Adulthood in the US has nothing to do with age anymore

How do you measure up?
How do you measure up?
Image: Reuters/Keith Bedford
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

What does it mean to be an adult? I’ve been pondering this question of late, from several different angles. But I didn’t feel a pressing need to really answer until I joined the writing staff of TV Land’s new show “Younger” the same week I turned fifty.

I was born in 1966, when the divide between adult and child—at least in the white, middle-class world into which I was born—seemed clear. Our mothers donned high heels and pearls; our fathers, grey flannel suits. Boys played sports in Keds and slacks, girls jumped rope in dresses and Mary Janes. While men went to offices, women stayed home. Adults had mortgages, children went to school. And everyone knew who they were and where they stood in the hierarchy of American life. Of course, as any history student of the late 1960’s can tell you, that seemingly ordered system ultimately proved to be a collective, repressive delusion that has taken several long decades of Turning On, Tuning In, Acting Up and Leaning In to disrupt.

Not that we’re finally equal or anything like that—and we won’t be until we give women non-negotiable reproductive rights, paid maternity leave, subsidized daycare, equal pay, and a seat at the table. But on the adulthood front, a total blurring of the lines has forced a reexamination of what that word, adulthood, actually means.

What I do know is that my voting-aged children will exit college saddled with debt and enter the workforce, if they’re lucky enough to find a job, plagued by stagnant wages and a disappearing middle class. This will likely deprive them of those first two traditional benchmarks of adulthood: financial independence and homeownership. This new post-adolescent stage, which forces many 20-somethings to move back into their parents’ home, is being called everything from “extended adolescence” to “emerging adulthood.” But maybe we should just call it the death of the American meritocracy.

What’s illuminating about adulthood’s current lack of clear benchmarks and signposts is the way outward markers of maturity have become irrelevant. When everyone, no matter their age or gender, presents themselves to the world in the same normcore jeans and hoodies while secretly struggling to pay the bills, it becomes clear that adulthood has nothing to do with age, or biology, or clothing or marital status or income or home ownership or law.

Rather, adulthood is at its core a state of being. It’s an understanding of the interconnectedness of the universe and one’s humble place in it. It’s being able to wait the fifteen minutes for the second marshmallow. It’s appreciating the bifurcation between the rational and the emotional, and knowing when and how to use each. It’s an ability to love and be loved. It’s empathy. It’s kindness. It’s tolerance. It’s a grasp of one’s faults and limitations combined with a concomitant desire to transcend them. It’s self-acceptance. It’s self love.

You can be old enough to vote but still fundamentally be a child. You can legally be a child but still act like an adult. It’s actually hard to explain with words this state of being, but you definitely know it when you see it. I watched my middle child, now 19 years old, become an adult at age 16, during a year of family turmoil when she rose to the occasion and soared. I would not have wanted this particular transition to adulthood for my own child, had you asked me when she was born. But she owned it and blossomed. In many ways, it has served her well.

A recent Facebook video comparing US presidential candidate Donald Trump and president Barack Obama is instructive on this front as well. No matter where you stand on the red/blue divide, the difference between the two politicians’ approaches to hecklers is stark. Trump, by encouraging if not inciting violence, comes off as an impetuous child. Obama, by comparison, is the adult.

That’s not to say Obama never acts like a child or Trump never acts like an adult. I’m sure, if pressed, their spouses Michelle and Melania could provide examples of both. But it’s Trump’s lack of control over his inner baby which makes him such a dangerous contender for leader of the free world.

The problem is, childishness is entertaining. It earns votes. It garners ratings. It’s at the heart of nearly every modern-day reality show, where adults act like spoiled toddlers and let their ids run wild. Moreover, our worship of youth for youth’s sake has had some absurd results in other domains: the burgeoning of Botox; the implosion of The New Republic; the Snapchatification of media; and the disappearance of the middle-aged female voice in Hollywood, just to name a few.

And yet the intergenerational popularity of the show “Younger,” which I have been very fortunate to be able to work for, may point to a growing exhaustion with our glorification of youth. For those who don’t watch the show, its main protagonist, Liza, is a 40-year-old divorcée and former stay-at-home mother who is forced by economic necessity to reenter the workforce. The problem is, the workforce is ageist. A woman of her age, and with her resume, is seen as a liability. Frustrated by this reality, Liza eventually throws off the outward cloak of adulthood, pretends to be 26, and lands a job as an assistant to the head of marketing at a publishing house. Her alternate identity acquired, she begins her 20s anew.

The show’s creator Darren Star, of “Sex and the City” fame, invited me to come work with him for a couple of weeks in large part because my biography is eerily similar to Liza’s. Aside from unpaid maternity leaves, I did not have the means to stay at home with my children. I was also afraid of losing my financial and intellectual foothold in the world. But I did leave a stressful job in TV news in order to pursue a predominantly at-home career as a writer and photographer. I also, like Liza, have college-aged children, a recently failed, two-decades long marriage, a pile of debt not of my own making, a new full-time job to complement my writing career, and first-hand experience with post-marital younger lovers. (Many of these, it’s worth noting, are more adult than the men I meet who are age-appropriate.)

“Would Liza do that?” I often asked myself while helping flesh out the show’s plot and characters. But the question could have just as easily been more general: How does any adult, compelled to feign youth by an ageist, sexist, and family-unfriendly society, do that? Having to answer for Liza, whose actions are limited by the outline of her lie, I was forced to think deeply about what I want out of the remaining years of my own adulthood.

What I want as an adult, I realized, is not that different from what many self-identifed adults in America might want. I want to make rational choices from a still-extant place of childlike awe. I want to do meaningful work with, and socialize amongst, people of all ages. I want to love and be loved. I want to choose my next partner, should I be so lucky to find one, with my eyes wide open to his character and self-knowledge, rather than to his birth year, pedigree, mask, or plumage.

Also–and this might be asking too much–I would like us all to finally live in an adult society. I want my daughter’s maternity leave to be paid, her childcare to be subsidized, and her spouse to be an equal partner in the raising of my grandchildren. I want the unnaturally unlined skin of a 50-year-old to be recognized as a societally induced body dysmorphic disorder. I want a society that actually cherishes its adults. And I want a White House occupied by a president who can earn the world’s respect, not its TV ratings.

What does it mean to be an adult? Both to me, right now, and to my country, it means everything.