by B.D. McClay
For the other animals, adulthood is easy. One obtains sexual maturity and there you are. For human beings, however, adulthood is a matter of self-inflicted complexity, because it involves attaining a moral and often material status as much as a physical one. Contemporary adulthood, in particular, is so internal a matter as to be a subject of constant personal and public anxiety. That is to say, even someone who acquires all the material trappings of adulthood—a job, a spouse, progeny, financial independence, a house—may not feel much like an “adult,” any more than the unmarried single person who wonders if these achievements would in some way cement a life. Instead, adulthood becomes a state of not needing, materially or emotionally, that lasts until the decline of one’s health in old age.
For Americans, there’s another wrinkle. As a country that has always defined itself both pridefully and insecurely against an older world, the United States is not too settled on whether adulthood is a satisfying condition. Indeed, the American adult who looks around and thinks, is this adulthood? I was told there would be more, is a literary cliché. Faced with adulthood and its attendant domesticities and responsibilities, American heroes run; not invariably, but often enough. So if you title your book The Vanishing American Adult, as Ben Sasse does, just about every term in the title raises a question.
Sasse’s own book opens with a warning that the kind of economy that rewarded this kind of work is about to go out the door and never come back, but the rest is a plea that the habits the economy supposedly rewarded remain in place without the reward.
Suppose adulthood were not synonymous with independence, not synonymous with working, not synonymous with grit or with achievement.
When we of the so-called better classes are scared as men were never scared in history at material ugliness and hardship; when we put off marriage until our house can be artistic, and quake at the thought of having a child without a bank-account and doomed to manual labor, it is time for thinking men to protest against so unmanly and irreligious a state of opinion.
But though James often celebrates a certain kind of willfulness—choosing to believe, choosing to live, choosing to do the hard thing—he disdained, at the same time, what he called “the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS.” His desire was for people to stop being so afraid of losing status that they were unwilling to live. His disdain is aimed entirely at the wealthy, who are too frightened of losing what they have to take a risk, build a life, or have a family. And if he were writing now, he might take on a different kind of fear—not of poverty, but of this future without work. What is your adulthood, he might ask, if it can’t exist without this prop? Don’t you know that there are many people who have never been able to beself-reliant, to work? Can’t you live if this is taken away?
Suppose adulthood were not synonymous with independence, not synonymous with working, not synonymous with grit or with achievement. Suppose adulthood is instead about accepting dependence, that you can’t take care of everything on your own, that you have limits; suppose the story we need is not the one about the worker who always says yes, but the person who is willing to say no—to the boss, to the job, to work. If we are heading into the post-work future, then the solution is not to double down on the American worship of work, but to build a future in which the American adult can exist with or without it. There have been other spheres—the domestic, to pick one not entirely random example—in which people have been able to cultivate virtue, derive identity, and contribute to society. But work—Boxer-the-carthorse work, nimble-entrepreneur work—is going away. It’s not coming back. It’s time for us to face that future—which is to say, it’s time to grow up.
B.D. McClay is associate editor of The Hedgehog Review. She has written for Commonweal, Books & Culture, and First Things, among other publications.