On the Disappearing Horizon of Adulthood

“I think when you’re young you should be a lot with yourself and your sufferings. Then one day you get out where the sun shines and the rain rains and the snow snows and it all comes together.”

– Diana Vreeland

I am twenty-one and a graduating senior, but I’ve never felt younger in my life. I have a job lined up that provides health insurance, and I have an appointment set to talk about a savings account, but last week I woke up with a Welch’s fruit snack melted to my arm. I am not an adult. Anyone who uses “adulting” as a verb, such as myself, is not an adult because it is novel for them to be accomplishing an adult-like task. I occasionally masquerade as one, but I have not actually joined the ranks of this mythic force. They are considering whether or not to allow me into the tribe.

What does it take to get into the club?

At first glance this seems like the ticket, but there are many adult-type people who will never achieve this. But having the ability to make money and spend it as you please does seem to be part of the picture. Asking your mom if you can have extra money this month to take a trip is the epitome of anti-adult.

A job? (A hot topic for every graduating senior.) Yes. But, the ticket to adulthood? No. Sixteen-year-olds have jobs. I don’t necessarily need one of these (unless I want to eat, buy things, or have an apartment).

Sex? If you’re graduating high school, this is definitely the hot-ticket adult experience. Honestly, though, the more adult you get it seems the less sex you have, so maybe this one is a fake-out. If you’ve been on Tinder lately, it is clear why our generation is having less sex than the Baby Boomers did.

I emphatically call myself an adult when anyone questions my age. When my older friends smile that condescending smile, I puff up my chest and pronounce myself experienced in the ways of the world. But when my parents ask me if I have called the health insurance company or if I have paid that old parking ticket, I just want to scream that I’m a 5’4” toddler who doesn’t know how to do anything.

I believe it impossible to define an adult by a set of experiences, beliefs, or responsibilities. What I have noticed is that the benchmark for adulthood is stretching further and further into the life of the American millennial. We are loath to reach this status. At my age now, my parents were married to each other and my grandparents had children. I shudder to think about this. I am still deciding if I should eat meat, what my favorite color is, and if I should try to make it in a creative career or sell out now. I am unresolved, needless to say – a work in progress.

In college, we call everything after undergrad the “real world.” What makes undergrad less real? Okay, maybe the endless amounts of fail-safes between ourselves and complete ruination. When I was an eighteen-year-old freshman, it felt like the height of adulthood to choose what I wanted to eat when I wanted to eat it, to stay out all night long and not have to tell anyone, and to vote in the presidential election. I was convinced I had reached adulthood. After all, according to our country’s definition, the concept begins at eighteen. I’m only three years older now, but I think of that version of myself with a nauseated fondness for her shocking naiveté. Since freshman year, I have experienced death, crime, protests, social change, drug use, and violence. A lot of things I never thought I would see, to be honest.

I think a huge barrier to recognizing ourselves as adults is that the process of growing up is far more liminal than any survey or form would have us believe. You can vote when you’re eighteen. You can drink when you’re twenty-one. But maybe you’re not an adult until you achieve a multi-dimensional independence. Financial independence is great, but what about your emotional adjustment and your ability to make future plans? So-called “real adults” might consult others for advice, but they are the rational choosers in their own lives, it seems to me. They can say “no” to things that aren’t for them, they can put off doing what sounds great right now in order to achieve things down the line, and they can get through challenging times without going to pieces.

But there is no single day when you realize you are independent. There’s no party to throw. Adulthood comes on via small challenges. It comes with a lot of firsts, but it also comes in particularly dark midnights where you make the right choice, the responsible one. It comes on in waves at the beginning, and then I imagine that somewhere down the line it becomes a more constant state of being. I think it really sticks when you’re no longer your first thought and priority, when someone else depends on you – whether it’s a child, a spouse, or an aging parent. I think adulthood is a state of mind that could perhaps be permanently prolonged if one so chose (but having crumbs in your bed at age forty seems wrong somehow).

This article was written by Laura Harvey. Click here to see more of Laura’s work.