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Growing up vs. adulting: the journey toward adulthood has changed

A few months ago, I learned about adulting—the modern term for twenty-somethings engaging in adult-like behavior. From what I can gather, people “adult” for various reasons… to court social media kudos, in response to peer pressure, and as a reaction to specific life events.

I’ll admit to harboring mixed (some might say judgy) feelings about the phenomenon. I grew up—ahem, adulted—before this was a thing. Know how? I got older. As I did, new opportunities and responsibilities came my way and… I coped. Sometimes gracefully and with ease, and sometimes less so, via heartbreaking mistakes. Mercifully, my forays into new, adult terrains happened pre-social media, so failures were localized and successes taken in stride. Mostly, to my recollection, my transition to adulthood happened gradually and unceremoniously, save a few key milestones that called for popping the Champagne.

These days, evolving into an adult appears to be less a reality than a choice. Young people in their late teens and early twenties flirt with adult-like behavior, try it on for size, or push it off a few more years. When they embrace it, they post it. It’s all right there on their Instagram feed: paying off a credit card, changing the oil in the car, roasting a turkey… #adulting.

It’s probably not an accident that the same young adults exhibiting an ambivalence about adulthood are the ones being knocked for lacking basic life skills. And while there’s a lot of blame to toss around—from helicopter parents to addictive personal technology—the reality is many of today’s soon-to-be grownups didn’t learn key skills when they were young. Less was asked of them and more was done for them at home, so they could focus on schoolwork, sports teams, and college entrance exams. Parents with disposable income and access to every conceivable product or service served up an obstacle-free childhood, failing to recognize the consequence: a generation of rising adults ill-prepared for the role.

Parents with disposable income and access to every conceivable product or service served up an obstacle-free childhood, failing to recognize the consequence: a generation of rising adults ill-prepared for the role.

Today’s young adults are living in a world their parents and grandparents struggle to understand. Fewer own cars or bikes, opting instead to share. Most dwell in rentals, a necessary adaptation to the rising costs of… everything. Some even live in adult “dorms,” extending the college experience indefinitely. Technology has altered the dating landscape, bringing with it a host of new norms. And then there’s the trend toward having experiences, not stuff.

So, if you don’t prepare meals in your own kitchen, own a roasting pan, or host a traditional Thanksgiving meal and instead spend the holiday trekking in Nepal, what are the chances you’ve mastered cooking a turkey?

Emergent adults

. And, crucially, when it happens. Studies show that the trajectory of childhood into adulthood has lengthened, making room for a new, relatively prolonged adolescence. As noted in The Atlantic, “Marriage and financial security, on the other side of adolescence, now arrive close to age 30, in contrast to the early-20s marriages of the 1950s. In combination, those changes make for a more dominant life stage between childhood and adulthood.” Researchers have labeled this new life stage “emerging adulthood.”

When viewed as a reaction to a stage of life that never existed before, “adulting” begins to make more sense, even to this jaded observer. Perhaps those extra years spent staring down adulthood render it a more intimidating proposition than it was in my day. As noted on Time.com, “this jokey way of describing one’s engagement in adult behaviors—whether that is doing your own taxes, buying your first lawn mower, staying in on a Friday, being someone’s boss or getting super pumped about home appliances—can help those millennials acknowledge and/or make fun of and/or come to grips with that transition (or how late they are to it).”

With this new stage comes a need for more training. Having spent more years as not-quite-adults, “emerging adults” appear unsure of what exactly they’re aiming toward. Across the country, Adulting 101 classes are helping today’s would-be adults fill in the blanks. Classes held at the North Bend Public Library in Oregon, for example, “range from financial advice, such as setting a budget and filing taxes, to cooking, getting a job, talking to your landlord and basic handy work.” To “find out how to do stuff that you don’t know,” emerging adults can look to organizations like the Portland, Maine-based Adulting Collective. Featuring online articles and videos covering such topics as “How to Sew a Button Like a Badass,” and “Bike Safety for the Real World,” the site endeavors to address the realities of being an emerging adult today.

Growing up is hard to do

It’s tempting to believe we could have staved off a generational need for life skills remediation if their parents had enabled less. But I’m starting to think it’s not that simple. Perhaps some parents didn’t prepare their kids as well as they could have. But if they had tried (and doubtless many did), it’s debatable how successful they would have been. As the Adulting Collective mission pointedly notes: “This isn’t your grandmother’s Home Ec class or your dad’s ancient accountant who doesn’t realize we need to handle our finances differently than the days you could pick up a family-sized home on a $15k/year salary. We are relevant to your life.” Translation? Times have changed and whatever life skills and tips your parents tried to impart no longer apply.

It’s easy to deride the #adulting movement and, believe me, I have. But after stumbling across yet another website marketing online adulting classes to anxiously-emerging adults, I recently recalibrated my Gen X pique. “Not all lessons are taught in schools,” the site cautioned. “Are you learning what you need to be a real-life adulting success?” With topics like “Digital Detoxing Helps You Stay in The Present,” “Listen to Your Food,” “Challenge Yourself to be Proactive and Resilient” and “Practice Empathy to Strengthen Group Bonds,” it’s clear that today’s definition of “adult” should provoke a terrifying sense of inadequacy in any grownups who are paying attention.

With topics like “Digital Detoxing Helps You Stay in The Present,” “Listen to Your Food,” “Challenge Yourself to be Proactive and Resilient” and “Practice Empathy to Strengthen Group Bonds,” it’s clear that today’s definition of “adult” should provoke a terrifying sense of inadequacy in any grownups who are paying attention.

. Those of us who have flexed to the new status quo incrementally may have the wherewithal to maintain perspective and the courage to let some things go. But today’s twenty-year-olds may rightly feel paralyzed trying to decipher what’s most important—what will make that critical difference in their careers and in their relationships, what will ensure their physical, emotional and financial well-being.

Undoubtedly, the pressure to succeed in adulthood is intense. Our society’s obsession with perfection and optimization raises the stakes even higher. For this reason, I don’t blame today’s almost-adults for feeling overwhelmed by the task at hand. In fact, I wish they could give themselves a break. Maybe they don’t actually need to know how to “make the perfect cocktail” or turn “small talk into an art form” to gain admission to adulthood. Given what’s expected of them in just a couple of years, I find I’m okay with today’s nascent adults tackling this adulting thing at their own pace, one Instagrammable turkey at a time.

Laura Shear is a Bay Area-based freelance writer and consultant. Once a professional chef, she now primarily cooks for a discerning party of four… with mixed success. She's addicted to home improvement projects and rescue puppies and firmly believes rosé should be enjoyed year-round. Through her writing, she enjoys tackling the thorny issues around parenting, generational cohorts, and cultural trends, endeavoring to do so without being too snarky.