Notes from the Young

How does a person become an adult? This is a question that many curious young people nowadays think about. For much of history, becoming an adult meant career, marriage and family. Social institutions such as the state, school and family exposed people to these ideas throughout life. The promotion of these ideas had a purpose. People have always wanted a narrative to explain the story of their lives. Nowadays, young people live in an uncertain world where the practices and ideas of the past are being questioned. As we shall see, there is a conflict between our limited definitions of adulthood with ambiguous reality. First of all, adults must find a career. The most important aspect of the career is that it provides structure for adult life. This narrative is all about rising in position and status within an area over time. By delaying instant gratification we can experience substantial rewards later in life. A career grants us financial security in a fluctuating economy. Falling to the lowest level of society is no longer a concern. With a stable income, it is then possible to acquire property and start a family. In short, a career demonstrates that you are busy, useful and defined. The career is now in decline. In a modern economy based on short term gain and flexibility, the rules of employment are changing. The model employee will engage in various short term contracts over their life. Companies shift responsibility for job stability and pensions to ‘independent’ employees who are free to do what they want. Past generations were assured that their children would enjoy their life more as work hours contracted. In contrast, it seems that adults are busier than ever with their jobs. Longer hours can compensate for stagnating wages and help us buy those things we want rather than need. And does drifting into a life of routine provide a means of denying our contingent lives? Once a career is established, an adult can then enter into marriage. Through this institution, the adult becomes further integrated into society. At some point you will meet your ‘soul mate’ and this will result in marriage. Marriage is a bond that will continue till death. Through the highs and lows, true love will keep us together. It also represents a new level of maturity as both people no longer think as selfish individuals. Finally, marriage is a monogamous relationship between two people. With the beginnings of sexual equality, ideas about marriage became more ambiguous. Divorce rates are high in most developed countries. Ending a destructive marriage is humane. However, the emerging culture of impatience would prefer to end a marriage rather than solve problems. With more divorces, the comforting stability of marriage is no longer a certainty. Consumer logic and marriage are not complementary. How can marriages compete with the novelty, disposability and guarantees of products? For the modern consumer, being dependent to any extent is a restriction of freedom. Findings from science have also raised doubts about humans as monogamous animals. After marriage, adults are then ready to start a family. Having children connects us to life in a fundamental way. We may be mortal, but children carry our genes and remember us. For these reasons, children bring joy to our lives. As we tend to their physical and mental needs, we become more responsible adults. There is an ethical dimension too. Adults should equip their children with the ability to balance personal and social goals.

Unfortunately adults do not always have children for noble reasons. How many people use children to rescue a flawed marriage or as pawns to control? Children may be considered a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves. For young adults told to be free, the prospect of parenthood is unappealing. Adults should have a stable income and accommodation if they have children. Lifestyle choices decrease as our dependents increase. Unlike products, children do not come with guarantees. Even the most benevolent parents can only talk of probable outcomes for their children. And will our offspring return the favour when we get older? Based on the complexity of choices, young adults can respond in several ways. One response is to conform to the traditional conception of what it means to be an adult. Another response is to fall into a state of paralysis. Too many choices and too much ambiguity can create a generation of confused Peter Pans. Those remaining are engaged in a great experiment – finding out what an adult is on their own terms.