Friday, September 3, 2010
Adulthood Isn't Independence, And It Doesn't Require A Nissan Quest Minivan, Either
There are a lot of things to be annoyed by in the recent New York Times article on the way 20-somethings are dithering and delaying their progress toward "adulthood." But the most annoying is the way adulthood is assumed to consist primarily in independence and the pursuit of a middle-class suburban lifestyle.
The author mentions early on a sociological definition of adulthood in terms of milestones. On this view, your adulthood is scored on how many of the following five things you've done: completed school, left home, become financially independent, married, and had a kid.
It's a weird list right on the face of it, no? Obviously having marriage and kids on there is really peculiar: many people will never do these things, just by choice; if you're gay, you might even find the law trying to prevent you from achieving them. Leaving school is a bit more plausible, but not totally. If you go back to school to change careers this is surely not a sign of immaturity.
The article points out early on that people don't march in lock stop toward these five things anymore, and then explores why and how modern 20-somethings are generally avoiding them. Kids are staying at home, and moving back home, of course. They're taking a long time to decide what they want to do in life. When they don't live at home, they often travel, and move from living in one place to living in another. They delay marriage and family.
But really, what's so bad about these things? Indeed, from one point of view they seem to me admirable. It's admirable to want to see a bit of a different kind of life before settling into the kind of life you're going to live for the rest of your existence, and it's admirable to want to think carefully about what life path would be best. Many of these young people are wrestling with questions like to what extent their life should involve good works and to what extent they should be selfish -- surely a difficult matter on which the messages they receive from the culture around them are deeply ambivalent.
Now if you're a parent, you might be annoyed by your kids depending on you, and that is totally understandable. But beyond that, what is the issue here? There's nothing "non-adult" about wanting to travel, kick around, and do different things. Lots of adults are dying to do the same thing. Really, there's nothing non-adult about any of these things, once you let go of the idea that adulthood has to consist in independence and family life.
And this, I believe, is where the mistake is. What is up with the fetish for independence? What is it with this idea that seems to permeate modern discussions of relationships, politics, mental health, that somehow independence is the be-all and end all? Life is tough. That's why people band together in groups to help one another out. That's why families take care of one another. Dependence on other people -- emotional, practical, financial -- is the norm of life. It's not an exception, it's not an illness to be treated, and it's not a sign of childishness. It might be slightly better to think in terms of inter-dependence -- adulthood correlating with being able to help out, in addition to being helped out -- but really, do you want to say that people who are physically disabled are somehow less "adult"? Doesn't seem right.
And obviously, adulthood should not by definition involve marriage, children, cars, dogs, houseplants, or sofas.
Definition-wise, we can surely do better. Why not look to internal markers rather than external ones? Just off the top of my head, two things come to mind. Adulthood -- or, at least, maturity -- has to do with thinking for yourself and it has to do with being able to take other people and their needs and desires into consideration. Intellectual and moral adulthood.
As a university professor, I see young people all the time, and interestingly, I'd say there is some cause for optimism on the moral maturity front. Young people are thinking about others; they'd like the suffering of the world to disappear; they'd like to be able to help out others more without having to worry so much about their own futures and what those hold. The same behaviors that are immature on the standard definition could be signs of maturity on this one: people find it hard to figure how they ought to live in the world.
It's on the thinking for yourself front that I'm a little worried. Thinking for yourself is work, and it's often difficult, and if you're used to just absorbing information, it can be a real pain. If you're worried about the effects of the new kinder, gentler, parenting, or the effects of endless "self-esteem" praise, or the effects of huge classrooms on young people, the thing to be worried about isn't so much whether the kids are ready to pick out and pay for living room furniture by the time they're 25; the thing to be worried about is whether they believe everything they read on the fucking internet, or find in a textbook, or see on TV, or hear from their friends.