suddenly requires its very own verb, or worse, detailed instructions (adulting classes are springing up around the US), it shows that we no longer understand adulthood except as performance.

Kelly Williams Brown, author of Adulting: How to Become a Grownup in 468 Easy(ish) Steps, gives voice to this sense of alienation when she writes ‘adult isn’t something you are, it’s something you do. You are a grown-ass man or grown-ass woman and you can act like it even if you don’t feel like it on the inside.’ But in a healthy society, an adult is something that you are. It doesn’t need to be broken down into four steps, let alone 468, because the actuality of adulthood is knitted into the fabric of people’s lives. They experience it, and internalise it through the behaviour of the adults around them and through the clear distinctions drawn between adults and children. Their experiences prepare them one day to attain the status of a fully fledged, self-determining, responsible adult and, what’s more, it is something they want to achieve.

This is no longer the case today. American society has grown ambivalent about adulthood. It is not just that some of the traditional milestones such as a fulltime job or home ownership are harder to realise. For many young adults, these milestones are less desirable. The adult commitments of marriage and children are increasingly regarded as a burdensome imposition, synonymous with conformity and unwelcome obligation. Indeed, for many, coming of age is understood as the unfettered pursuit of lifestyle – that is, the organisation of life around a set of chosen activities and commitments aimed at personal fulfilment or becoming one’s best self.

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