Adulthood and Freedom
by New Dealer
Why does the changing nature of adulthood in American (and presumably life in the developed world in general) cause such anxiety? Rufus F. wrote a post on the end of Babbitry, defining it as an adult life marked by the Rotary similar Club, The Country Club, and being a prestigious member of your local church/synagogue/mosque, etc. Though there was healthy disagreement about what Babbitry meant. Will Truman wrote a post about on “Dressing Your Station” and how being an adult potentially means giving up certain items of clothing or fashion trends. These are just two league essays in a conversation that has been going on in the media for the past few years. Hanna Rosin talks about “the End of Men” and how women are being serious and pursing degrees while young men prefer to play basketball and videogames. On the right, City Journal’s Kay Hymowitz, worried about delayed marriage and how it is hurting men. You can also add countless Hollywood movies about overgrown men-child. These are loveable losers who seemingly don’t mind low-responsibility jobs until some event forces them to grow up quickly. Seth Rogan’s character in Knocked Up is content to live in semi-communal squalor until becoming a dad forces him to get a cubicle job. Add a bunch of articles in the Atlantic wondering and worrying about why 20 and 30-somethings are not buying cars and houses and you have a lot of worry from both ends of the spectrum.
What I am interested in is the philosophical divide between what we consider to be adult behavior and the nature of freedom. We talk about “emerging adulthood” and worry about people getting married later and having kids later but there is nothing illegal, unethical, or immoral about this behavior. There are no requirements that say someone has to stop looking for new and cool bands once they reach their forties but we mock the forty-something person (usually a guy) who does this as trying too hard. Why is this? Jeans, t-shirts, sneakers are no longer rebellious clothing items and have not been for decades but we still think the 45-year old guy in a pair of Chucks is holding on to his youth a little longer than is healthy. Likewise, the first generations of people to grow up with videogames are now adults in their 30s and 40s, why should they be expected to give up videogames?
Interestingly I ask these questions as a thirty-something who has largely given up these things. I have not played owned a videogame system in years. Comic book movies often bore me. I would rather go see a Truffaut retrospective than the latest blockbuster spectacular. And as I’ve mentioned on the site before I find it increasingly hard to find a pair of sneakers that I like as I get older. I am also not one for so-called “funny” t-shirts most of which exhibit a kind of humor that works on the junior high level.
But it still seems to me that a person’s definition of adult life is going to be modeled after their upbringing and that dreaded American bête-noir of socio-economic status. My parents thought that country clubs were snobby, elitist, racist, and anti-Semitic places and I’ve inherited their views on the issue. I don’t mourn the death of country clubs. However, my dad was still a New York lawyer and I do believe in the importance of a nicely-made suit. This causes me to cringe at the Silicon Valley culture of wearing nothing but jeans and a t-shirt from time to time. I do not think people should wear suits all the time but there is something to be said when people put effort into their appearance, at least in my mind. However, this reflects my upbringing. A person from a different geographic location and background will have a completely different set of rules on what constitutes normal and acceptable adult behavior. Maybe someone grew up in a family where their dad wore “humorous” t-shirts all the time and they find that is their norm.
There are also economic arguments. The pushback “emerging adulthood” worries from many 20 and 30-somethings is that we are having a harder time in the new Economy. We did not graduate into a good job market and it is taking us a longer time to find well-paying jobs with benefits and promotions. Many of us have doubts about whether we will ever have jobs that involve benefits and promotions. Plus many of us have large students debts from undergraduate and graduate school.
I think American society is at a cross-roads to a certain extent. The World of Babbitt is gone and this is largely good. However, we are still adjusting to the new world and this causes anxiety. It doesn’t matter that Rock n’Roll and Hip-Hop have been around for several generations, they still contain a rebellious air and are considered “cool” music. We are still adjusting to the idea that a person can be a bill-paying adult and parent while also digging cool indie rock bands or hip-hop artists. I must admit that sometimes it is odd seeing 60 year old musicians bounce around on stage like they are still 25.
The solution to the question on adulthood and freedom is to think of adulthood as being responsible over entertainment and fashion choices. There should be no value judgment on maturity if a person decides to spend their entertainment income on expensive sneakers, opera tickets, an indie music festival, a video game system, etc. Adulthood should be defined as making a decision on the lines of “I really want to buy the new video game system but I should probably put some money in my kid’s college fund.” Assuming someone has kids. It is the ability to put-aside short-term want for long-term goals that makes someone an adult.
When it comes to panic over people having kids and buying houses later in life, people probably just need to deal with this being the wise thing to do in the new economy.