We live in a society of adult-like children and childish adults.
Kids have never had more information at their fingertips, so they’re growing up faster than ever. From a young age, they can watch violent war clips on YouTube, Dan Bilzerian videos on Instagram, and Shakira getting low at the Super Bowl halftime show.
Yet, even though they grow up fast at first, they mature into adulthood slowly. Young people today are often unable to become financially independent or walk the path of a meaningful life. As a result, we’re left with a culture of childish adults who are allergic to commitment and unable to see the light in adulthood.
Video destroyed the innocence of childhood. Before the invention of television in 1950, knowledge about full adult life was guarded from children in books. Kids were shielded from money, death, violence, and especially, sex. Kids couldn’t read until their teenage years, so adults concealed taboo topics in writing.
That changed with the invention of television, which took ideas out of books and put them on video. Text ceased to be a barrier so children were exposed to mature content from a young age. For example, kids can’t understand Fifty Shades of Grey, but because of Instagram, they know how to twerk like Miley Cyrus. As Ben Sasse wrote in The Vanishing American Adult:
“Practically nothing [on television] is taboo or off limits. Because television doesn’t know or care who’s watching, the medium effectively “adultifies” children while infantilizing adults; it doesn’t judge its viewers, nothing is shameful.”
When I was a kid, ESPN ran on channel 38. Four clicks away, on channel 42, I routinely stumbled upon soft-core pornographic images like Brittany Spears’ Toxic music video.
In our video-first age, children and adults watch the same things on television, which was never true for books. 12-year-olds don’t read Hegel. By moving from a book-centric culture to an image-centric one, we created a Peter Pan Generation of childish adults who refuse to grow up.
While children act like adults, adults also act like children. With the rise of video, the social—and moral—transition from childhood into adulthood disappeared. Maturing into literacy lost its significance because kids already knew the secrets once reserved for adulthood. As Neil Postman wrote: “Everywhere one looks, the behavior, language, attitudes, and desires—even the physical appearance—of adults and children are becoming increasingly indistinguishable.”
I agree with Postman: the barriers between childhood and adulthood have disappeared. Responsible only for ourselves, we’ve extended the age of adolescence and postponed the transition into adulthood. Young adults who begin by postponing marriage and parenthood are increasingly dependent on their parents for housing and financial support. As the $16 billion plastic surgery market shows, we prefer the purity of youth to the scars of wisdom.
Gone are the coming-of-age rituals which once carried the maturing mind forward. In Beliefs and Rites, anthropologist Lorna Marshall writes about little Nyae Nyae !Kung boys who used to practice shooting and play with bows and arrows. The transition into adulthood came when they began to hunt with their fathers. But the “Rite of First Kill” was the most important ritual, which arrived after a boy had killed his first big meat animal. To mark the portal into adulthood, boys were seared with life-long scars to show they had been “cut with meat.”
Today, we have no such black-and-white rituals. Drinking alcohol? That starts in high school. Legalized voting? Nobody celebrates that. Getting your driver’s license? Not as cool as it used to be. Bar Mitzvah? People remember the party, not the service.
For the first time in more than 130 years, Americans 18 to 34 are more likely to live under their parents’ roof than with a spouse or partner in their own home. Today, 25% of Americans between 25 and 29 live with their parents, compared with 18% just over a decade ago.
The aversion to adulthood is most evident in cities, where people lack family, religion, and community. Since the Enlightenment, people in The West have chosen the path of more freedom at every turn. But we made a Faustian bargain. In search of individuality, we freed ourselves from family, church, and community.
In 1800, three-quarters of American workers were farmers. They lived in big, sprawling households. Until 1850, roughly three-quarters of Americans older than 65 lived with their kids and grandkids. Industrialization and cheap transportation changed that. People left their home towns and flocked to big cities. The landscape of marriage changed in response. In 1932, one-third of married couples lived within a five-block radius of each other before they tied the knot. The average woman was married at 20, men at 23.
Our jobs have changed, too. Graduates from top universities overwhelmingly work for professional services companies in management consulting and investment banking. Sure, they have sexy brands to make mamma and papa proud. Some even get to ride the private jet. But the vast majority of people I know at these companies are plotting to escape like they’re stuck on Alcatraz.
The Hopelessness of Adulthood and the “Adulting” Meme
The childish adult phenomenon is well captured by the “adulting” meme. On the surface, the meme is a response to the overwhelming number of things you need to do as an adult: go to the gym, get your work done, answer emails, make the bed, clean the kitchen, sweep the floors, file taxes, buy groceries, put the kids to bed.
On a deeper level, though, I think this meme stems from a perception of adulthood as a hopeless enterprise. It represents a mentality that encourages people to retreat into a nihilistic, bubble-wrapped cocoon of deferred responsibility.
That passivity is the mark of a generation overwhelmed by contemporary life. They lack clear role models for how to behave. Our anything-goes world suffers from a tempest of uncertainty about how to “adult.” Noble virtues—honor, courage, loyalty—are dismissed.
I lived this first-hand in college, where my friends and I tipped our bottles to the “best four years of our lives.” Tuesdays were for beer trivia, Thursdays were for bar crawls, Fridays were for house parties, and Saturdays were for day drinking.
Can you blame us? In the age of iron-grip parenting, college felt like the only time in our lives when we wouldn’t have to act like professionals. In my own social circle, the pursuit of an Ivy League diploma began before we were aware of it. The siren at the start of the race sounded on the first day of elementary school, when our mothers packed our lunch boxes just as we tightened our Toy Story backpacks and marched into the classroom. Instead of playing in the backyard, we built our resumes with extracurriculars. Piano lessons, SAT prep, theatre, volunteering, study abroad — our childhoods were curated for the college admissions knife fight.
Those college years were sold as the peak. We never thought life could improve after graduation, and we dreaded the monotonous, desk-chained rituals of adulthood. All that rebellious energy was set to fire by movies like Animal House and Project X, which celebrated the freedom of life without adults. College was the only time we’d have autonomy, so instead of discovering our telos, we flew the flag of anarchy.
Trying to Adult
I’m writing this essay not because I’m above these problems, but because I suffer from them too. I am surprisingly childish. At 25, I still can’t handle the demands of adult life, from filing my taxes to incorporating an LLC, without my parents’ help. When tax season rolls around, I still call my father. Booking the best flights? Same thing. Sometimes, I feel like my life is on the brink of collapse— stitched together with second-hand duct tape.
I’m learning. I first confronted my aversion to responsibility in 2018, when I had just been laid off from a job and was struggling to build my first business. Desperate for clients, I called my mentor Brent. When he asked why I wanted to work for myself, I said, “I want the freedom to do what I want.”
With grace and generosity, Brent encouraged me to reconsider my lust for freedom and embrace virtues like duty, thrift, and commitment. He explained to me that responsibility can be more rewarding than freedom alone.
Brent’s critique of freedom went against everything society told me to do. The ultimate millennial dream is “Stay single, pursue a four-hour workweek, and become a digital nomad. Most of all, stay free.”
This lifestyle is superficially glamorous, but ultimately unfulfilling. It’s a life without the love that only devotion can provide. Eventually, it resembles the sampling tables at Costco: sure, you can try a cosmopolitan buffet of snacks, but cheese from a disposable paper cup will never give you the nutrients you need.
We Need to Replace “Freedom From” with “Freedom To”
Ben Sasse, the aforementioned Senator of Nebraska and the former President of Midland College distinguishes between “freedom to” virtues and “freedom from” ones. Every year at Midland, the faculty surveyed its students. Time and again, students described canceled classes as the best part of their four-year college experience.
“Adolescents put off adult responsibilities for as long as they can, sometimes by choice but more often as a result of circumstances and trends beyond their comprehension. In the face of unprecedented prosperity and freedom from convention, the generation coming of age is stuck in a hazy, extended adolescence, never allowed simply to be children, and yet also rarely nudged to be fully adult.”
Outwardly, we said “college was the best four years of our lives.” But inwardly, we had no hope for the future. There was no cultural message that life could improve after graduation. Conversations about our dreams were as rare as waking up on Saturday morning without a hangover. Without faith in a better tomorrow, we embraced degeneracy and avoided our to-do lists. Our “adulting” culture prizes ephemeral happiness over eternal fulfillment — it’s a culture where kids age fast and adults mature slowly.
I hope that in the future, we’ll see meaning and responsibility as two sides of the same coin. With adulthood comes the freedom to pursue a vocation, the wealth to nurture your community, and the wisdom to raise the next generation.
A life well-lived demands a forward-leaning embrace of responsibility. We should drop the freedom from mindset and welcome the freedom to learn, the freedom to work, and the freedom to tackle meaningful challenges. Otherwise, coming-of-age Americans will float without direction, drifting like a log in the ocean.
In the end, until we can restore the innocence of childhood, appreciate the wisdom only literacy can provide, and find beauty in the wrinkles of old age, we will feed a culture of adultish children and childish adults.
Thanks to Ellen Fishbein for helping me write this essay.
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