‘Adult’ is Not a Verb by John Stonestreet
There’s a new word touted by Webster that exposes a crisis in our culture of generational proportions.
It’s been called a lot of things: “Peter Pan Syndrome” or my favorite, “failure to launch,” but whatever the term, the phenomenon is undeniable. A record number of young people today are getting stuck in the transition between childhood and adulthood.
Despite attending college in record numbers, millennials seem to struggle to move on to the next phase of life. Just a decade ago, a healthy majority of young adults were able to successfully fledge. Now, those who’ve managed to leave the nest are a minority.
Of course, the recession and a sluggish job market are factors. Millennials do have tougher career prospects than their parents did. But the economy isn’t the only explanation, and the language young people use to talk about adulthood makes that obvious.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse announced that Twitter had turned the noun “adult” into a verb. “#Adulting” is what kids post on social media to congratulate themselves for the rather ordinary feats of paying the bills, finishing the laundry, or just getting to work on time.
“I adulted!” goes the saying, as if fulfilling daily responsibilities is somehow above and beyond the call of duty. “Adulting” has become so universally recognized that the American Dialect Society nominated it for the most creative word of 2015.
“To a growing number of Americans,” writes Sasse, “acting like a grown-up seems like a kind of role-playing, a mode of behavior requiring humorous detachment.”
This isn’t just the complaint of a crotchety old man about young whipper-snappers. What we’re witnessing today, insists the senator, is a trend toward “perpetual adolescence,”—a “coming-of-age crisis,” that shows up as a real and measurable reduction in the difference between 10-year-olds and 30-year-olds.
But if our kids don’t know what it means to be adults, parents, we should be asking ourselves, are we teaching them? Isolation in peer groups of the same age, widespread complacency toward history and ethics, unbridled consumerism, and even those infamous participation trophies have all contributed to this crisis.
We’ d do well to remember what C. S. Lewis wrote in “The Abolition of Man” of those who “remove the organ and demand the function,” who “make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise,” who “castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
Senator Sasse offers steps to reverse the trend of perpetual adolescence and to help kids from an early age understand the meaning of adulthood. Teach them the difference, he says, between a “need” and a “want,” embrace hard work together, travel meaningfully, and read widely. These are all important steps to forming mature citizens.
Older generations must start investing in the lives of young adults. Summarizing relevant research in 2013, The Boston Globe reported a staggering statistic: Only a quarter of Americans 60 and older had discussed anything important with anyone under 36 in the previous six months! Exclude relatives and that figure dropped to a mortifying 6 percent. How alien this would have sounded to the Apostle Paul, who in Titus 2 urges older men and older women to teach the younger.
Only by connecting and investing in their lives can we reasonably expect our kids, our grandkids, and their peers to understand that “adult” is not something you do. It’s someone you are.