Anti-Adulthood: What’s Behind Gen Y’s Reluctance To Grow Up?

2009 November 4

I stumbled across an interesting little discussion at one of my internet haunts the other day and it set my brain whirring. What started out innocently enough as someone asking if others still felt like adolescents and were weirded out by their peers having acquired all of the trappings of adulthood quickly devolved into some sort of Peter Pan pissing contest with each subsequent discussant attempting to disavow the taint of grown-up status to an ever greater degree. And who says Gen Y isn’t competitive? Folks were fairly tripping over each other to assert that their outward signs of adulthood were merely a sham:

Well, I’m married (we’re both engineers) and we’re expecting our first baby, but I still feel like a kid! I mean, we might be in the process of building our dream home, but we both have tattoos and I still love going to punk shows and sometimes I eat peanut butter straight out of the jar and watch Yo Gabba Gabba! while my wife is at spinning class.

A break: I would like you to give it to me. I exaggerate, but only slightly and only to avoid singling anyone out. Yes, I preach the gospel of you are not your job/bank balance/material possessions, but this discussion was less about rejecting these goalposts and more about arguing that they failed to deliver on their implicit promises of adulthood. I have all the grown-up stuff, so why don’t I feel like one yet? Not to mention a healthy dose of herd mentality and the desire to blend in with the group by claiming that you too are just one of the mid-twenties malaise crowd. Congrats and welcome to the quarter-life crisis club!  Secret handshake pending.

1557492245_2f8e9afee9Photo by Ginny Alloway Baker

There are two factors at work here. Firstly, we’ve put the cart before the horse by assuming that the status symbols of adulthood would actually confer maturity on us instead of seeing the acquisition of these symbols as simply a tangible means of asserting the maturity we already feel. Having a baby doesn’t make you a grown-up, wherein deliberately deciding to start a family is a grown-up (in most cases) decision. See the difference? A mortgage is not a talisman, y’all.

And secondly, we’ve conflated being an adult with stagnancy, mom jeans n’ dockers and a wisdom we don’t feel we possess. We’re waiting for our cars, houses and newborns to deliver adulthood unto us, but our notion of said adulthood is skewed. So when buying our first home doesn’t lead to a burning desire to read the Wall Street Journal over a morning bowl of bran flakes, we think that there’s something “wrong” with us and that we obviously missed the boat to grown-up land. But modern maturity (no, not that one) doesn’t look the same for us as it did for our parents or our grandparents. The world is a different place. We grew up and came of age under different political, social and economic circumstances. Our adulthood will never feel the same as theirs did. And expecting it to do so sells ourselves short. We feel as if we’re stuck in a perpetual adolescent twilight, so we comfort ourselves by fetishizing youthfulness, while at the same time dismissing the very things our parents and grandparents considered the aspirational proof in the pudding. Well, if we don’t feel like grown-ups that’s a good thing, because being a grown-up sucks and who wants to be one anyway? So there!

While this attitude (reactionary and dare I say, childish as it might be)  provides some measure of comfort (especially if you can find a critical mass of individuals who share and reinforce it), there’s a very real downside. As long as we regard The Adult as the other, we never really feel entitled to or responsible for making the decisions and choices we associate with adulthood. It both lets us off the hook when it comes to sacking up and making the necessary tough career/relationship/financial calls and infantilizes us and discounts our capacity to actually make these calls in the first place. It’s a one-two punch of ambivalence and insecurity and we’re socking it to ourselves. And yet, in true Gen Y entrepreneurial fashion, we’ve also cannily managed to romanticize the heck out of this angst in the form of quarter-life crisis cool at the same time.

So, pass the peanut butter, I guess?

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