Oh, Grow Up!

Oh, grow up! It’s the universal insult. Parents use it when they’re fed up with the whiny kid. Adolescents use it on each other – as a way to say man, you just aren’t cool. Adults use it on each other, when someone is being too enthusiastic and giddy, or inveighing against the unfairness of it all – they didn’t get the job or the raise or whatever, or someone put a big dent in the parked car and just drove off, or the wife ran off with their best friend. Often you add the corollary. Who told you life is fair? The idea is to be an adult and just suck it up and move on. Everyone should be an adult.

But of course no one is an adult. A few years ago it was the rail-thin and devastatingly elegant Frenchwoman well into her fifties saying – in that Parisian accent that makes men fools – that she was seventeen, really. That was who she was and that would never change – it was 1970 and it was Paris.

But of course it wasn’t. It was scruffy Hollywood in the first years of this century. But there is a reason no Frenchwoman is ever well into her fifties. No one says such a thing, and there is no specific way of saying middle-aged in French. Such women are all “of a certain age.” And it’s not so much that the locution avoids any shame or embarrassment for all concerned, it’s that it maintains an agreed fiction. Or maybe it is not a fiction at all. Perhaps it’s an acknowledgment of the reality of the true self. Producers and agents and more than a few aging actresses out here in Hollywood often wonder how it is that French movie stars have such long careers – sexy and provocative and engaging well into the sixties, when their American counterparts only find work in odd character parts if they find work at all. How do they do that? How do Frenchwomen in general do that? Maybe it has to do with aligning what is inside you – your core – with how you deal with the world. It’s not like some pathetic fifties-something woman in Iowa dressing like Madonna or Joan Jett and talking like a Valley Girl, pretending that time itself doesn’t matter. It’s more like knowing who you are and just being who you are. You’re not pretending at all. Yes, you are an adult, but an honest one.

Of course the trick is deciding what it means to be an adult, and deciding just when it is that you become one. There must be markers – leaving home, getting a job, or getting married, or buying a house, or becoming a parent, or joining the Republican Party and the local county club, or writing a New York Times bestseller about Millard Fillmore, or something. It’s more than turning eighteen or twenty-one or whatever arbitrary age the culture provides. Twelve-year-olds can be charged as an adult if the crime is serious enough – it depends. But everyone agrees one should be an adult. That explains the universal insult – hey, grow up. It’s just that no one quite knows what that means.

And what’s the matter with kids today? Yes, that’s a song from the musical Bye-Bye Birdie and an odd bit of nonsense. The adults sing about how the kids shouldn’t be so much… like kids. The song and the musical are mostly forgotten now, as they should be, but it certainly was odd, back in the seventies, to play in the pit band for a high school musical production of that, and watch the innately irresponsible kids from your English class ham it up as the adults in that number. The multiple layers of irony and confusion were delicious. No one really realized what they were singing about. There was real slapstick under the staged slapstick. The whole issue of responsible adulthood is a hall of mirrors.

No one produces that musical these days – it’s dated and was rather thin even in 1960 when it was new – but that one song somehow resurfaces again and again in other forms and in odd places, like the New York Times Sunday Magazine. The issue of Sunday, August 22, gave us this – What Is It about Twenty-Somethings?

But there is no catchy tune. This is over seven thousand densely packed words from Robin Marantz Henig exploring one specific issue. Why are so many people in their twenties taking so long to grow up? What’s the matter with kids today? And are these kids or adults? Many social scientists and such folks are cited, and it is a bit of a hall of mirrors.

But Henig opens by noting that this is a current issue:

This question pops up everywhere, underlying concerns about “failure to launch” and “boomerang kids.” Two new sitcoms feature grown children moving back in with their parents – “$#*! My Dad Says,” starring William Shatner as a divorced curmudgeon whose 20-something son can’t make it on his own as a blogger, and “Big Lake,” in which a financial whiz kid loses his Wall Street job and moves back home to rural Pennsylvania. A cover of The New Yorker last spring picked up on the zeitgeist: a young man hangs up his new Ph.D. in his boyhood bedroom, the cardboard box at his feet signaling his plans to move back home now that he’s officially overqualified for a job. In the doorway stand his parents, their expressions a mix of resignation, worry, annoyance and perplexity: how exactly did this happen?

And it is an important issue:

It’s happening all over, in all sorts of families, not just young people moving back home but also young people taking longer to reach adulthood overall. It’s a development that predates the current economic doldrums, and no one knows yet what the impact will be – on the prospects of the young men and women; on the parents on whom so many of them depend; on society, built on the expectation of an orderly progression in which kids finish school, grow up, start careers, make a family and eventually retire to live on pensions supported by the next crop of kids who finish school, grow up, start careers, make a family and on and on. The traditional cycle seems to have gone off course, as young people remain untethered to romantic partners or to permanent homes, going back to school for lack of better options, traveling, avoiding commitments, competing ferociously for unpaid internships or temporary (and often grueling) Teach for America jobs, forestalling the beginning of adult life.

Things are changing – we learn that one-third of people in their twenties move to a new place every year and forty percent move back home with their parents at least once, and people in their twenties go through an average of seven jobs in those years, more job changes than at any other time in their lives, and two-thirds spend at least some time living with a romantic partner without being married. And they marry much later than ever. Something is going on:

We’re in the thick of what one sociologist calls “the changing timetable for adulthood.” Sociologists traditionally define the “transition to adulthood” as marked by five milestones: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child. In 1960, 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men had, by the time they reached 30, passed all five milestones. Among 30-year-olds in 2000, according to data from the United States Census Bureau, fewer than half of the women and one-third of the men had done so.

And it’s getting worse – or better, depending on your point of view. You can read the whole item and decide for yourself. Many have thought long and hard about what this all means. Getting to what we would generally call adulthood is happening later than ever. No one quite knows why, but they’re working on it.

Needless to say, when this hit the web the Wednesday before its print publication, there was some heated reaction. At salon.com Nelle Engoron offered this extended righteous rant – “I became an adult at twenty-two Why can’t you? Becoming independent in my twenties made me a stronger person. Why is this generation content to stay at home forever?”

Yes, what’s the matter with kids today?

Delaying marriage and parenthood until one’s 30s is generally seen as a good idea these days, but postponing financial independence is another matter. The phenomenon of 20-somethings living with their parents (partially or even fully supported by them) is so widespread that most people reading this have surely witnessed it, many within their own families. It’s a frequent topic of puzzled discussion among people my age, who wonder why things have changed so much in a generation. While the baby boomers were seen by their own parents as cases of arrested development (still arguable given their penchant for behaving as if they don’t want to grow up), they did leave home and start independent lives at the usual age, while their children seem to have embraced prolonged dependence with very few qualms.

The rest is telling these folks to grow up – with anecdotes of how her parents didn’t spoil her and these privileged young twits just have no sense of responsibility. She’s a baby boomer and damned proud of it:

After all, we were the generation who couldn’t wait to get away from home and who judged and even shunned our parents for what we perceived as their endless list of faults – political, social, cultural and moral. Most of us fled our families as quickly as we could and never looked back. “I would have done anything not to have to move back home” is a comment I’ve often heard people my age utter about our move into independent life in our early twenties.

And doing anything and everything was precisely what we did, even during the recession-riddled years of the ’70s and ’80s – which rivaled the current difficult economic times – when jobs were also scarce, especially for recent college grads, and inflation was soaring in ways that are hard to comprehend today (banks offering car loans at 22 percent, anyone?). The eyes of 20-somethings glaze over when we recount how we lived – sharing living quarters with a pile of friends, having only battered old belongings (and few of them to boot), eating cheap food we cooked ourselves, and spending little or nothing on entertainment.

You can almost hear Paul Lynde singing:

Being required to take care of myself completely starting at age 22 has given me strength because I’ve learned what I’m capable of even in extremely difficult circumstances, and satisfaction because I have known that whatever I achieved in my life was due to my own efforts. I continue to believe that independence and direction in life are choices, not behaviors held hostage to some developmental loitering that lasts long past the arrival of both physiological and legal adulthood.

So what is it about twenty-somethings? My own answer is simple. They have what previous generations did not: a choice about when to become adults.

Yeah, yeah – times were hard back then, and you had to walk twenty miles to school each day, uphill, and in the snow, and it made you a better person and a real adult.

But Amanda Marcotte is having none of that:

When I first read this article in the NY Times Magazine about how 20-somethings are delaying the supposed markers of adulthood – marriage, kids, financial independence – longer than they had in the past, I thought that the main flaw of it was that it didn’t address why financial independence was so hard to achieve. By casting the entire situation as a matter of desire and choice, the author missed the big picture, which is that people delay adulthood because the ability to be an adult requires a certain amount of privilege increasingly unavailable to young people. I tweeted about it at the time, noting the answer to the question, “Why don’t people grow up faster?” is incredibly, stupidly simple -because they are no longer any jobs for people in their early twenties that provide the means to be a full adult. Full stop. I don’t mean that entry level jobs only pay enough for a small apartment or a simple lifestyle. Often, they don’t pay enough to cover the rent on that small apartment – if they can find those jobs in the first place – and that’s why people move back in with their parents.

And she saw red when she read that “smarmy, self-righteous screed from some Baby Boomer.”

It’s a classic example of being born on third and thinking you hit a triple. She assumes that her ability to pay rent with her first job out of college is strictly because she’s so much more fucking awesome than you spoiled kids these days, and her parents were so much more responsible than the softies of today. For a millisecond, she ponders the possibility that things have changed because of financial constraints, but then dismisses that possibility with a hand-wave. It’s so much more fun to be self-righteous! It’s way more fun to wag your finger at young people and tell them how you lived on Ramen and beans to afford your apartment, never pausing for a moment to wonder if those kids might not be able to afford that apartment even if they lived on dog food.

And crappy musicals are way more fun than real life. People move back home out of financial necessity, all of them, and it’s not slackers’ heaven, and not that unusual. In fact, it may be just fine:

In a way, it’s too bad, because the notion that living with your parents after becoming an adult is some great marker of shame is a relatively new idea, born out of the prosperity of the mid-century in America that our smug Boomer seems to think is just evidence of her super-awesome-better-than-you-ness. Throughout most of American history, family living with family wasn’t considered anything but normal, and in fact sort of the point of having a family. Indeed, I have to wonder if people who think that living with your parents after becoming an adult is non-negotiable aren’t speaking from a very narrow upper middle class perspective in general. When I was a kid, both of my parents went through stints of living with their parents after they were divorced. If you step outside of the world of status markers and fear of appearing too working class, the benefits of living with your parents in some situations are kind of obvious. It can be a bulwark against loneliness for all parties involved. It can save everyone money…. For parents who were unable to provide a free ticket through college to their kids, helping them get on their feet by sharing expenses after college is a way for the parent to help out while also relieving their own financial burden. It’s win-win for many families.

The fact that there was a brief period in American history where there was enough wealth going around that parents of all sorts of classes could provide enough for their kids to create “financial independence” at a young age is no reason to shame people who have to revert to the old ways now that our economy has reverted to the old ways of huge disparities in wealth between the classes.

And then Marcotte gets into details:

But let’s look at the larger story she tells – one of having roommates. This, despite her preening, is exactly the “extended adolescence” that she shames young people now for engaging in. Nelle Engoron can think she’s hot shit because she was so grown-up that she still lived like a college kid in her twenties, but I think she’s fudging a little. I could just as easily gloat that I was way adult much younger than her, because I never had a roommate again after I graduated college.

There’s much more at the link but it comes down to this:

The problem isn’t that human beings are failing to achieve arbitrary markers of adulthood. The problem is assuming, incorrectly, that there’s something universal and unchanging about standards that were based on a very 1950s-era idea of what middle class mores should be.

There was a brief period in American history when there was enough wealth going around. There isn’t now.

Marcotte gets agreement from her friend Digby:

Amanda is righteously pissed off at this sanctimonious boomer twit railing against “kids today” for refusing to grow up and be adults in their twenties as she apparently did. As I tweeted her, even when we baby boomers were young there were always these throwbacks lecturing people their own age about how “irresponsible” we all were for not getting our MRS degree and failing to start measuring the drapes for Barbie’s dream house the day we graduated from college. They were already 25 years out of date at the time.

Digby remembers those throwbacks lecturing people their own age about how “irresponsible” we all were – may she remember the song from Bye-Bye Birdie. She does seem to know it was nonsense:

Nobody with any sense listened to them then and nobody should listen to them now, for the same reasons. Not only were they uptight, conservative creeps, many of them were also privileged princes and princesses who had plenty of money and lots of support from Mommy and Daddy in the not-so-economically vibrant 70s – not all that different from today. (And of the working class wingnut types, many were screwed economically by those times and blamed the social revolution – also not all that different from today.) The rest of us rejected everything the bourgeois prattlers were peddling and never looked back.

And then she makes a curious leap:

These are the teabaggers. They’ve always been assholes. And as with all baby boomers, there are unfortunately a whole bunch of them. Keep in mind, however, that they’ve also always been completely out of step with their times, they never had a clue, and no one cool and interesting ever liked them. It’s why they are having a gray and ugly “Woodstock” in their 50s and 60s where instead of warning them not to take the brown acid, the organizers have to remind them all to take their purple pills.

Pity them. Young or old, they’ve never had a day of sheer, joyful fun in their sad, unimaginative lives.

One thinks of the mystery of the beautiful Frenchwomen of a certain age. Maybe what it means to be an adult is to have at least one day of sheer, joyful fun in one’s sad, unimaginative life, or many of them – all on your own or hanging at home with the folks, knowing who you are and just being who you are. You’re not pretending at all. Yes, you are an adult, but an honest one. Otherwise you get stuck in a dated third-rate musical.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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