Books and articles diagnosing America’s spiritual afflictions often ask the same questions: Can women have it all? Where have all the men gone? Are we bad parents? Why are college students so dumb? And where, oh where, are all the adults?
That last question has recently acquired particular urgency, perhaps because it now seems to subsume many of the others. Anxiety over adulthood has even become a miniature growth industry, feeding off the concerns of the young as well as their elders. Although each generation tends to doubt that the ones following it will be capable of launching themselves, something different appears to be happening now: It’s the young themselves who seem most to doubt their ability to assume adulthood.
Among my fellow late-ish twenty-somethings, the word adult has become a verb. “Who let me adult?” an acquaintance asked recently after purchasing a home. When adult becomes a verb, adulthood itself becomes something new: more an act to be performed than a state to be once and fully attained. For young people suspended between dependency and independence, the material touchstones of adulthood—a house, a car, a benefits-bearing job—seem far beyond their reach.
To assist the would-be performer of adulthood, one organization, the Society of Grownups, employs “professional grownups” who “help the next generation embrace their inner adult.” It offers classes in building stock portfolios, negotiating salaries, cooking adult meals, and planning “grownup trips.” (The last class is titled “Beyond the Hostel,” implying that a grownup trip is necessarily a costly one.)