Not so long ago, “adult” was either a noun roughly equivalent to “grown-up” or an adjective used for racy movies. But sometime in the last five to 10 years, “adult” has become equally ubiquitous—at least on the internet—as a verb. “Adulting” is now a catchall term for the irritating quotidian things that are a part of most of our, yes, adult lives: filling out paperwork, buying paper towels, doing taxes, dealing with health insurance claims, cleaning the bathroom, and on and on. The word is usually used with a sense of either helplessness or self-congratulation. As in: “Ugh, overslept my alarm, bad at adulting today,” or “Yay! Paid my taxes! #adulting.”
It’s true that learning how to be a person in the world is difficult. It is, in fact, a lifelong process and the name of a very good advice book from Heather Havrilesky. Most of us could use some help and advice on unfamiliar terrain, whether it’s home repair or dating. (NYLON, in fact, has a column of tips like these called Adultify, which does just that.)
“Adulting” is the province of millennials. This is reason enough for many critics to hate it. Sure, the word often reads as needlessly cutesy. But it’s a useful word too, because it illustrates something that’s long been true about American culture: Our conception of what makes someone an adult is deeply rooted in classism.
Implied in a term like “adulting” is the idea that there’s a real division of labor between children and adults, and the perception of this divide goes something like this: Children are sheltered from actual responsibilities until college, or after college, or until some hazy date in the future, when their parents cut off their funding and they have to fend for themselves. It is adults who take care of all the fiddly annoying parts of life, while children are free to roam wild.
Sure, that’s the case for some people. But those people are generally privileged and relatively wealthy. Maybe they need to “learn” how to be adults once they’re out on their own, but not all young people do. “Adulting,” then, generalizes the privileged experience and presumes it’s universal, even though it’s not. The real-life experience of the subset of Americans between 18 and 30 is incredibly vast, both in childhood and adulthood. Many kids, millennials and otherwise, had to become self-sufficient at an early age for one reason or another. Household chores and budgeting come with the territory for many kids growing up. See also: summer or after-school jobs, paperwork, laundry, cooking, and caring for younger siblings or other relatives, all which fall neatly under the category of “adulting” activities.
“Adulting” began as a phrase and has become an industry. There are mugs, T-shirts, and throw pillows with jokes about adulting on them. There are decorating guides and cookbooks and a whole range of objects sold under the guise of adulthood. In fact, real adulthood, if you consult the internet, seems to be mostly about lifestyle creep, as seen in articles like “How to Decorate a Rental Like An Adult” (buy plants, buy paintings, buy wall hangings) and “How to Pre-Game Like a Grown-Up” (buy some pre-dinner aperitifs). Adulthood seems to mostly be about having and spending money.
There’s good reason that this idea exists. “Adult” is a loaded term, and it’s one that’s often defined by the life experiences of a certain subset of white men. Every year or two, another big think piece comes out from a writer decrying the end of adulthood as they know it. A classic in this genre is A.O. Scott’s “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,” in which he asserts: “It seems that, in doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly killed off all the grown-ups.” He also decries the rise of YA literature and ties the whole thing into the series finale of Mad Men. (These pieces happened more frequently when Mad Men was on the air.) If being an adult means having the same experience of one particular subset of wealthy white men, well, no wonder adulthood seems alien to a lot of people who will never be white, male, or wealthy. There’s an idea that real, authentic adulthood is achieved when your income reaches a certain dollar amount, and not when you reach some level of maturity. There’s an idea of authentic adults versus people who are secretly children. It’s a handy way of pretending that other people with different backgrounds, thought processes, or income levels aren’t as grown-up as you. And it’s a lie.
Adulthood isn’t some secret level in a video game. You aren’t less of an adult if you prefer T-shirts to ties or if you have trouble playing your taxes. You aren’t less of an adult if you like video games and hate Scotch, or if you can’t afford to shop at Pottery Barn. Do you drink wine out of a coffee cup instead of a stemmed glass? You’re still an adult. If you’re over 18, guess what? You’re an adult now. And you get to decide what that means.