Adulthood Isn’t Dead — It’s Just Growing Up

Is adulthood dead in American culture? This morning, the New York Times published a fascinating essay by their film critic, A.O. Scott, arguing that the decline of traditional patriarchal figures in the arts and entertainment has bound what’s left in a sort of perpetual adolescence. (If you’re thinking that you’ve heard people make the exact same argument about society as a whole, you’re not alone.) To his credit, Scott is smart enough — and his argument is nuanced enough — to mostly avoid yelling at clouds. Still, I disagree that pop culture has “killed off all the grown-ups.” In fact, if you look closely, you might find that traditional depictions of adulthood are just being replaced by more realistic ones. That may well involve perpetual adolescence, but it doesn’t have to.

It’s worth noting that Scott is largely looking at male adulthood here — in fairness, he devotes a few paragraphs to what he calls “the age of the difficult TV mom,” but essentially the adulthood he’s addressing is patriarchal adulthood, where the adult man is the one people look to for answers and protection and support. I’m sure other writers will take him to task for this, and there’s certainly a criticism to be made of an article purporting to be about “adulthood” that really only addresses one side of the equation. But the points that he makes are interesting ones, and given that the whole idea of adulthood reflects inherently patriarchal power structures, I don’t think it’s invalid to focus on the way that male adulthood is changing in culture (or, indeed, in real life).

It’s not so much that culture is abandoning adulthood; it’s more that culture is deconstructing it. It’s fascinating to watch old American TV shows and think about how much they reinforced the idea of traditional patriarchy, where women deferred to men and children to adults. (I mean, Christ, we’re talking about a TV industry that literally produced a show called Father Knows Best.) There’s certainly something wonderfully incisive in Scott’s thesis that American culture is and has always been somewhat sophomoric: as he points out, the figure of the hero shrugging off convention and authority manifests innumerable times, from the plucky kid to the brave cop gone rogue through to the idolization of people like Steve Jobs. And of course, it’s not just culture — there’s something impressively juvenile about Tea Party types stamping their feet and saying, no, they WON’T do what the mean old government tells them to do!

But even in rebelling against parental authority (be it surrogate or actual), the works Scott cites — The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Moby-Dick, etc. — still serve to reinforce the idea of adults as a sort of monolithic group of authority figures, of people who are In Charge. This idea persists, to an extent, but as Scott’s piece does a good job of identifying, the facade is crumbling.

In this respect, culture merely reflects what’s happening in the world that spawns it — masculinity itself is in a far more fluid concept than it used to be, traditionally adult occupations (trades, manual labor, farming) are in decline, and on a larger scale, the veneer of power America itself enjoyed in the 21st century is crumbling. These are uncertain times, and many old sureties suddenly seem less sure, for better or worse. (It’s notable, for instance, that 20th-century conspiracy theories involve the fact that those in authority are terrifyingly competent and able to orchestrate large evil schemes, whereas their 21st-century equivalents tend to involve those in power being kinda useless.)

One often hears that “adolescence is a 20th-century invention,” the product of increased disposable income, more leisure time, and a lengthier process of education. But, of course, the idea of adulthood is also, in a social sense, an arbitrary construct — physical adulthood is something that is empirically verifiable, but emotional adulthood is rather more nebulous, as anyone who’s ever spent any time around tech bros or Twitter knows only too well. There’s probably a lengthy PhD thesis to be written about constructions of adulthood in culture over the centuries: the research is outside the scope of this piece, but I’d imagine that beyond a certain point, the idea of adulthood would have been synonymous with physical maturity, so that the concept of what we call “adulthood” — the idealized end result of a long period of education and socialization — would be confusing and irrelevant.

Historically, being an adult has been a role foisted upon people of a certain age, the implication being that as soon as you passed puberty, life would cease to be fun and start to be serious, as if the two were mutually exclusive. (And if you grew up poor, the idea of childhood probably never existed either — you were just old enough to have your own children, and get them to work as soon as possible.) As a child, you’re led to believe that grown-ups know best, that they understand what’s going on, that they know what to do. But, of course, that has always been a myth. No one’s ever known how to be a grown-up. Adulthood is a process of working shit out as best you can.

Clearly, there’s a mental and emotional difference between childhood and adulthood, and clearly experience does lend some surety and confidence — I’m not A.O. Scott’s age, but at 36 I certainly feel I have something of a firmer grasp on my life than I did at 26, or 16. I suppose I’m technically a grown-up. But you never really lose that feeling of being alone and wondering what the hell you’re supposed to be doing — indeed, I’d argue that’s at the core of human experience. You just learn to mask it better. And I’m sure that hasn’t changed in millennia.

If anything, the difference between adulthood as it’s presented in contemporary culture and how it’s been depicted in the past is that today’s writers depict this idea with gusto. The difference between, say, Don Draper and the patriarchs of the past is not that Don doesn’t know what to do, but that he is depicted as confused and increasingly impotent. It’s not that such characters haven’t existed before — but their bewilderment has usually manifested as the result of some sort of crisis, not as an inherent aspect of their character.

In fairness, Scott isn’t silly, and he realizes this as well as anyone else: “It isn’t only that patriarchy in the strict, old-school Don Draper sense has fallen apart. It’s that it may never really have existed in the first place, at least in the way its avatars imagined. Which raises the question: Should we mourn the departed or dance on its grave?”

For what it’s worth, I don’t think we need to do either. I think, if anything, what you might call the new adolescence is just a better portrayal of adulthood, a portrait of what’s left when you slough of the fictional patriarchy of the past. It’s not so much a rebuttal of adulthood as it is a depiction of adulthood as it really is, beneath the mask: confused, muddled, frightening. It’s an acknowledgement that no one really knows how to be a grown-up, and that all you can do is try — or not try, in which case you may find yourself cast in a late-career Judd Apatow movie.

Scott suggests, “Adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable” — but really, it was ever thus. The social changes wrought by second- and third-wave feminism are usually, and not unreasonably, thought of in the context of the role of women in society. But they’ve also encouraged men to drop the mask they’ve been trying to wear for generations, to stop pretending that father knows best and start admitting (to themselves, in particular) that they are just trying to figure shit out. If anything, I’d argue that’s being a grown-up: being honest with yourself, admitting your limitations and failings, and learning to accept them. There are plenty of “adults” who never do this.

Including, inter alia, one Don Draper. If Don throws himself through that window — and I suspect he will — it’ll be because he didn’t grow up, because he never really stopped being Dick Whitman, no matter how hard he tried. He was never really a grownup; he was a scared, traumatized boy trying to play a role. Which, in its own way, is infinitely more tragic.