Monday, July 12, 2021

Who Cares About Adulthood?


A lot of forces in contemporary U.S. culture work hard to prevent people from becoming adults. Movies, TV, advertisements, pop culture and its endless parade of heroes and villains as seen from the 16-year-old perspective; the relentless cult of staying forever young; a shortage of stable jobs that offer stable finances and work that’s emotionally and mentally bearable (much less emotionally rewarding); the spoiled brat behavior of the rich and powerful; the lies, corruption and perpetual manipulation of our corporate and political cultures.

On the other hand, conventional adulthood as it used to be experienced was often just as narrow as it seemed: go to work; meet your financial responsibilities; provide for your children (financially more than emotionally, often); and most of all live within the range of values dictated as normal for conventional adulthood; that is, accept the systems of U.S. culture and live within them. I’ve been wondering lately if anybody asks themselves anymore what it means to be an adult, whether it’s valuable, what the point is of “growing up,” whether conversations about ‘being an adult” are even relevant anymore, and to whom.

“Nobody studies happiness”--I think it was Charles Olson who said that, with the implication that you can’t expect to have something when you haven’t identified what it is or thought about how to get it. At least in the U.S., “nobody studies adulthood” (although probably there are a few classes in it here or there) and I’m not sure what it would mean to do that or why it would be valuable. What are good ways to live when one is 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90?

Maybe, for me, the basic lesson of adulthood is the importance of learning how to deal with others without thinking that you and your own needs are the only ones that matter (and I know it’s easier to say that than to do it). Compassion, understanding, listening, being open to negotiation and sharing, knowing how to work and play with others; these traits seem to me things I’d like adults to learn and act on. Of course I’m aware that these are traits are not valued by everyone or considered by relevant features of what it means to be an adult, but in my mind (and I’m sure that of some others) they are at least associated with adulthood.

Who cares about adulthood anymore? Is it just an old limitation or is it a concept that still has some kind of importance, and to whom? Is it just an old lesson about responsibility or a concept that like many other concepts has to change as times change?