Adulthood (Updated)

What is an adult?

I mean I’m way over 13 or 18 or 21 or any of the other arbitrary points at which you magically become one. But I know that by certain standards I’m not an adult.

I have no children. I don’t own a house or a flat or any other kind of property. Nor do I own a car. And I’ve never been through any initiation-to-adulthood ceremonies. Or killed any enemies of my tribe.

I have had sex and been drunk though. I’m married. I also have a job. Or at least am self-employed. So I’ve got some claims to adulthood other than my chronological age. But for some that’s not enough.

Those people for whom you have to leap a bunch of arbitrary hurdles in order to be a “real” adult have been around since the very dawn of time.1 They reckon the childless, property-less youngies are layabouts what don’t hold up the previous generation’s standards and know bugger all about responsibility and blah blah blah.

Generations have been bagging the generation that came after them since forever. There’s a famous quote from Thucydides or Herodutus or someone bagging the young uns, but I’m not in the mood to go hunt it down. It sounds exactly like Bill O’Reilly insisting that America is about to be destroyed because of all those young uns and their devil video games.

Utter, uttter, utter rubbish. Chariot racing didn’t destroy the fabric of society and neither has the charleston, television, or the humble ipod.

My dear friend, the multi-talented Kate Crawford, has recently published a book on this very topic. Adult Themes in which she examines how this debate evolved and how very stupid it is. Why aren’t the folks under forty getting married, having babies and buying houses as quickly and as often as their parents did? Because houses are way more expensive, as is raising a kid. Der.

Adult Themes is awesome. Funny, smart and wicked to the point. You should all read it.

Update: and if you wish to buy it go here. As far as I know the book has only been published in Australia so far.

In the meantime. Those of you who are adults—do you feel like one? What is it that makes you feel like a grown up? Or do you feel like an imposter?

And for those you aren’t adults yet—whatcha reckon you’ll need to do to become one?

Update: Sherwood Smith has now written very eloquently and movingly on this subject.

  1. Or, you know, that time when humans were evolved enough to start bitching at one another. []


  1. jaida jones on #

    Good question, and one I have actually been pondering lately, as, come Saturday, I will no longer be a teenager. This seriously freaks me out, mainly because Peter Pan never showed up on my windowsill, and I never got to see mermaids, and now I never will unless I set down some traps. Oh, and I will. I just have to figure out the best way to do it first.

    In any case, the answer to your question is…I have no idea. I sure hope I have some fun finding out, and I can stop making childish mistakes, or rather, learn from the childish mistakes I continue to make. Mostly, I’d like to not be a college student anymore, as much as I love the classes and the learning and the being so stressed my hair falls out. Mainly because at this point I feel I’m a little bit of both, and expected to be a little bit of both, which of course means I don’t fit the category of either. Being neither sucks.

    I’d like to think, actually, that I’ll be an adult once I’ve managed to go to at least *one* of the places I dream of. Maybe when I’ve lived in another country for more than half a year.

    But I am definitely not an adult yet.

    I wish I had more time left to be a teenager!

  2. Lee Battersby on #

    Yeah, well try having drunken sex whilst dancing the charleston to tunes from your iPod on the back of a chariot on TV and see how much of an adult you feel…

    I rarely feel like an adult. I usually feel old, but that’s more because I usually feel like a teenager who’s grown completely and permanently out of his depth.

    Of course, I am never the best example to quote.

  3. veejane on #

    Adulthood is the knowledge that you have to solve your own problems, and you probably *can* solve your own problems, if you employ research, elbow grease, money, and will (not in that order).

    This is how I bought a car, installed a drain plug in a sink, have kept a magnolia alive in a cold climate for a year, got jobs, left jobs gracefully, found a veterinarian, and learned how to figure my own taxes.

    I have not yet had the opportunity to find out whether I can solve a problem like “whoops I just got arrested.”

  4. elizabeth bear on #

    Somebody said that adulthood begins the moment you understand you’re going to die.

    It actually hit me sometime after that. But yeah, I am an adult now. Nobody bails me out anymore.

    Sometimes people help (nobody can do everything on her own) but I help them right back.

    And it’s nobody else’s fault if I faceplant.

  5. Darice on #

    When I was a kid, I thought of adulthood as “getting to wear high heels,” but now that I’m an adult I rarely wear them…

    …anyway. I’ve found that although parenthood does sometimes make me feel like an adult, it’s really responsibility that does the trick. Being responsible for another human being is just one facet of it.

    And responsibility is sometimes ugly (like looking at the finances honestly and deciding what travel plans get axed) and sometimes awesome (getting paid for working at home, whee!). But to me, it’s adulthood.

    (Side note: while we were roadtripping this weekend, we stopped off for a break, and in the park where we stopped there was a cricket match! I was amazed, mostly because when you say “Cricket in Florida” people tend to think “Jiminy.”)

  6. Peter on #

    You’re friends with Kate Crawford? Yay. I know her via the muso connection – B(if)tek did a scary remix of my band FourPlay a few years back – and have been looking forward to reading her book.

    At 33 (in a bit over a month), with a band and a job and a bunch of freelance things under my belt, I don’t feel like an adult at all. If nothing else (and there’s lots else I’m sure!) Kate’s book is empowering to those of us who might have felt like we fell off the rails somewhere…

  7. robin on #

    Having just attended my ten year high school reunion this weekend, I think I’m now officially an adult. On the other hand, as I write this, I’m sitting in my pajamas in my parent’s basement, munching on leftover Thanksgiving cookies. Which doesn’t exactly spell ‘glamorous grown-up life.’


  8. Rebecca on #

    all i can say is, i’m glad i’m not bill o’reilly’s kid. come to think of it, there are a variety of reasons i’m glad i’m not bill o’reilley’s kid. 😛

    this kind of reminds me of the romantic love musing. i read it a few days ago and thought it was pretty cool. likewise this post. i’ve been an “adult” for two years, but i still live at my parents’ house when i’m not at school, my parents still pay my tuition, i only just got my own car about a month ago, and my job barely pays my gas money. *cough*andiliveinadorm*cough* i.e. i do not feel like an adult. and i still can’t drink, so it’s like i’m in this middle thing where i’m not a kid so i’m not allowed to mess around, but i’m not an adult either, so i don’t get to do anything. it’s kinda frustrating, especially when my 21-year-old friends want to go to bar and can’t because of me. but that’s kind of a different thing. no, i don’t feel like an adult. and the thought of getting a “real” job terrifies me. i’m like peter pan, i don’t wanna grow up. 🙂
    i read something somewhere once about “adultescents” which was slamming people in their 20’s (and up) who still live with their parents. and someone counter-slammed with exactly what you said about how expensive it is to own property and raise kids. which kinda sucks for me, ’cause i know i want three someday. plus i think i might go crazy if i live with my parents again on a permanent basis, cool as they are. 😉

    “come Saturday, I will no longer be a teenager.”
    i just turned 20. i had the same issues. honestly, it’s all about how you feel. i still feel like a teenager. it’s just numbers anyway. 🙂

  9. Penni on #

    I’m 31, have 2 kids. I even owned property for about 5 minutes. None of these things ever made me feel like a grown up. I don’t feel more responsible – in fact being a mother reminds me of being a teenager – it’s the loss of freedom thing, living centred around family life, and a lot of the time it’s such crazy fun. The other parents I’m drawn to are other people who just find the whole thing as much of a spin out as I do. Having little kids, I feel more like them that I do like a grown up. I also can’t drive a car and I have no super and I’ve never had a real job.
    I think in my head I will always be around 17. That was my butterly year – the year I transformed into the glamorous and powerful entity I am now – maybe that’s why it’s the age I was naturally drawn to write about.

  10. marrije on #

    i’m 38 (eep), i have 2 kids, a car and a big, grown-up house, i’m a member of a political party for cripes’ sake (though i’m never ever going to be one of those annoying people who push leaflets into your hands) and (ahem) a business owner, i’m famously responsible about money and i still don’t feel grown up. it’s all just a front for being about 19 or 20 on the inside. my dream job is still prop maker for wallace & gromit.
    i was talking to my great-aunt a few years back, when she was about 90 (and just returned from her last trip to the wilds of namibia), and she said she was surprised every day to find herself in this old body – she felt she hadn’t really aged a lot since about 20 either.

  11. Emmaco on #

    Because so many people I know say they don’t feel like adults I feel like a freak but I think I thought of myself as an adult around 16 or 17. We had family problems that required me to be responsible in the same way as an adult. Also I was making decisions about my life independently of other people. But at the same time I thought of myself as “young” just as an adult too. And I never had a perception of adults as not being fun so it wasn’t a big deal to be one!

    Having said that I think that when I was younger I vaguely thought adult women all had short and dyed hair and bemoaned the future loss of my long hair!

  12. lili on #

    ooh, sounds like my kind of book.

    i run a book group for teenagers, and i always feel more like ‘one of them’ than like most of my grown up work colleagues.

    i’m living at home at the moment, and it’s great! i like my parents, they like me… and it’s giving me a great opportunity to save some money for when i move into my lovely flat.

    i do grownup stuff. i pay bills. i have a good job. i own a car. but i still feel like a 17 year old. i reckon everybody does…

  13. sara on #

    I NEED this book in my life! Where do I buy it?? I’m so sick of all the media panics about 20- and 30-somethings “not growing up”. It’s outrageous, commentators never stopping to consider the context about changing economic circumstances, a new millenium, or a thousand other things that change how we experience life and become adults. So YIPPEE for a book that finally makes these arguments. Why did we have to wait so long?

  14. Justine on #

    Thanks for the fascinating comments, everyone! Makes me wonder even more how much class has to do with all of this. I suspect a great deal. Given that many of you seem to have had (or be in the process of having–hey Jaida! Hey Rebecca!) the prolonged teenagerdom that being in university for years brings.

    Peter: Isn’t Kate fabbo? I know her through Sydney Uni.

    Rebecca: Check out Kate’s excellent article nuking the stupid idea of “adultescence” (not to mention pointing out how ugly that word is).

    Sara: Oops! Good point. Mea culpa. You can buy it from Gleebooks or any other online purveyor of Australian books. Here’s the Gleebooks link.

  15. A.R.Yngve on #

    I’ve read in books like THE SIBLING SOCIETY and THE WAY OF MYTH how “primitive” societies had very harsh adulthood rites for adolescent males; the transition from boyhood to manhood came with great physical pain, and (if the rite proved successful) visions of speaking with the gods.

    (Native Americans in particular had initiation rituals that I probably wouldn’t have survived; have you seen the movie A MAN CALLED HORSE ?).

    Perhaps the hazing rituals of universities are a surviving trace of such primitive customs: the idea that by undergoing painful or scary “tests”, you mark your transition to adulthood.

    I’m not sure this works in our modern society. For one thing, adulthood rites require a cultural consensus that is no longer possible: if everybody doesn’t agree that the ritual IS a sign of adulthood, then it loses its value.

    Then again, some people (not me) seem voluntarily drawn to extreme physical tests: extreme sports, far-out body piercing, tattoos, you name it.
    Maybe it’s a kind of adulthood rite for them? I have NO idea. :-S

  16. glenda larke on #

    The day my mother died and I was orphaned. Suddenly there was no one left who thought of me as a child any more. I was fifty.

    Probably I had at times acted like an adult prior to that, but that was the time I really felt I had left the last bit of childhood behind forever… Sigh.

    I wanna go backwards.

  17. Heather on #

    I became an adult on April 27th, 1995.

    That was the day my dad died. I had to grow up, because my mother shut down on me.

    Everyone has a different moment when they become an adult. It might be as simple as the realization you aren’t a kid anymore, that no one is going to take care of you; that’s your job now.

    Having kids DEFINITELY isn’t the point. I know many people – ostensibly adults – who have children, and behave like utter toddlers. And I know plenty of happily childfree (as opposed to childless) folks who are the most adult-like I know.

    Adulthood is overrated. Personally, I never want to grow up. I like being a little kid; makes playing with my daughter a lot more fun.

  18. Cheryl on #

    I’ve come to the conclusion that I will never get to be an adult. Most of the female half of the population seems unlikely to regard me as an adult until I have children, something that is highly unlikely. As for the male half of the population, most of them won’t regard me as an adult (at least in terms of taking anything I say seriously) until I stop being female, which is also highly unlikely.

  19. Ted Lemon on #

    Like any word, it means whatever you want it to, with the caveat that if you think it means something completely different than what anyone else thinks it means, you might get into a lot of arguments.

    I would say that several symptoms of adulthood are:

    1. You are taking care of yourself, for the most part.
    2. You aren’t afraid to ask for help when you need it.
    3. You realize that everybody else is making it up as they go along too.

    I would say, with all due respect to a writer whose books I love, that realizing that you are going to die is not the moment that you reach adulthood. The reason I say this is that I think most children have this realization at some point, and that in fact part of the transition to what is commonly recognized as adulthood is the pretense that we are not going to die.

    Because if you really live as if you are going to die, a lot of the common markers of adulthood, such as property ownership, become unimportant, and things like living a meaningful life start to become more important, and god knows that people who live meaningful lives aren’t what society in general would describe as adults.


  20. sherry on #

    Glenda, I can relate to that sentiment so much. I think adulthood comes in layers.

    You have that time of passing from teenager to adult where you get to try on different aspects of adulthood.

    Then you finish school and work to support yourself.

    Then you get married or involved in some significant relationship.

    You have children (not a marker of being an adult, but parenting is a whole other facet of life, which only other parents can really understand). Incidentally, becoming a parent actually gives you an excuse to act like a child again in many ways.

    You lose your own parents–and yes, this is a very defining moment. I always felt like I was trying to live the life my parents wanted for me. When I lost my mom I understood that I was living to please myself now.

    Then your children grow and go out into the world and make their own families. And you become a grandparent. Which I imagine is another major life-defining moment.

    But you don’t have to experience all of these things to be an adult. They are just life experiences that we see as defining moments. You have experienced other life experiences that the regular 9 to 5 office-worker doesn’t get the chance to. You’ve discovered a career where you’ve seen a good measure of success. You get to live creatively. You’ve traveled and seen other cultures. So I see it as a series of adult experiences which shape people.

  21. Chris S. on #

    One of my friends once suggested that adulthood was a long list of things you didn’t want to do. He was being less than serious, or at least less than complete. It’s not having that list that matters, but doing it.
    Taking that responsibility, not just for yourself, but for others/dependants/family/ friends/society as a whole… that seems like one of those layers of adulthood.

  22. minz on #

    Actually, Herodotus is a firm believer in baggin’ the olduns…:
    “For as the body grows old, so the wits grow old and become blind towards all things.”

  23. Jennifer on #

    I got raised that adulthood for a woman is the following characteristics:
    (a) you LOVE to cook
    (b) you LOVE to clean
    (c) you are married with children.

    period. no exceptions. we’re a 1950’s stepford family here.

    I am seeing a shrink about this, yes. I sure as hell don’t feel adult. I’m single and thus people treat me like a freak, I don’t want kids and thus people treat me like a freak. I’m stuck doing eldercare issues at the age of 28 (and have been since I was 19), which NOBODY my age does. I can’t figure out what age I am supposed to be. People my age are all married off here, and I end up either hanging out with college students or people who are like 10 years or more older than I am, because those people are okay with hanging out with someone who doesn’t come in a 2-for-1 package.

    It also probably doesn’t help that I look to be 18 years old at the max and even I can’t take myself “as an adult” seriously looking at my precious wittle baby face in the mirror.

  24. Rebecca on #

    “careless violence to the English language”

    Indeed. 🙂 Excellent article.

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