The Moving Target That is “Adulthood” – Director’s Cut

Two hundred years ago in America, you were a man when your voice changed and you got some hair on your chest; a woman when you developed physically and began menstruation.  Based on this, I’ve been a man since I was 14.

In my grandparent’s day, you were a man or a woman when you graduated high school.  Based on this, I’ve been a man since I was 18.

In my parent’s generation, you were a man or a woman when you graduated college with an advanced degree or went into the military.  Based on this, I’ve been a man since I was 22.

Today, you are a man or a woman when you either A) own your own house, B) can out-drink all of your peers without losing it all in the toilet and still make it to work in the morning (or have at least tried to), or C) have lost your virginity – to multiple partners, if possible.  Based on this, I am still not a man, not by any count.

What’s going on here?  I see a definite trend of pushing adulthood back in our culture.  Whereas in the past a person was expected to be a responsible, respectable, and productive member of society before even exiting their teens (or at least not far afterwards), now we increasingly see it as normal (even acceptable, for some) for folks to be coming up on 30 years old and still living like “life’s a party, and anybody but me is buying”.

Okay, so maybe I’m overstating things (or am I?), but the notion of adulthood is certainly not the same as it was even 50 years ago.

Bonus Features:

In this post I answer the 4 questions I posed earlier this week with my own personal take.

#1 – Has the notion of “adulthood” changed in America over the years, in your opinion?

I’m no sociologist – and I’m not really a historian either, strictly speaking – but based solely on conversations with folks older than myself and observations I’ve drawn from various sources, I think it has.  It seems to me that over the decades “adulthood” in America has gone from being something that is assumed to something that is acquired.

What do I mean?  I think that in previous generations (we’re talking eighty to a hundred years ago and prior) there was more of an understanding, if you will, that persons made the shift to adulthood sometime in adolescence.  I think it was taken for granted that Little Johnny is now Big John when he’s towering over his mother and sharing heavy loads with his father.  I think it was a given that Missy Katie is now Miss Katharine when her bust and hip measurements were half-again the measure of her waist.  In other words, I think it was very much based on the physical signs of maturity.

Quick illustration: who remembers that scene in “The Lion King” where Simba is in the field with his father and steps right into the paw print of the older lion?

In the movie, the purpose this shot serves is to demonstrate the point that, while Simba has been trying to act the part of adult, he is not one yet.  But what is implicit here is that once his paw fits neatly into that impression, he will be.

Moving on, I would argue that back then, much more than now, there was the assumption that once you manifest those physical signs of maturity, you act like an adult (because you are one).  With all that that entails (job, marriage, productive and respected member of society (hopefully), etc.).

But as the years went by, at some point in time we started associating adulthood with performance and attainment instead of physical maturity.  I would argue that the most obvious and influential example is the diploma.  As I write above, over time the assumption that physical maturity signaled adulthood was replaced with the assumption that a high school diploma was the benchmark instead.  And I think this happened so gradually that no one noticed – after all, if the idea that physical maturity equals adulthood was implicit and assumed, it’s not like anyone was going to be talking about it to say, “Hey!  Why are we changing our ideas about adulthood?”  Rather, it was simply a matter of one implicit concept replacing another, with no one the wiser (and it’s only now, in looking at the big picture, that we even recognize this at all).

Over time, the high school diploma became a diploma from a post-high school institution or military service.  Once again, we see the idea that adulthood is now obtained rather than assumed.

But while this was happening, I think other factors were also at work.

Factors such as the destruction of the family both from within and without – from which we derive hundreds of thousands of individuals with no father (or mother) figure in the home to consistently model what adulthood looks like to the children.  Thus they are, for all intents and purposes, unready for it when their time comes.

Factors such as the crowding of our school systems, where 20 unruly kids are managed by one exhausted teacher who gets paid in peanuts – a setting where, because of sheer numbers, the kids are learning from other kids  how to be more kid-like more than they are learning from adults how to be adult-like.  One-on-one time with adults for these children is limited to maybe an hour or two with mom or dad (usually not both, due to modern busy schedules or, again, divorce) between dinner, homework, and bed.  Again, this serves to handicap children in the maturity department, which leads to poor outcomes when adulthood comes.

Factors such as the glamorization of youth – where you have adults trying to look more like children via make-up and plastic surgery, Hollywood idol-worphip of the young and the restless, and age associated with every evil in the world (including stupidity – seriously, watch closely how the parents in kid’s shows are portrayed sometime; it’s the kids that solve all the problems, not the adults [who actually tend to create them]).  Peter Pans of every age surround us, refusing to act like what they are (at least according to the old paradigm): adults.

Factors such as the “helicopter parent” and the advent of so-called “new techniques for parenting” – where our adorable little Billy is too tender and precious to ever do anything on his own; after all, he might fail and then his fragile little ego would be crushed.  We wouldn’t want that, nor would we want little Billy to be unpopular with the fickle children his own age, so we will get little Billy the best bike money can afford.  Now a fancy Corvette.  Now a thousand-dollar apartment overlooking the hip party-scene (but ten miles from the university).  Now bail on his DUI.  Now a lawyer to keep him out of prison for drug possession during probation.  Now a new house with all the furnishings because, “he just got out of prison after 3 years and needs some help getting back on his feet”.  On and on.  Can anyone ever make a really good grab at the torch of adulthood when it’s never been passed?

The factors could easily be multiplied, and not every one of them affect every single person, but I think these are the most common and destructive ones, for sure.

So again, yes, for these reasons and others, perspectives on adulthood have changed over the years.

#2 – Is this a positive change? Or a negative one?

Generally negative.

#3 – Why?

We’ve moved from a practical (if implicit) definition of adulthood as the physical maturity of the individual in question to a nebulous one where everybody has an opinion.  The psychiatrists want it one way, the pediatricians another, the parents – that depends on the people in question.  The government seems to be the only ones with a hard-and-fast position on this: you are a legal adult at 18 and that’s that.  But of course, that is the federal government, state governments have certain additional rules as well.

As a consequence, other than the legal age of adulthood, there’s really no standardized way of looking at it.  This results in confusion across the board, in my opinion.

#4 – What truly defines adulthood?  i.e. How do you know when you’ve reached maturity?

Ah, well, that’s the question isn’t it?  I don’t have all the answers, and this is one area where my thinking is not ultimately well-developed, so understand that I do not hold my current position as dogmatically as I may in a few years after I’ve spent much more time with the subject.  That said, I generally tend to side with the old-timers and point to the physical signs of maturity as evidence of adulthood.


But, it needs to be noted that physical maturity does NOT one-to-one equal the ability to procreate.  Yes, the ability to procreate usually accompanies physical maturity, but I do not think it should be the litmus test for determining it.

Why would I say this?  Several reasons.

A) I know women who began menstruating at 8 years old.  Technically, this signals the beginning of fertility.  However, to jump from that to the notion that this 8 year old is now an “adult” is just too big a leap for me.  There has to be some understanding that this little girl is still just that, a little girl – mentally and emotionally if not physically.

B) There is the reality of sterility.  There are some folks who will simply never have children – not because they can never reach “adulthood”, but because in this fallen world that’s just the way the cookie crumbles sometimes.

C) Ultimately, how do you measure this?  I suppose with women it’s as easy as the onset of menses (though that can involve A above – and increasingly does, according to the data), I’m not aware of any way to definitively test men for the capability of procreating short of actually getting someone pregnant (though maybe a microscope would work too).

Sure, you may argue that A and B are exceptions, and you may have an answer for C, but I think it’s much, much simpler than all that.  Here I refer back to the paw print above.  I think that, generally speaking, when the man characteristics displace the boy characteristics, physically speaking, Little Johnny has grown up.  Likewise, when the woman characteristics displace the girl characteristics, physically speaking, Missy Katie has grown up.

Now this is not to say that you are “done” growing up at this point, or that you have “arrived” and are now as mature and poised as you will ever need to be.  To be sure, growth continues for the rest of your life.  When you are physically mature, you may not yet be ready for a career, for marriage, for kids, but I would argue you are still an “adult”, and as such should be earnestly seeking to acquire those skills you will need as you enter into those different vocations.

How about an example: I’m an adult – I don’t think anyone would dispute that – but I’m not ready to own my own company.  If that is something I desire down the road, I will certainly use my time wisely now to learn the skills I will need and prepare myself for that role, but just because I’m not ready to step into it yet doesn’t make me less of a man or less of an adult.  The same goes for those who aren’t yet ready to step into a full-time career, marriage, or what have you.  In other words, even adults have to grow into things.

In my paradigm, I’m a man because God designed me to biologically “hatch” in my teen years as puberty had its way with me, and so I became one not by choice, nor by sheer effort on my part, but by necessity.  I became physically mature, and now I have to act the part, like it or not.

To read a condensed – but extremely good – articulation of basically where I’m coming from here, see this recent comment by my brother.

Edit (1/20/12):

The article that Esteban linked in his comment below (“Let’s have more teen pregnancy” by Frederica Mathewes-Green) really captures what I was trying to say in the above post.  The author was recently interviewed on Issues, Etc. on her article; you can listen to the segment, which I’ve uploaded here:

Frederica Mathewes-Green on Issues, Etc.


  1. says

    Esteban: Thanks! Wow, yeah, the title is definitely provocative, but I loved it! She affirmed many of the same things I noted in this post, so I guess I’m on the right track (or in good company, at the least). As far as the idea of marrying young goes, I didn’t include any thoughts on it in this post since it wasn’t directly applicable (though it is very much related), but as I noted in a recent post I’m generally in favor of it, and your article definitely reenforces my thoughts along those lines. All that said, I do think we need to be wary of pushing the age of marriage we advocate too far down (and by “we” I mean “me and the other pro-young marriage folks”). I’ve got a 15 year old sister back in my old stomping grounds, and I definitely think she’s too young at this point – though I would have no real objections here in another 2 or 3 years. Not that I think Frederica was advocating that young, but just thought I’d mention.

    Hey, thanks so much for the article link – and welcome to the Chi Files, for that matter!

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