How Do You Know When You Have Become An Adult?

I do a lot of work / pay a lot of attention to youth culture and the sociocultural realities of young adults on a global as well as “local” US) level.  I have observed / written / advised clients on the life-stages of Gen Y young adults (there are 3 in the U.S., BTW) as well as on how youth culture has changed.

I am quick to get cheeky about the phenomenon of extended adolescence in the U.S. or about how Millennials (and their younger Gen Z counterparts) will be experiencing mid-life crises in their late twenties and early thirties and the shape those will take.

But what I haven’t really talked about is what makes someone an “adult”…and I will speak broadly given that I think my  conclusions are fairly universal.

Lets talk first about the cultural rituals and traditions that are meant to mark adulthood:

In tribal cultures many young men go on vision quests or “walkabouts” as a rite of passage to adulthood:  being forced to confront nature, the spirit world and their inner selves on a spiritual journey of survival that connects them to their core…ultimately returning as “man” when they have had a transformational experience.

In the Jewish religion, 13-year-old boys and girls are said to be an adult in the eyes of the religious community once they have gone through a Bar / Bat Mitzvah ritual whereby they are trained in Hebrew and read aloud from the Torah during a Saturday service.  This ritual is designed to show that they understand and own the beliefs and responsibilities that come with being a member of the Jewish community and take on the responsibility of carry on the practice / ways of their religion and their people.

In many parts of the developed world, adulthood has decidedly nebulous definitions:  an age when you are legally independent from your parents, can serve in the military or drink alcohol, for example.  Adulthood is also linked to marriage, having children, holding down a job, living on your own , owning a home, etc.

These are the social signifiers of adulthood, but I think that in dropping some of the tribal traditions once held by the majority of humankind, we lose the psychological milestones that really mark the transition from childhood to adulthood.

My wife and are were deep in conversation and contemplation about this recently and figured out that adulthood is really marked by

  • Knowing who you are:  confidently embracing your strengths and constructively identifying your weaknesses.  Having the courage and intestinal fortitude to admit your faults is a big part of being a grown-up.  As children / youth and young adults we often try on different identities:  styles of clothing, cliques, lifestyle groups, sub-cultures, etc. to see where we fit in.  We literally and figuratively wear different uniforms until we think we find one that fits.  As an adult, you find your “true north”, what it is you really believe in or want to be known for and learn how to act with integrity in being true to your ideals
  • Committing to progress:  admitting your faults is the first step…being willing to work on improving yourself is another marker of an adult perspective.  There is a big difference between saying ” i don’t wanna” and “it’s hard but i’ll try”. Grownups are willing to take off the blinders and try.  Man-boys and their female counterparts are the ones who expect others to just “accept me for who I am” without having to do the hard work of self-reflection.  This is probably the hardest part of being an adult
  • Picking your friends:  in the spirit of the previous two qualifiers, you know you are an adult when you can make the tough choices about which friends to keep and which ones take more value than they give.  When you know who you are and reach a level of comfort with that you no longer find it necessary to surround yourself with anyone who is interested.  You become more choiceful about surrounding yourself with people who respect and / or compliment your ideals.  You pragmatically embrace the concept of give and take that comes with maintaining relationships.  You don’t simply associate with groups or cliques because you think you should or want to belong…because you belong to yourself when you are an adult.
  • Being aware  and considerate of others:  as children we are self-centered entities:  trying to examine who we are, reacting to what others think of us, presuming that we are the center of the universe and focusing on the impact that most situations will have on us personally.  We prioritize our own needs and comfort as we are nurtured by adults who are trying to make us feel important.  But only by taking an interest in others can we truly put our own lives, needs and progress in context.  It’s easy to say “he/ she doesn’t understand me”, but in the words of Stephen Covey, you must “seek first to understand, then to be understood”
  • Taking responsibility for your own health happiness:  this goes along with knowing who you are and committing to progress but is more than that.  It’s about realizing that only you can make you happy…that your well-being is in your own hands and nobody else is responsible for making you comfortable in your own skin or keeping you healthy.

It sounds like a lot to digest and potentially slightly judgmental, I know.  But I think in our modern commercially driven world we associate adulthood with financial independence and forget about the responsibilities we have to ourselves and others when it comes to existing as human beings and social creatures.  We tend to cling to the things that bring us comfort or evoke nostalgia.  We focus on the pleasantries and shove the difficult stuff into our “creative process” and leave it there as an indulgence.

Being an adult is about more than must paying the bills and having expensive toys and caring for children: it’s about caring for yourself and having the guts to face the hard stuff and grow.  Growth is the ultimate definition of adulthood and I think we forget that the G word is as much about our self worth as it is about our net worth.

I think in our socially networked world we are so afraid to be alone that we forget to take the time to be alone with ourselves and look in the mirror and see if we like / know the person we are looking at.  When we are ready to go on that vision quest we are ready to be true-blue grown-ups.

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