Category: individuality

Are We Living as True Adults?

“Wish we could turn back time. To the good dope days. When the Mama sang us to sleep when I was stressed out.” This is the main chorus to one of the most popular songs of the past year, which re-enforces a common stereotype many older Americans have about the “Millennial Generation”; they are slow to “grow up”. Statistics confirm that today’s young adults are more likely than the two previous generations to live at home. Across the West, adults in their 20s and 30s are delaying traditional “adult” things like marriage, purchasing a home, having children, and entering a stable career.

A good number of older adults have a fairly simplistic diagnosis of the problem. They see the generation of current young adults as a group of people whose attitudes are represented by the 21 Pilots song. They are entitled, and do not wish to take responsibility in the manner in which previous generations have. Ironically, this sentiment is most commonly expressed by members of the generation that raised our current “responsibility-shunning” young adults.

There are many factors that lead to differing attitudes among generations. Much has been written about how the forces of globalization and automation have changed the job market, leading to less emphasis on stability and more on constant learning. Much has also been written about how the internet, social media, and smart phones have led to different attitudes, amongst people who grew up with different technology, different ways of communicating to one another, etc.

The issue I personally have with the proposition of “growing up” is that what is being suggested to me does not feel like actual adulthood.

The way I understand the spectrum from childhood to adulthood, with adolescence representing some form of middle ground, is kind of a tradeoff. In childhood, as suggested by the 21 Pilots song, a parent, parents, or some form of parental figure takes care of you. They ensure everything is going to be okay, and when something bad happens to you, they are the ones ultimately responsible. However, in exchange, they end up having a significant amount of control over what you say and do. This is the aspect of the “good dope days” that the song fails to mention.

As one “grows up”, they take on more and more responsibility. For an “adult”, when a bad outcome occurs, whether it is due to one’s own actions, or due to a situation beyond one’s control, he/she is the one that bears the consequences, and must sometimes sacrifice to provide the necessities of life. The tradeoff, though, is two things. First of all, one that is truly considered “mature” is given the leeway to choose how to live their lives. This happens gradually in adolescence, as parents give their teens privileges such as removing curfews, or allowing them to travel farther from home without supervision. The second, and, in my view, equally important aspect of the tradeoff, is that mature people are taken much more seriously; when they present ideas, express opinions, and express outrage at injustice.

I have a clear idea of what it means to be an “adult”. Adults are the ones ultimately accountable for things that go wrong. Adults take care of themselves, and their own basic needs. There is no need to keep tabs on where an adult is at certain specific times or to make sure that said adult is or is not taking part in certain activities and behaviors. After all, the adult is supposed to understand the risks, rewards, and consequences of certain behaviors. And, if a poor decision is made, the adult is the one who suffers the consequences.

However, most versions of “adulthood” that I witness around me do not feel this way at all. The average “adult” in order to meet their end of the bargain, responsibility for providing their own (and sometimes their families) living, looks to obtain a stable job. Working a stable job, one must submit to some form of authority, usually one that considers themselves a boss of sorts.   And, while there are plenty of organizations that are “flat”, considering management just one of the many needs of the organization, there are plenty of bosses, and organizational hierarchies in general, that keep close watch on employees, taking a way much of the individual autonomy associated with “adulthood”.

Aside from bosses, many look to, and even try to impose on others other forms of authority, which can significantly reduce the positive impacts of the tradeoff. For some this takes the form of a spouse, a family, or some kind of a community group. This is actually the least offensive means in which people cede their individual sovereignty. At least these individuals are ones that are supposed to care about the individual they are exerting authority over. Far too many people also choose to, and through their actions force others to, designate some of their authority over their own lives to the government.

The problem is, in most of these cases, the alternate forms of paternalism do not even offer the protection of childhood. Most companies will still fire an employee if their performance slips, and will lay them off if market conditions sour. The government even goes as far as to impose their own negative consequences for those that perform poorly. In most cases, so-called “adults” are not even given the option to live in a state of perpetual adolescence, they are just given a shitty bargain.

Unlike 21 Pilots, I do not wish for a state of perpetual childhood. I wish for adulthood, true adulthood. I will gladly accept the responsibility that comes with adulthood, given that I also receive the respect, and individual autonomy associated with it. However, the tradeoff that often appears is being suggested to me, and to anyone else told to “grow up”, is one where the responsibility is taken, but sufficient individual autonomy and respect is not given in return. This is a tradeoff that I am not willing to accept!

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When was the last time YOU decided?

Life at age 4 is a strangely beautiful thing. I do not remember the details of my own life at age 4, nor do I know the details regarding the life of any present day 4-year-old. It’s probably a lot of running around aimlessly, and asking questions; the proverbial “why”. As I observe more and more of my friends having children, and remember my own childhood, one distinction between life at that age, and life as an adult, or even as a teenage comes to mind. 4-year-olds, having yet to enter school, rarely spend any time sitting around wondering what they should be doing. From what I see, the average 4-year-old has some kind of box of toys they just simply dive into. Either that or they are running around the yard. The commonality is, though, these 4-year-olds are not looking to someone else’s guidance when determining what they should be doing or what they should be thinking about and such. There is something simply magical about it.

I think I was 7 or 8 years old the first time I approached one of my parents and simply stated “I’m bored”. Little did I know that this would become an all too familiar theme throughout my life. Boredom is a concept I am quite fascinated with, as I have a personality type that is particularly prone to boredom. But, what is boredom? There are several theories, some involving people being afraid of their own thoughts, some believing it’s a healthy manner in which our brains ensure they are using their full capacity, and yet others stating it’s a symptom of an individual lacking imagination or creativity.

The final theory is the one that is the most disturbing. It suggests, in the most blunt terms possible, that a person being bored is really a person being boring. But, how did that come to be? How would we have transitioned, each one of us, from our 4-year-old selves, to these people who, given spare time, cannot even think of what we would like to do, or what we would like to think about?

One quite disturbing possibility is inadvertent, well-intentioned conditioning. At age 5, most of us enter a world (school) where the way we use our time, what activities we take part in, what topics we fill our minds with, is suddenly determined by someone else. This is quite a significant change from the days where the only instruction we received would be the occasional behavioral correction from our parents. It is possible that, having now been relieved of the duty of determining our own activities, day after day, year after year, the skills of self-determination we developed as a child simply atrophy. So accustomed to having an external forcing determine what we should be doing, and what we should be thinking about, we lose the ability of self-determination.

I see this process manifesting in high school. With the exception of a few leaders, and a few loners, most people join in peer groups, and accept a great degree of outside control from others. It is common for one “leader” to determine the activities for the night, and some combination of trends, pop culture, social norms, and the “in crowd” to determine most else.

Our present day society offers adults plenty of opportunities to continue to avoid having to determine their own thoughts and activities. Jobs are very much still structured so that anyone that wants to can have their boss or supervisor determine all their tasks for them. In fact, as much as things are starting to change, the world is still harsh for those of us that do want to have some say in what kind of work we would like to be involved in.  That covers 40-60 hours of the week.  For all else, outside of work, there are plenty of opportunities to turn to social media, news feeds, television, and advice, both solicited and unsolicited, to determine where our hearts, minds, and energy should be focused.

That leads me to one question, for all adults out there. When was the last time you decided what you were to do with your time, an hour, a day, or even a week?  By this, I am not talking about looking at a list of options and making a choice.  I mean choosing something you want to be doing, or thinking about, with no other influence besides your thoughts, feelings, and inspiration, much the way a 4-year-old would.  And, when was the last time you acted on something, without worrying about what is considered appropriate, what others expect from you, or what “needs to be done”?  While there is a reality to life, and we all have responsibilities, I have a feeling that pretty much every adult today has at least enough wiggle room to do so every once in a while.