There has been a lot of blogging going on about what it means to be adult in response to a NYT article (which I haven’t read) about twenty-somethings’ failure to grow up according to sociologists five criteria:
“Sociologists traditionally define the “transition to adulthood” as marked by five milestones: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child. “
One is an adult when one’s body has stopped growing. Those who are physically adults naturally want to be seen as being socially and emotionally adult also. Those who have only recently become physically adult, or who are still in the process of becoming adult, are especially concerned about this. The “five milestones” are the traditional criteria for adulthood but traditions have changed. In terms of the traditional system, one thing leaps out at me right away: “becoming financially independent”. Before the 1970′s a majority of women were dependent on their husbands so according to these criteria most women never became adults. This was part of what was behind the feminist movement of course but, contrary to feminists’ claims, most women were seen as responsible adults before 1970, though their responsibilities were different from those of men, so that invalidates the list even as traditional criteria. But I don’t want to go down that side track.
The age of transition from childhood to adulthood has changed or been extended. It used to be late teens through early 20′s. Now it’s early to mid-20′s or possibly even early to late 20′s. While you’re at this transitional age other people are looking for evidence that you are truly an adult. Once you get past a certain age people simply accept you as an adult without considering the criteria. I got married when I was 19. One of the biggest surprises was that suddenly both adult males and kids only two or three years younger than I was were calling me “ma’am”.
I think the list is not so much about reality but about people’s perceptions. A lot of people – maybe most people – still think traditionally. They see people in their 20′s who have not passed any of the traditional milestones and they see them as not fully adult yet. But once those same young people approach their 30′s other people will start seeing them as adults even if they have met only two or three of the criteria.
What about emotional adulthood? That’s more difficult. I’m not sure any of us ever become fully emotionally adult in terms of traditional ideas about adulthood. Nearly everyone is haunted by childhood insecurities and many of us still like some of the same things we liked as children even though we might think of those things as “childish”. But if there are any essential criteria for being emotionally adult I think they are, at a minimum, 1) understanding that everything is not “all about me” and 2) behaving accordingly most of the time. (Nobody’s perfect.) As for the rest of it – the childhood insecurities as well as the enjoyment of “childish” things – I wonder if these might not be unfairly labeled as things belonging to childhood. Maybe these things are, in fact, not childish but universally human. As long as you can continue to function as a normal adult why shouldn’t you hug a teddy bear once in a while if it makes you happy? And, more importantly, I think that what is usually considered “child-like” wonder and curiosity is something we should all hang on to throughout our lives.