With the ever- expanding social awareness of different lifestyles I can’t help but wonder if we’re missing something. It used to be that the path to adulthood was a well paved, meticulously constructed, clearly labeled and well-lit road. You grew up, went to school, got a career, got married, had kids, retired and died. Your kids would do the same, usually before you kicked it. Rinse, lather, repeat. Sure there were some variations. You didn’t have to go to school: you could take over the family business or you could do hard labor- but the job was always in there. And marriage was pretty much a non-negotiable. And everyone who didn’t fit the mold- the perpetual bachelors, the divorcees, the barren- they were all cautionary tales kept on the outskirts to warn growing children of what sad outcome awaited them if they didn’t stick to the path.
Don’t get me wrong- I certainly do not miss those times. I’m glad that people are able to get out of bad marriages. (Granted, I wish they put more thought into getting into them, but still.) I’m glad that people are allowed to be happily single or single parents or cohabiting without marriage or decide not to have kids. It’s good to have choices without being judged for making them. And even if it’s not by choice, things are different. Nowadays the divorce rate is high enough to make most young and reasonably in love people get commitment phobia. It’s more and more common to live with your parents until you’re thirty, forty and so on. It’s not atypical to struggle with dead-end jobs for years while waiting for your ‘career’ to take off because the economy has been ruined by generations before us and no one wants to hire. And you can’t afford a house- another typical adult milestone- because you’re paying student loans you took out to get said career which you’re waiting for.
And what about the people who don’t fit the mold from the beginning? What if you’re born with a physical disability and you can’t work? What if you develop schizophrenia when you hit puberty and your plans get derailed? What if you don’t get the typical opportunities because of your race or ethnicity? What if a million other possibilities interrupt what you’re told life is supposed to be? Is there a plan for those people who don’t fit the mold? I don’t know of any.
So without those milestones which you can’t reasonably expect, how do we know we’ve reached adulthood? I always thought that when I truly became an adult I’d look different. Like there are some genes that take a while longer to mature and when they do you are able to balance check books, keep houses and laundry and dishes clean, keep groceries in the fridge and just basically appear adult. But that’s just what the commercials tell me adults look like, right? It’s capitalism. And with the economy the way it is that definition won’t stand much longer either.
So how do we know? I think that somewhere in the desperate attempts to free ourselves of the fixed cookie-cutter molds that used to keep us in line we lost our gauge. And it’s not just us, either. I used to think that maybe it was just an American thing. Like, if I grew up in Australia or Africa or China things would be clearer. Go out into the outback with some peyote, hunt something on your own to feed your tribe, sit in a tent during your “moon time” and listen to stories from the elders, dance with the other adults around the fire, join another household in marriage, etc. A single ceremony and poof! You’re an adult. But now other countries seem just as screwed up as we are, don’t they? Tribes the world over have gone the way of endangered species and been replaced by cities and businesses and international retail chains.
So what are we left with? When do you know you’re an adult? Is it just something you decide to be? I think I am an adult, therefore I am? And for that matter, when do you know that you’re in any other phase of life? We act like adults when we’re children, we act like children until we die, we joke about being middle aged when we’re in our twenties, we talk about being as young as we feel at fifty, we get more adventurous when we’re seniors and we don’t admit to being old until we can’t move anymore. So when or what, exactly, is the lifespan?