The Increasingly Difficult Task of “Adulting”

“I just don’t think I’m ready to get married, have kids, and do all that. She and I are still learning to adult,” said a friend of mine the other day. He and his girlfriend have been together for several years, are both in their late 20s, and enjoyed steady employment.

Although trivial and mundane, this statement offers some important insights into today’s culture, particularly regarding the present fertility crisis. While demographers have cited economic or environmental motives for refusing to have kids, the matter may be much simpler: today’s adults are just not ready for adulthood. People in their 20s and 30s do not want to take on responsibility, make commitments, or work hard. 

Besides not having children, they will often avoid other “adult” things like owning a house, working long hours, and even keeping up steady friendships, let alone getting married. These things are too hard, and they’re not ready to take them on quite yet. First, they have to travel the world, earn a graduate degree, and binge-watch The Office for the umpteenth time. 

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Someone may object that this is always the case with a new generation—they sow their wild oats, enjoy what the world has to offer, and then settle down. But this is a relatively recent phenomenon, and it’s evidently having an impact on population growth. At some point in the past two decades, a majority of adults have lost the will and means to cope with the usual trials that normally accompany adulthood. 

A multitude of factors have contributed to this outcome. The main ones are technology, formal education, and modern parenting. Beyond this has been the permissive influence of the Church, which should have said something but didn’t.

At the forefront is technology, specifically the internet and smartphones. The ability to connect with other people online fundamentally altered social interaction by making it optional. One does not need others around them, nor do they need to accommodate anyone in turn. Their social needs are met by the content on their screens, which informs, entertains, and comforts them. This allows them to live on their own terms—and subsequently feel alienated from any real community.

Education has also played a large role in adult-phobic adults. In K-12 schools and universities, students have increasingly been conditioned to avoid serious challenges. While a small portion of students endure severe trials to be at the top in academics or athletics, the great majority coast from grade-level to grade-level without exerting much effort. Instead of confronting these students and pushing them to do more, too many teachers have been told to make the work even easier and “more engaging.” 

But in all fairness to teachers, much of this is a response to parents who have come to hover over their children like helicopters or eliminate all obstacles in front of their kids like lawnmowers cutting grass (hence the terms “helicopter parent” and “lawnmower parent”). All too often, parenting today has become synonymous with coddling. The general expectation is for parents to protect their kids from everything, often including basic reality. If a child feels any kind of distress, a “loving” parent will handle it.

This approach may bring peace of mind to worried parents who don’t like seeing their children suffer, but it brings no end of worry for the child who now must belatedly learn “to adult” as he or she leaves the protective cocoons of home and school. Far from celebrating their independence, they reflexively run for cover, finding an employer who will pay them enough to have a place to rent along with a high-speed internet connection. From there, they will largely abscond from the expectations of adulthood and seek outlets for escape.

One would think that Christian pastors would have something to say about this, but too many have looked on, assuming all those young people would see the light and come back to the faith. Once they worked a real job and started their family, they would see the need for a spiritual life, so the thinking went. Now though, it’s clear that many of them would never reach that point, and consequently they would never return to the church in which they were raised.

And thus, the birthrate has been below replacement levels and dipping even further. At its heart, it is a cultural issue more than an economic one. Nevertheless, most experts on the topic point to urbanization and the diminishing need for children to work on a farm. Yet this is a crude and mostly inaccurate explanation of what’s really happening. 

True, more of the population in the developed world have moved to the city; but they have done so because the city provides amenities that make independent adulthood less necessary. When one’s needs are met and challenges are minimized, an individual doesn’t ever become strong enough to take on the rigors of independent adulthood. It is possible and more appealing to put it off indefinitely. 

That means that no amount of welfare given to parents is going to change anyone’s mind about having children. While most parents would enjoy the extra money, most would attest that the extra money doesn’t make the work of parenting that much easier. Even with everything paid for, children need their parents’ love and commitment, which involves time, effort, and often a strong religious faith to persevere. It is the strong people who become parents, and they grow even stronger from the experience.

This brings up an important question: is modern life incompatible with adulthood since it is specially designed to make a person weaker and more dependent? Not necessarily. Nearly all developed nations are experiencing a declining birthrate, with one important exception: Israel. This is because few other developed countries have been subjected to so much adversity on a regular basis. Israelis have to mature quickly, as they have to keep safe from rockets, terrorists, and a slew of hostile neighboring countries. As a result, many of them are not afraid to marry and have children.

As it stands here in the United States, the millennials and now the iGen who shun family life either receive scorn from pro-family conservatives or praise from “antinatalist” progressives. It would be better to understand what has dissuaded them from making homes of their own and follow this up with some encouragement. 

Millennials and iGens need to know that they are missing out on so much when they refuse to take up adulthood in all its glory. It’s difficult, yes, but it’s also beautiful, fulfilling, and way more interesting than anything else this life has to offer.

[Photo Credit: Unsplash]


  • Auguste Meyrat

    Auguste Meyrat is an English teacher and department chair in north Texas. He has a BA in Arts and Humanities from University of Texas at Dallas and an MA in Humanities from the University of Dallas.

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