When do you become an Adult?

Julie Beck:

And his path was not atypical of the 19th century, at least for a white man in the United States. Young people often went through periods of independence interspersed with periods of dependence. If that seems surprising, it’s only because of the “myth that the transition to adulthood was more seamless and smoother in the past,” writes Steven Mintz, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, in his history of adulthood, The Prime of Life.

In fact, if you think of the transition to “adulthood” as a collection of markers—getting a job, moving away from your parents, getting married, and having kids—for most of history, with the exception of the 1950s and 60s, people did not become adults any kind of predictable way.

And yet these are still the venerated markers of adulthood today, and when people take too long to acquire them, or eschew them all together, it becomes a reason to lament that no one is a grown-up. While bemoaning the habits and values of the youths is the eternal right of the olds, many young adults do still feel like kids trying on their parents’ shoes.

“I think there is a really hard transition [between childhood and adulthood],” says Kelly Williams Brown, author of the book Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps, and its preceding blog, in which she gives tips for navigating adult life. “It’s not just hard for Millennials, I think it was hard for Gen X-ers, I think it was hard for Baby Boomers. All of a sudden you’re out in the world, and you have this insane array of options, but you don’t know which you should take. There’s all these things your mom and dad told you, presumably, and yet you’re living like a feral wolf, who doesn’t have toilet paper, who’s using Arby’s napkins instead.”

Age alone does not an adult make. But what does? In the United States, people aregetting married and having kids later in life, but those are just optional trappings of adulthood, not the thing itself. Psychologists talk of a period of prolonged adolescence, or emerging adulthood, that lasts into the 20s, but when have you emerged? What makes you finally, really an adult?…

What adulthood means in a society is an ocean fed by too many rivers to count. It can be legislated, but not completely. Science can advance understanding of maturity, but it can’t get us all the way there. Social norms change, people opt out of traditional roles, or are forced to take them on way too soon. You can track the trends, but trends have little bearing on what one person wants and values. Society can only define a life stage so far; individuals still have to do a lot of the defining themselves. Adulthood altogether is an Impressionist painting—if you stand far enough away, you can see a blurry picture, but if you press your nose to it, it’s millions of tiny strokes. Imperfect, irregular, but indubitably part of a greater whole.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.