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“Adulting school” can’t short-cut the hard, self-taught work of growing up

Reuters/Mike Segar
There’s hope.
  • Jenny Anderson
By Jenny Anderson

Senior reporter, Editor of How to be Human

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Rachel Weinstein, a psychotherapist in Maine, thinks millennials are misunderstood.

While many have made them out to be lazy, narcissistic and entitled, what she sees in her practice are young people feeling isolated, overwhelmed, and paralyzed by their dearth of skills and abundance of choices. “I see a lot of suffering around not knowing how to do the ‘adulting’ thing,” she said.

Weinstein and Katie Brunelle, a former elementary school teacher and coach, responded by creating the Adulting School, a place for people to gain the skills they need to feel like an adult, from goal-setting and sheet-fitting to how to manage money or hang a picture. The idea has sparked both plaudits and scorn

The school, which opens later this spring, will charge $19.99 a month for access to online courses organized into five verticals: basic finances, health and wellness, relationships and community, make it or fix it, and career. The group has already hosted social events in Portland, where it is based, and where it aspires to build an online and offline community of selected experts.

So far 80 students have pre-enrolled and 147 teachers are waiting to be vetted. That may say more about the state of the economy than the need for an adulting school—after all, the gig economy that’s producing so much anxiety among young adults is also freeing up plenty of teachers to offer their services. Ten thousand people are on the school’s email list.

Nothing new here  

A decade ago, Holly Swyers, an associate professor of anthropology at Lake Forest College, started noticing how fragile her students seemed. They feared a wrong step would divert them from the “right” path. They presented an image of public competence, but privately said they felt helpless. She decided to research the idea of “adulting” and spent five years working on a book about it (not yet published). Her conclusion?

“This is not a new phenomenon: What makes it stand out now is the existence of a hashtag,” she says.

Every generation has struggled to square who they wanted to be with the economic opportunities available. TV was going to melt one generation’s brains, cable would addle another’s, and social media would fry the minds of the next. Consider:

  • In 1932, historian Horace Kallen published a pamphlet entitled “College Prolongs Infancy” with the pamphlet noting that, “I am taught a multitude of subjects, but I am not taught how to apply them so that I may make a success of myself in my struggle for and with life.”
  • In 1972, Robert Havighurst, a professor and physicist argued that, “of all the periods of life, early adulthood is the fullest of teachable moments and the emptiest of efforts to teach.” (And this was before home economics was cut from curricula to make way for more math and science.) Havighurst cited eight tasks of early adulthood that he believed were not taught: “selecting a mate, learning to live with a marriage partner, starting a family, rearing children, managing a home, getting started in an occupation, taking on civic responsibility, and finding a congenial social group.”
  • In 1987, Cheryl Merser published Grown-Ups: A Generation in Search of Adulthood, prompted by her and her friends’ struggle to understand what adulthood was and how to get there.
  • In 2013, Kelly Williams Brown wrote Adulting: How to Become a Grown-Up in 468 Easy(ish) steps. Her blog may have been the first time “adult” was converted into a verb.

However, two things are (relatively) new, Swyers argues. First, as work hours have lengthened in America and more women have entered the workforce, parents are spending less time with their kids showing them what being an adult looks like.

Second, increasingly competitive university entry has made parents put more emphasis on academics. Kids from better-off families are being asked to do less work around the house and more on the college résumé, be it sports, music or studying. (Poorer kids have always had to take care of the home, and this change has exacerbated that divide, Swyers says.)

“What we have done is to devalue the reproductive aspects of the household—maintaining home and self—and focus on the productive side of it, or making money,” she says.

Blame the parents

If millennials are struggling to become adults, parents seem the obvious culprits, and not just because they went off to work. Simon Senek, a British author and motivational speaker, says parents dealt millennials a bad hand by demanding “A” grades from their teachers and participation medals for kids who came in last place (even though getting a medal for coming in last devalues the medal and can make kids feel worse about themselves).

“They were told they were special all the time,” Senek says.

Jessica Lahey, an American middle-school teacher, wrote the Gift of Failure to help parents see that their excessive involvement and nurturing—born of the best intentions—was instead rendering kids helpless. “We rescue because it feels good,” Lahey says. “Do I want [my kids] to be happy now and not scared and not anxious, or, a year from now, do I hope that they pushed through being a little anxious and a little scared and became a little more competent?”

Weinstein, the Adulting School’s co-founder, agrees that the parenting pendulum has probably swung too far from neglectful and laissez-faire to overbearing and omnipresent. “We have to recognize that boundaries and expectations are just as important as nurturing, and that they can co-exist,” she says.

But if the problem has been grown-ups fighting kids’ battles for them, is adulting school the answer? Or are Weinstein and Brunelle just the latest helicopter to hover overhead, easing the pains of too much information on the internet and not enough friends to play with?

Frank Furedi, a professor of sociology at the University of Kent in Canterbury, argues that universities, along with parents, are making matters worse. Rather than encouraging young people to become adults, he wrote recently, they have responded by adopting “a paternalistic ethos that treats them as biologically mature children.” Doesn’t an adulting school just add to that?

Growing-up school

Weinstein’s argument is that millennials have so much choice that many feel paralyzed. They can live wherever, work more flexibly, and choose to marry or not to. They also face unprecedented technological change and economic insecurity. The everything-instantly culture—toothpaste from Amazon, TV shows via Netflix, sex via Tinder—makes them impatient, and they haven’t yet learned to form the deep friendships that can help them navigate the uncertainty endemic to young adulthood.

“Everything you want you can have instantaneously, except for job satisfaction and strength of relationships,” Senek argues. “There’s no app for that; they are slow, meandering, uncomfortable processes.”

But are millennials really as helpless and as beleaguered as all that? This generation seems cleaner- and better-living than the one before, and more politically active. It is demanding more of employers—from shared parental leave to more socially conscious corporate strategy. Moreover, while stagnant wages are terrifying, they aren’t new either. Back in 1999, the Atlantic said this of the generation that preceded millennials, the Gen-Xers:

In contrast to Baby Boomers, most of whom came of age during the period of unparalleled upward mobility that followed the Second World War, Xers grew up in a time of falling wages, shrinking benefits, and growing economic inequality…. In fact, Xers may well be the first generation whose lifetime earnings will be less than their parents’.

Time after time

Somehow, in spite of being slackers and living with their parents too long, Gen X became the suits. Not through any superior abilities or unique confidence, but through paying a lot of bills and taking care of children—a remarkably effective adulting strategy. Their struggles were no less fraught or self-indulgent: They just didn’t feature on Facebook or Instagram.

Alfred Adler, the founder of individual psychology, believed that parents need to empower kids. ”Children become irresponsible only when we fail to give them opportunities to take on responsibility,” he said.

Most non-millennials learned to do laundry by doing some laundry and to cook by asking a friend who knew how. They learned to manage money by bouncing a check (look it up) or by not having enough money to pay for something. They were just as insecure and unsure as any generation growing up—and probably still are—but they muddled through, without YouTube, banking apps, and one million cooking channels to aid them. It was trial and error, and that was the growing-up.

Weinstein and Brunelle are committed to helping people. “This is about connecting around learning basic skills,” Weinstein says. Their idea of creating a destination for lifelong learning is a great one, perfect for its time. “There’s a need for it,” says Swyers. I don’t have any objection to anything helping people get it together.”

Nor should anyone.

But another curated environment, in which courses have been designed, experts selected, and curriculum created so young adults don’t have to do the hard work themselves—is unlikely to “make” adults. Millennials will do that, just as every other generation has, one slow, inefficient, self-taught day at a time.

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