Steven Mintz Ph.D.

The Prime of Life

7 Lessons From the History of Adulthood

Why adulthood has never looked less appealing.

Posted May 26, 2015

1. Growing up has never been easy.

Except for a brief period between the late 1940s through the mid-1960s, becoming an adult has always been a difficult and prolonged process, filled with angst, uncertainty, setbacks, and reversals. Defining one’s adult identity, choosing an intimate partner, and finding a meaningful career are among life’s greatest challenges, making one’s twenties the most decisive, and difficult, decade.

2. The only constant adult characteristic is stress and responsibility.

American culture has long celebrated youth because adulthood is challenging and often burdensome, due to work and family obligations. In contrast to those in the past, though, today’s stresses are often self-imposed, such as our extreme preoccupation with children’s safety and psychological and physical well-being and our willingness to work far longer hours than necessary.

3. Modern Americans are profoundly ambivalent about adulthood. 

Few people really say, “Life begins at 40,” at least not without irony. In the minds of many people, adulthood is associated with stagnation, decline, and often, an unfulfilling job and an unhappy marriage. But ambivalence about adulthood is hardly new. Historic American literature tended to paint a bleak picture of adulthood, especially of adult men. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain presents adults as a collection of hucksters, charlatans, braggarts, con men, cheats, and abusive drunks. Consider too Melville’s monomaniacal Ahab, or his depressed, deeply alienated Bartleby; Henry James’s unfulfilled Lambert Strether; Edith Wharton’s “ruin of a man”, Ethan Frome; Dreiser’s greedy, ambitious, opportunistic Clyde Griffiths; and Sinclair Lewis’s narrow-minded, complacent, materialistic George F. Babbitt. Fictional images of manhood are replete with examples of men with cramped emotional lives, loveless marriages, and work lacking opportunities for meaning and fulfillment.

Pavel L Photo and Video/Shutterstock
Source: Pavel L Photo and Video/Shutterstock

4. Our society gives young people few reasons to “grow up.”

An older image of adulthood—which linked this life stage with maturity, sophistication, style, and worldliness—has given way to a more negative conception. Today, youth is — wrongly—celebrated as the best years of one’s life, lauded as care-free, pleasure filled, and unconstrained. For many, however, youth is a time of uncertainty, heartbreak, and one’s first confrontation with failure.

5. Condemning the young for failing to grow up is among this society’s oldest traditions.

Resistance to becoming an adult has long been part of the process of entering full adulthood. As early as the 17th century, many young people resisted the pressure to settle down and embrace the conventions of mature manhood and womanhood. They engaged in revels, dances, and games, prompting attacks on the “rising generation” for failing to live up to its elders’ example.

6. Social class increasingly shapes one’s life trajectory.

Increasingly, one's economic status determines whether and where one goes to college, whether one remains married or experiences a series of unstable relationships, and whether one acquires a stable rewarding career.

Jan Steen, The Dancing Couple, 1663, Widener Collection1942.9.81, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Source: Jan Steen, The Dancing Couple, 1663, Widener Collection1942.9.81, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

7. Adulthood today is distinctive in that adults share few common characteristics.

Some adults marry; others do not. Some raise children; others are child-free. For the more affluent, key choices regarding where to live, what lifestyle to adopt, and what career to pursue are made freely. For those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, choices and opportunities are far more constrained.    

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