What Does It Mean to Be "Adult" Today?

Adulthood today is more subjective and less an accomplishment of set milestones.

Posted Oct 29, 2010 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan

What does it mean to be "adult" today? I'm intrigued by this question. Or more accurately, I'm intrigued that we're asking the question.

When I was growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, "adult" meant you were done with your education and had settled into a job that, while maybe not sexy, paid the bills. You'd found a mate and were married. You probably owned a small starter home (renting was for college kids), and you had a child in the backseat on your way to the grocery store. You had put away all those childish things, had sowed your wild oats, and you were on your own, embracing the gray flannel suit or the blue collar, voting for the school board election, chipping in for the local fund-raiser, and paying taxes. Oh, and you were all of 25.

The path to adulthood since the end of WWII was short and direct. Today if you tell young people that to be an adult you must be living on your own, earning your own way, have a spouse and a kid and a house — you'll get a look of disbelief. "I'll never be an adult then," is their reply.

Many people, of course, didn't take this short and direct path. There are exceptions to every rule. But, on average, that path was the norm: leave home, get an education or training, get a job, marry, buy a home, have kids — in that order. Boom, boom, boom.

I myself didn't follow the norm exactly. I messed around a little longer than most of my friends, some of whom are new grandparents now. I meandered here and there, with no real goal or direction. I dropped out of college the first time, had a string of dead-end jobs, moved in with my boyfriend, moved to another city. As it would turn out, my messing around with this order was a harbinger of things to come. Underneath the fast and orderly path to adulthood were the roilings of change.

Indeed, if we'd been looking, we would have first seen the straight-shot embrace of adulthood begin to unravel as early as the 1980s. A first sign was the number of young adults living at home with their parents for longer. The share of 18 to 24-year-olds living at home had been rising slowly since the 1960s, but it jumped suddenly in the early 1980s — from 48% in 1980 to 54% in 1984 (another deep recession by the way). It hasn't changed that much since then.

Much of this so-called "failure to launch" is because of the rising demand for education and the longer time it takes to get that education. Many young people, realizing that factory jobs were disappearing and steady work was quickly becoming a thing of the past, flocked to higher education. But of course, aspirations are one thing and completing a degree is quite another. Many floundered in school — and they still do — dropping out, starting back to work, figuring out that the job is going nowhere, and returning to school again. All this takes time. In the interim, all those other steps of adulthood get pushed back. And voila, the quick and direct path to adulthood isn't so quick or direct anymore.

At the same time as these events were going on, our ideas about marriage and family were changing dramatically, as were our ideas of how to raise kids, what kind of home we liked, what a "necessity" was (cell phone anyone?). In short, this perfect storm of changing ideas and realities was also changing our idea of what (and when) adulthood is.

The result is that if you tell young adults today that they need to be married to be an adult, or they need to have kids, they'll look at you as if you're from Mars.

To them, adulthood is more subjective. It's more often a feeling, not a thing. Outward markers have lost their influence in defining them as adults in many respects. As one young person said in an interview, "I didn't wake up one day when I was 23 and think, oh I'm an adult now. I still sometimes don't think of myself that way."

One young woman said she realized she was an adult when, on a visit home, her dad offered her a beer and they talked politics — grown-up things. Another said she felt adult when she paid her own gas bill. Others feel like an adult in some circumstances and less so in others. One young woman said her sense of being an adult goes in cycles.

"I didn't really feel like an adult when I got married. I was just myself. But moving into our own place ... and really getting into that routine of what our life was — paying bills, paying rent, car payments — that's when I really started to feel like an adult. I felt that way for a few years and then I went backwards a little when I moved home. And then backwards again, going back to being a student."

Others take cues from those around them, which can be powerful signals, as this New Yorker told us: "I really felt like an adult when I was living in New York and commuting back and forth, just like you know, somebody twice my age would do ... I can talk about career stuff, this and that. It sounds to me like I'm in the same league with my colleagues and it feels good. That's when I really feel like an adult."

And so we stand at a moment when we must ask: Are we adults only when we've completed traditional markers or is the process so in flux that we must rethink what "adulthood" means to us? Is it still reasonable to expect young people to follow the same short and orderly path that their parents did? If not, what signals must we be sending as we cling to an outdated model? It's a recipe for confusion on everyone's part — parents, coworkers, educators, and young adults themselves.

As this young man said in an interview: "It's hard living up to the expectations of being an adult. You should have a good job. You should have your own place. Should have a family. It becomes: 'What's wrong with you?' What's wrong with you if you don't have a good job? What's wrong with you if you don't have a family?

The tried-and-true way of doing things has changed, and a "new normal" has begun to emerge. That's where we stand today: mid-stride in this new normal — and thus the discomfort, and the need to ask, what is adulthood?