October 27, 2014

A Man's Life

Why Growing Up Is Hard to Do (But Why the World Still Needs Adults)

vintage young man in suit wearing large overcoat walking out door

When I explain the Art of Manliness to other people, I often describe it as a site about growing up well, aimed at men. Our mission is to help young men mature into well-rounded adults, and to aid older men in improving areas of their lives they still feel are lacking.

Yet despite this focus, we labor under no delusions that growing up is an easy task. In fact, while maturing has always been a challenge, we’d posit that it’s never been as hard to do as it is in our modern world. Consequently, many young people seem stuck in limbo – no longer a child, but not fully an adult.

Oftentimes pundits point to the economy to explain this phenomenon of arrested development. Surely the state of the job market, particularly for men, looms large in the difficulty of getting out on one’s own and setting up a household. 23% of modern men remain unmarried over their lifetime, compared to 17% of women — a gap between the sexes that has been widening since 1960. Part of the reason for this disparity may be the fact that while 78% of never-married women say that a steady job is the most important thing they’re looking for in a potential husband, the rate of male employment has fallen by over 10% since 1960, and the median hourly wage for men ages 24-34 has declined 20% (after adjusting for inflation). So more and more women are looking for men with steady jobs, but steady well-paying jobs are harder and harder to come by. Overall, a record number of men and women ages 24-34 have never been married, and over a third of this cohort cite concerns over financial security as the reason why they haven’t gotten hitched.

While it might then seem clear that the economy is indeed playing a prominent role in retarding young adults’ attainment of adulthood, this argument fails to explain the entire picture. As we’ll discuss in a moment, marriage and employment are hardly the only markers of maturity; adulthood in fact encompasses a whole range of character traits and behaviors. One can be unmarried, and even struggle to find a job, and yet still be quite mature. During the Great Depression, for example, marriage rates also declined, and yet this period of financial hardship did not see an increase in otherwise childlike adults. Quite the opposite; older folks bemoaned the fact that the younger set were forced to grow up too fast. So the economy sets the scene, but does not determine how society reacts to it. There must be other cultural, sociological, and psychological factors afoot that explain why we have responded to current circumstances not by becoming flintier, but by steadfastly digging in our heels at the prospect of growing up.

While it is tempting to imagine that these factors are of recent origin, and to point to the counterculture movement of the 1960s as the likely source from which they sprang, the cultural currents at play actually go back several centuries. The seeds for the dissolution of adulthood were planted long ago, and have only now been allowed to fully bear fruit.

Today we will explore the factors that have made growing up difficult to do in our modern age, and then make the case that despite this difficulty, the world still needs adults.

What Does It Mean to Be “Grown-up”?

Oftentimes in these kinds of discussions, claims are made about the disappearance of adulthood without ever defining what adulthood means in the first place. So let us at the outset do just that, and outline several of the qualities we believe mark one as “grown-up.”

Naturally it is a rather subjective subject, and one in which no two people are bound to completely agree. Both childhood and adulthood have a biological component, but are also largely cultural and social constructs that have varied through time and by culture. So what we are trying to home in on is not a universal definition of adulthood, but those traits associated with maturity, in the West, over the course of the last several centuries. And it bears mentioning that what we are after here today is not manhood, but adulthood – those qualities of maturity that overlap between the sexes.

Atop any list of the criteria for adulthood must surely sit personal responsibility. This means owning up to one’s mistakes, and carrying out the things one has promised to do, even when – especially when – such tasks are unpleasant.

Also central to maturity is embracing the role of creator, rather than simply being a consumer. Adults contribute to the world around them, rather than passively sampling the fruits of others’ labor. Adults build things; children (of any age) use these works, or, even further removed, simply become “fans” of them.

The ability to delay gratification is another marker of maturity. Children are inherently present-minded, and want what they want, when they want it. As we grow up, we must learn how to sacrifice a smaller reward now in the service of a greater good down the line. Adults have the ability to plan for the future and set long-range goals.

Related to this trait is self-control. Children act on impulse. Adults decide how to react, rather than being the slave of circumstances. They are masters of themselves.

Critical thinking skills also assuredly bear mentioning. Children are easily duped, prone to misunderstand things that are over their heads, and prefer information in simple, black-and-white narratives. Adults are able to parse information, evaluate the evidence for truth claims, ascertain the validity of sources, make connections between ideas, and grapple with complexity.

A good degree of self-reliance is requisite to adulthood as well. We are born helpless, and thus learning to help oneself has long been a sign of transcending one’s infantile state. None of us are an island, of course, but being largely dependent on others runs counter to the kind of autonomy necessary for maturity.

Finally, independence makes possible another quality of adulthood – having dependents. This category doesn’t just include one’s own kids; any leader – be it in the military, in business, in school, and so on – has those who depend on him for guidance, for direction, for mentoring. To be grown up is to have responsibilities not only to oneself, but to others as well.

Now that we have outlined a (non-exhaustive) list of the attributes of adulthood, let us turn to why it is that cultivating these qualities is so difficult to do in our modern age.

Why Growing Up Is So Hard to Do in the Modern Age

It has likely always been difficult to grow up, to one degree or another. Deeply embedded in the psyche is likely a universal desire to regress into the carefree days of childhood, to metaphorically return to the womb, and to get back to the state that anthropologist David Gilmore calls “infantile narcissism.”

But escaping the gravitational pull of youth is particularly difficult in the modern age for a variety of reasons. The list below is not exhaustive; many other factors, such as the decline of a culture of honor and shame, have played a significant role as well. The following simply represents an overview of some of the most salient elements composing the seeming force-field around present-day adulthood – the cultural and sociological currents that have made growing up seem both arduous and undesirable.

The Veneration of Youth

From antiquity up though the 18th century, children were largely thought of as deficient, miniature adults. A belief in original sin led many Christian cultures to view children warily – as sinners who needed to learn strict discipline in order to rein in their wayward impulses and walk the straight and narrow.

Even in non-Christian societies, such as ancient Greece, children were seen as not having the proper education and experience – the practical wisdom – necessary for making intelligent choices. Aristotle, for example, argued that men in mid-life made the best decisions and judgments, as young men were too trusting, and old men were too cynical.

Today, of course, we take quite the opposite view and lionize youth to the hilt. Our popular culture is built around the tastes of young adults, we spend millions to stay perpetually youthful-looking, and our most celebrated entrepreneurs and artists are often not out of their twenties (or teens). Rather than associating wisdom with age, we feel the best ideas come only from the younger set.

This is a mindset best exemplified by the culture in Silicon Valley, where CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg opine that “Young people are just smarter,” and venture capitalists like Vinod Khosla argue that “people over forty-five basically die in terms of new ideas.” Paul Graham, start-up guru and founder of Y Combinator, sets the maximum threshold for ingenuity even lower, admitting that when listening to an entrepreneur’s pitch, “The cutoff in investors’ heads is 32. After 32, they start to be a little skeptical.”

In talking with dozens of movers and shakers in Silicon Valley as part of his research for a fascinating, sobering piece on “The Brutal Ageism of Tech,” writer Noam Scheiber “got the distinct sense that it’s better to be perceived as naïve and immature than to have voted in the 1980s.” A cosmetic surgeon he spoke with articulated the concern of the countless men who come to his office for Botox injections: “‘Hey, I’m forty years old and I have to get in front of a board of fresh-faced kids. I can’t look like I have a wife and two-point-five kids and a mortgage.’” Even though there is ample evidence that middle-aged folks have much to contribute, even to the fast-moving tech industry, Scheiber found that there was widespread concern over how the presence of “grown-ups” might negatively affect a company’s culture: “Middle-aged people had to show they weren’t schoolmarm-ish authority figures out to stifle fun and creativity—parents, in other words.”

So what happened to supplant society’s veneration of wisdom and experience, with a skepticism of anyone who might not fit into a workplace full of Nerf guns and ping-pong tables? It actually all began back in the Enlightenment, particularly with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau rejected the idea of original sin, and argued that rather than being deficient adults, children were closest to the ideal state for humans – that is, closest to the state of nature. “Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the Author of things, everything degenerates in the hands of man,” Rousseau wrote. It was then the “civilizing” values of culture, and the prejudices and authority of manmade social institutions, that ruined children and turned them into stultified adults.

The Romantics took this idea and ran with it, not just celebrating the innocence of the child but mystifying it. Children, they felt, embodied some of the best traits in life – curiosity, imagination, joy, and the capacity for awe. This veneration of youth is perhaps seen nowhere better than in William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Childhood.” Wordsworth poetically posits that while we are all born “trailing clouds of glory,” and that “Heaven lies about us in our infancy!,” over time we sadly lose our visionary qualities: “Full soon thy Soul shall have her earthly freight, And custom lie upon thee with a weight, Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!” For the Romantics, adults shouldn’t just seek to teach children, but to learn from them.

This view of youth as the bearers of mankind’s most intuitive, creative, and astute impulses, and of adults as children fallen from grace, persisted through the 19th century, only to be partially obscured in the 20th when an economic depression and two World Wars once again elevated, and demonstrated the necessity of, the more serious and sober qualities of adulthood. The feeling that adult authority was misplaced, and the cynicism born of the anti-war and anti-discrimination movements of the 60s and 70s, brought it back, as encapsulated in the maxim that one should “Never trust anyone over 30.”

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Since then, this sentiment has never really left us. That it is most prevalent in Silicon Valley is not surprising, since much of the current tech scene got its start there during the heyday of the counterculture movement (see Steve Jobs, hippie period), and an emphasis on youthful, convention-disrupting innovations remains part of the industry’s DNA. But the veneration of youth as the repository of authenticity and fresh ingenuity is pervasive throughout our culture. Those of us who were reared at the knee of Baby Boomers, a generation who then, and now, disdain the idea of growing up, have absorbed the message: Grown-ups are boring phonies. Cling to youth as long as possible.

Thus, the first obstacle to growing up is a fear that embracing an adult sensibility will turn us into close-minded, unoriginal dolts, and that even if we don’t feel that way ourselves, other people will see us as such.

The Path to Adulthood Has Changed from an On-Ramp to a Cliff

While it’s tempting to imagine that the phenomenon of young adults boomeranging back to their parents’ house in their twenties is a distinctly modern trend, this arrangement was actually common amongst the households of colonial America. In that period, men often lived with their folks until their mid-twenties, before finishing their apprenticeship or inheriting a piece of farmland from their fathers, marrying, and setting up their own household. Yet there was a big difference between these bachelors and those of today; by the time a colonial man was approaching his late twenties, he had been toiling at adult work for almost two decades.

From the medieval period through the 19th century, children were expected to start contributing to the family economy around the age of 7. Children began with simple chores like drawing water and gathering firewood, and gradually learned to perform more strenuous tasks like plowing and harvesting, or tending to animals – a job that often required spending nights alone in the fields, watching the flock. Children were also responsible for looking after their many brothers and sisters, and siblings often essentially raised each other. Many children were also sent away during their childhood to work as a servant or apprentice in another household, before returning to their parental home again in preparation to strike out on their own in their mid-twenties.

Even well into the 20th century, and the advent of compulsory (if still erratic) schooling, children often worked before and after school. Young men would gather eggs and firewood and hunt for food for their family’s sustenance in the mornings before class, and then did more chores or worked a job in the afternoons. Even in urban areas, it was young boys hawking newspapers to morning and evening commuters.

Thus, for most children, the transition into adult responsibilities started far earlier, but took place more gradually. The first two decades of their lives formed an on-ramp to adulthood, in which they took on more and progressively weightier chores as they got older.

Contrast such a set-up with what is expected of young adults in the present age. As historian Steven Mintz puts it, “Young people today have fewer socially valued ways to contribute to their family’s well-being or to participate in community life.” From childhood through to their college years, young adults may have little to no responsibilities, whether household chores or paid work. Then, after graduation, or after a few years of drifting in one’s twenties, men and women who have never held a challenging job, or a baby, are expected to magically be able to settle down and do adult things. The on-ramp to adulthood has become a sheer cliff, off which young adults are shoved and expected to sink or swim. Many sink.

Such a result is not surprising, given what we know about neurology. In adolescence, our brains are quite pliable and moldable, and are easily shaped by the experiences and tasks we pursue and work at every day. These experiences create well-worn pathways in our brains. In our mid-twenties, our brains start to “set,” and “excess” neural matter is pruned away; that which we’ve been regularly using stays, while that which we haven’t exercised is reduced. Thereafter, while our brains remain “plastic” and changeable, creating new habits becomes more difficult to do. All of which is to say, that if we train our brains in our youth in how to tackle adult tasks – how to plan, delay gratification, stick with a challenging task, work in a disciplined manner, etc. – performing these tasks in our thirties, forties, and beyond is much easier. If, on the other hand, our brains “set” before we’ve ever challenged them, picking up adult habits becomes a much more difficult endeavor.

So, the second reason growing up is so hard to do, is that rather than gradually being initiated into the world of adults, we’re often expected to take on mature responsibilities all at once. Without a couple decades of training, this can feel like a shock to the system, which leaves you drowning in a world for which you haven’t been prepared.

The Abundance of Choice

From antiquity until the 19th century, young men had few choices as to what to do with their lives – they would almost assuredly get married, have kids, and work as either a farmer or a tradesman. Even as a young boy, they had a clear idea of what the landscape of their adult life would look like.

As our culture and economy became increasingly varied in the 20th century, the options for the course of one’s life began to seem almost limitless. We are consequently reluctant to choose one path over another, for stepping through one door means closing many others. It can feel safer to keep all possible options open, even though this perpetual limbo prevents us from making any real progress in life.

Compounding this inertia is the sense, imparted from our parents, that we are equally capable of succeeding in any field of work – that our talents are fairly infinite. To understand why modern parents often do this, we have to look at familial culture prior to the 20th century, in which a couple might have a dozen children, with only half surviving to adulthood. As the Puritan minister Cotton Mather observed, for the earliest Americans, a dead child was “a sight no more surprising than a broken pitcher.” Parents loved and nurtured their children, but did not have the time to completely dote on each one, and felt restrained in making a full emotional investment in them, given their chances of being prematurely snatched away by death.

As both family size and childhood mortality decreased in the 20th century, parental investment in children rose. With only 2 or 3 children to raise, parents could afford to cherish their little ones and lavish them with attention. As sociologist Viviana A. Zelizer observed, children “became economically ‘worthless’ but emotionally ‘priceless.’” This consuming focus on one’s children led parents to place an understandable, but inflated, value on their kids. Because children were the center of their universe, their kids seemed infinitely special and talented, and were raised to see themselves that way. Taught that they could do anything they put their minds to, when these children reach the threshold of adulthood, they can feel paralyzed as to which field they should apply their numerous talents.

Trying one’s hand in certain areas, and failing, bursts the illusion of one’s unlimited capabilities, and thus many young adults prefer to remain aloof and keep their options open in order to maintain their self-identity as someone special and set apart for important things. Becoming an adult involves grappling with the realization that you’re not a snowflake, that your upbringing was quite ordinary and pedestrian and almost exactly like millions of others, that you’re only well-suited for a few kinds of work, and that said work may not be glamorous, but that you’ll have to work to live. These realizations can be painful to contemplate.

Thus, the third reason growing up is hard to do is that it’s hard to leave behind the feeling of being special, to admit one’s limitations, and to choose a course for one’s life, knowing that doing so may shut the door on other options.

Isolation and the Loss of Tribe

For most adults, the period of life they are most nostalgic for is high school and/or college. The longing for this period is usually chalked up to a desire to return to a time when they weren’t so freighted with life’s responsibilities. Surely that is part of it, but I think the real reason we miss our youth is often overlooked: it was the last time in our lives when we experienced a sense of “tribe.”

In high school and college, most of us had a group of great friends we saw on a daily basis. Many of us ran with a “gang” of guys, that sometimes joined with a posse of gals, forming a coed tribe that was enormously fun to hang out with.

Then, folks grew up, paired off, got hitched, and had kids. Few adults see their friends on a daily basis; the lucky see each other weekly, and for most, scheduling times to get together isn’t easy. It is then no wonder we get nostalgic for our younger days; it represents the last time our lives resembled the primordial pattern.

In hunter-gatherer tribes, male gangs hunted and battled together. Female posses raised their kids together. Everyone lived and worked together each day with dozens of others. Burden and joys were shared. One’s whole identity was tied up in being part of this tribe.

Today, we have never been more isolated. Many folks don’t even live near their extended kin, and the nuclear family is increasingly marooned on the desert island of the suburbs. Men go off to work in a cubicle with a bunch of fellow employees they may feel no real kinship with. Women spend all day enclosed in the four walls of their home, cut off from all other humans, save their inarticulate toddler. Many people, male and female alike, are lonely and unhappy because they are without a tribe.

The heavy and undesirable weight of adulthood is often mistakenly chalked up to the burden of adult responsibilities alone. But the problem is not adulthood itself, but how it is currently being carried. The weight of earning a livelihood, and rearing one’s children, which was meant to be borne by numerous shoulders, is now supported by just a pair. Husband and wife rely on one another for all their emotional fulfillment and practical needs. The strain is more than an individual, or the nuclear family, was meant to bear.

So, the fourth reason it’s hard to grow up is that the weight of adulthood feels hard to shoulder when you’re carrying it alone, instead of with a tribe.

A Culture of Consumerism

Perhaps the hardest transition in becoming a parent is going from having most of your experiences created for you, to being the creator of experiences for your children. Especially when they’re very little, and can’t do much at all for themselves, you are kind of like a god – tasked with creating the whole world they inhabit.

This shift has never been so sharp, not only because there longer exists an on-ramp to adulthood, but also because our culture has never been so consumer-oriented. Much of our everyday lives are spent in the central activity of consumption: choosing. In high school and college our schedules are largely set – we must simply choose the classes and extracurricular activities we prefer. We choose our clothes, choose our music, choose our entertainment, choose our vehicles, choose our home, and choose the accessories and furniture to decorate them. We choose which church to attend, and which style of service best fits our personalities. We choose who to include in our Facebook Friends list, and on which things in our News Feed to bestow a Like.

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What we are not often asked to do is create. We are served up prepackaged options, and only tasked with selecting our favorites from among them. Rarely are we expected to create the options ourselves, and yet most every adult role, not just that of parent, requires the act of creation. Bosses must create expectations for their employees; employees create projects for their bosses. The self-employed must create their own schedule and vision for their job. Boy Scout leaders must create experiences for members of their troop (hopefully by creating opportunities for the young men to create their own experiences). Volunteers for schools and charities must create fundraising events. And so on and so forth.

All adults reach a point where the thing they want to do/read/use is not available from a preselected menu of options, and must be created themselves. Without much experience in creating, many “adults” do not know how to respond to this juncture, other than to whine and to express their disappointment that preexisting institutions, publications, and businesses have not met their expectations.

So, the fifth reason growing up is hard to do is that there exists a large gap between the experience we gain in creation growing up, and the amount of creation required of us as adults.

The Negative Portrayal of Adulthood in Popular Culture

There exists a popular genre of articles these days that purport to reveal exactly what things like marriage and having kids is really like. “Pop culture feeds you a lie about romance and fairy tale endings,” these writers proclaim, “but I’ll give you the honest truth: Relationships are hard, man, and take a lot of work!” And here, minds are supposed to be blown.

What I find interesting about this supposedly frank talk about things like marriage, is that while it comes wrapped in the mantle of contrarian wisdom, the ideal it’s attempting to counter has already been dead for at least a decade. When was the last really popular, straightforward, romantic comedy film…1999’s Notting Hill? Sure, many women’s favorite film is still The Notebook, but that came out ten years ago. There have been nominally romantic films since, but those that have done well have to varying degrees abandoned sincerity to skewer the traditional rom-com format, and peppered the movie with wink-wink moments, plenty of sarcasm and gross-out humor, and less than completely tidy endings.

The dominating theme in popular culture these days is hardly an over-idealization of marriage or family, but actually an inflated cynicism about such things (about most things, really). Young people aren’t rushing into marriage with fairy tale visions in their heads, but steering clear of this institution altogether, worried that getting hitched is a ticket to suffocation and unhappiness. And when it comes to kids, forgettaboutit. Bloggers constantly bemoan the way in which these pint-sized albatrosses will suck the life out of you, and forums are dedicated to how much happier and freer you’ll be living “childfree.” The popular vision of fatherhood is more often than not something akin to this condom commercial:

If society once held an unduly rosy view of marriage and family, our perspective has now swung far too much in the other direction. Yes, parenting can be hard, but the only reason folks now compare it to the Bataan Death March is that they’ve never done anything remotely approaching its difficulty; our lives are so relatively free of hardship and so consumer-oriented, that parenting feels like a shock to people’s previously unexercised capacity for challenge. And while raising kids has its stressful moments, the majority of the time it can actually be pretty chill. The kind of episode seen in the above commercial is not a function of parenting, but a lack of parenting.

And marriage, well, I don’t know if it’s a fairy tale every single day, but it sure ain’t hard. There is perhaps no greater example of the gap between the portrayal of things like marriage in pop culture, and how it’s actually lived out, than the fact that Seth Rogen, who is famous for playing man-children in not-so-romantic comedies, finds his real-life marriage a breeze:

“In movies they like to portray marriage like, ‘Oh the wife and husband are always arguing and bickering.’ For me and my wife…the easiest part of my life is my marriage. Like if everything was as smooth and easy and fun as my relationship with my wife then I would have a much easier time getting through the day.”

While I’ve focused on marriage and family in this section, the gap between the way adulthood is portrayed in the media, and how it can actually be in real life, goes for all other aspects of being a grown-up as well. Which brings us to the sixth reason growing up is hard to do: it’s depicted in popular culture as grinding and miserable.

Why the World Still Needs Adults

“American adults want to be parents of children less than they want to be children themselves.” –Neil Postman

In discussing a subject like this, it’s hard not to fall into curmudgeonly, “those darn kids today!” mode. But in laying out the above points, I’ve honestly tried to avoid that temptation and present fairly objective descriptions of some of the factors that make growing up in our modern age a tough proposition. I believe these are real, not trivial, issues, and that each is worthy of contemplation and a discussion of how they might be mitigated and balanced in our lives. This also isn’t a depiction of the challenges facing “those other, less-than young adults over there.” I’ve personally felt their drag in my own life as I’ve tried to escape the gravitational pull of adolescence, and propel myself into adulthood. It’s only been in the last several years that I came to the realization that there was nothing special about my upbringing whatsoever; sometimes I turn to Kate to say, “Hey, remember high school? Man, that was fun”; and there are times when I’m putting my 4-year-old to bed that I have a strong longing to be a kid again, to go to sleep without a care in the world, and to have someone take care of me like that.

Being an adult, while quite satisfying, is honestly sometimes pretty hard. I thus don’t have much sympathy for those who tell young people to quit bellyaching and just grow up already, like it’s the easiest thing in the world, and that the young adults who are struggling are just wimps who are lacking in discipline and motivation.

But, at the same time, I also don’t have sympathy for those who say, “Well, if being a grownup is something of a cultural construct anyway, and it’s so difficult to do, let’s just chuck the idea altogether. Let’s have fun! Do whatever you want! Adulthood is for suckers who have bought into the lie!”

What these adulthood decriers miss is this: The world of children is made possible by the world of adults.

This is uber-important, so allow me to repeat it: The world of children is made possible by the world of adults.

When people say they don’t want to embrace adulthood, what they really mean is that they don’t want to be a grownup themselves, but they want to live in a world where everyone else is. They want competent, effective politicians to represent them; they want their journalists and doctors to be smart and level-headed with a comforting mantle of gravitas; they want their children’s teachers to be dedicated and on-the-ball; they want customer service to be friendly and efficient; they want police officers to be honest and fair. They want the world to be stable, predictable…so they can afford to be erratic and irresponsible. They want to be kids, but live in an adult world, where grownups are at the ready to take care of their every need.

As long as adulthood-resisters remain a minority – “rebels” at the fringe – the world continues to spin round. But if enough would-be grownups join their ranks, and there aren’t enough steady hands on the tiller, the result is a slide into a dystopian society – a veritable Idiocracy. This is not a prophesy about a far-off future, and an argument to “do it for your children” (which many adulthood-resisters don’t even want to have), but something that is happening now. There are still more adults than adult-children, but the ranks of the latter are increasing. Congress is almost entirely staffed by adult-children who cannot get a single thing done. News shows resemble high school homeroom – a troop of circus-clown-esque talking heads who sit around trying to get in the best sarcastic comment or wisecrack and seem the most cool. There are teachers who sleep with their students and make showing videos a core component of their curriculum; there are police officers who shoot first and ask questions later; there are doctors who only offer the most perfunctory, indifferent review of one’s ailments and order up a round of exactly the wrong tests. And to use customer service in any sector is to be confronted with aneurysm-inducing incompetence at every turn.

In every sphere in society, one is met with the infantile cry of, “You’re not the boss of me! You can’t tell me what to do!” so that everything is done to its minimal requirements (if that). And yet if these refused-to-be-bossed rebels have someone working for them, or helping them, they hope to get the best, top-notch service. The situation greatly resembles the old story of the hen who asks for help in baking bread and is spurned at every turn, only to have everyone come running to eat a slice once the loaf is hot out of the oven. Everybody wants to eat the bread, nobody wants to bake it; everybody wants to take from society’s pot, nobody wants to contribute to it.

The more adults that are in residence, the better off everyone is. But the argument for adulthood doesn’t even have to be one that appeals to self-sacrifice, but can actually be staked on self-interest. Remaining a perpetual child only works if you’re the only one doing it, and you can rely on a world of adults to take care of you. But in a world of only children, in which civilization crumbles, you won’t have any choice as to whether to grow up – you’ll be forced to, and adulthood in such a landscape will be devoid of many of the great satisfactions, and occasional indulgences, possible for adults in this one.

***

“But…Adulthood Still Seems Undesirable to Me”

Even if you are convinced the world needs adults, you may still wish that you personally could opt-out of growing up. After all, who wants to become an uninteresting, uninspiring, unadventurous, un-fun adult?

Of all the impediments to growing up in the modern age, let us at last add one more: the childlike need for black and white thinking, and the inability to believe that two seemingly contradictory ideas can ever be wed together.

We are told that there are two options in life: to flee adulthood and remain a happy, free, creative spirit, or to grow up and become a boring, constrained, overly serious, apathetic dolt. And yet this is truly a false dichotomy, and one of our culture’s most harmful. In reality, it is quite possible to develop into a mature man without losing one’s boyish spirit and zest for life — to create legacy-building work and relationships while finding time for fun and adventure. Perhaps no man embodied this possibility more than one Winston S. Churchill, so later this month we will present his life as a case study in how to truly grow up well.

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Sources:

A History of Childhood: Children and Childhood in the West from Medieval to Modern Times by Colin Heywood

Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood by Steven Mintz

The Disappearance of Childhood by Neil Postman


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