Amid tedium and strain, remember this: Maturity is worth it.
Young people facing a first autumn after high school or college, or finding themselves between jobs, or lacking clear next steps, might reasonably wonder: What should I be doing? How will I know?
At the start of this century, psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett tried to explain the fits and starts of growing up today with a theory of “emerging adulthood.” Arnett noticed that milestones like getting married, securing a job, or having children used to make the shift clear. But his interviewees understood adulthood in terms of internal sensibilities. The group Arnett names “emerging adults” (18-29) are in a period of life in our day shaped by a search for identity and characterized by instability, self-focus (“as obligations to others reach a life-span low”), feeling “in between,” and being open to possibilities.
In the eyes of earlier generations, it might seem that young people these days take an awfully long time to decide who they are and what they will be. Older adults whose obligations deprived them of this exploratory season might envy those still emerging. But twentysomethings have not blazed this pathless path all by themselves. Social and economic shifts set the parameters. Consider education and dating platforms, which make continued choice easier than relational stability. And then there’s the general context of global instability and a planet that is burning up.
If external circumstances do not determine the particularities of emerging adulthood, they do determine the next phase, a “new conception” of the 30-45 age bracket, which Arnett and colleague Clare M. Mehta call “established adulthood.” People who don’t get stable jobs and relationships in their twenties tend to do so in the next decade. In other words, the new thirties are the old twenties. Arnett and Mehta name the challenge of this period the “career-and-care-crunch.” “Established adults” are more proficient at jobs that demand a lot to do well and at the same time are likelier to be responsible for children who need attentive and often intensive care. Sometimes they have to care for elderly parents as well.
The “crunch” arises from reasons both personal and structural. Contrary to midcentury ideals for the 30-45 bracket, individuals now bundle loads that were formerly divided between men (at work) and women (at home). Also, work became more “greedy” at the same time childrearing became more intensive. Twentysomethings might find themselves surprised by life’s tedium, but thirtysomethings might be startled by how much maturity involves doing stuff for other people.
In seminars over the last decade, I have asked undergraduates how they would know when they are grown up. I remind them that through the mid-twentieth century, for young men but especially young women, getting married did the trick. For young men (but much less for young women), the key was getting a job that would provide promotion and a living wage for a long haul. One group of students suggested that a good definition of adulthood is being able to take care of yourself and others who might depend on you—like a spouse or children.
The students gave an insightful response. So why has the ability to develop an ethic of caretaking dropped off over the decades?
It’s a complicated question, but Steven Mintz’s The Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood, a book I use in my seminars, sheds light. Discussing the reality of eros and young adults, Mintz offers an observation applicable more broadly. Increased access to sex lessened the attractions of adulthood, Mintz argues, since “the ability to obtain adulthood’s most desirable elements, without also assuming its traditional obligations and responsibilities, sharply diminished adulthood’s appeal.”
One does not need to have a spouse or children in order to learn to care. All adults have obligations to care for others; so many—older, younger, poorer, lonelier, or temporarily stuck—await the care of the newly independent. Perceiving oneself as in a “life-span low” in terms of obligations to others is a delusion. Instead, seeing the work of care as built into adulthood might soften some of the crunch of established years.
If being an adult is not just a matter of what we do but how we think about what we do, we might reshape growing up from the ground up. We could stop asking children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” in a way that really means, “What work do you want somebody to pay you to do?” (As a friend of mine used to answer the question: “I want to be a saint. Don’t you?”) The error is exacerbated by promises to children that they can be anything they want to be. That advice can leave them floundering as they seek someone willing to pay them for doing what they love—that’s what a grown-up job is, isn’t it?
Illustration of the fruit of such counsel comes in Kayleen Schaefer’s book, But You’re Still So Young: How Thirtysomethings are Redefining Adulthood, a kind of primary source following the ups and downs of emerging-to-established adults. Schaefer tells the story of Sally, who intended to go to Paris with the fiancé she met in college. Their engagement ended. Although her New York job was okay, Sally “hated the trajectory she saw. . . . plodding along as a manager for another year or so, then being promoted to director, and maybe eventually being the boss. She didn’t want to do any of that.” So Sally quit and went to Paris by herself. She stayed with a friend, and “life in Paris was exactly how she fantasized it would be.” Then she stayed with another friend for free but moved to an Airbnb when it turned out her friend couldn’t actually keep the apartment with her there sans rent. Since she didn’t have a job, she couldn’t pay for the Airbnb either, so the Parisian idyll ends with her weeping among tombstones in the Pere Lachaise cemetery. The reader hopes that Sally will come to herself in this dark wood, but that is not the point of this anecdote. Shaefer’s point is to explain how Sally wound up at age 30 living with her parents in Queens.
I feel for Sally. As with other morality tales, the reader wishes to leap into the story and warn Sally away from the wrong turns that lead back to Queens. No, Sally, don’t buy a one-way ticket to Paris! No, Sally, your friend actually won’t be able to let you stay indefinitely in that apartment for free! No, Sally, you don’t have to love your job or abandon promotions!
This reader wants Sally to appreciate what Mintz argues: Loss and trouble inevitably come with age, but maturity is worth it. “There are wonders to a life that is grappled with,” Mintz advises, “laughter, tears, companionship, and above all, self-knowledge,” as well as reliability and wisdom, which number among maturity’s “virtues deserving of appreciation.” Being mature enough to recognize the good of adulthood—pain, tedium, and all—may well be a marker of having, at last, grown up.
Agnes R. Howard teaches in Christ College, the honors college at Valparaiso University, and is author of Showing: What Pregnancy Tells Us about Being Human.