How it became more aspirational than inevitable

Technology is often depicted as infantilizing — it makes life seem like a matter of entertainment, or passivity, or convenience, rather than the rigors of personal responsibility and self-sacrifice. Sometimes this view is explicit, as when critics lament a juvenile tone in digital media and wax nostalgic for an earlier era of seriousness — a longstanding mode of cultural conservatism that launders fears of social change into a haughty, dismissive contempt. Other times, it takes a more subtle form as a kind of utopianism: Tech can resolve our fears of aging by giving us life-preserving shortcuts and promising perpetual access to youthfulness. Keeping up to date with technology is a means to staying forever young: just master this new app, join this social network, learn these current memes.

Adulthood is sometimes framed as a matter of having a family of one’s own, or being a self-supporting productive member of society, or having given up on “dreams” and “ideals” to become realistic. That is, adulthood is understood not as a natural maturation process but an assumption of an ideological mantle. So maybe “What does it mean to be an adult?” is not the pertinent question, but why we feel obliged to ask that question that way. Why worry about it at all?

“Adulting” is an irritating cliché, but it indicates that certain definitions of adulthood don’t work anymore, that the characteristics of maturity have been diffused, in some cases made deliberately or systematically inaccessible. Contemporary life makes tremendous emotional, psychological, and political demands that many don’t feel capable of meeting. Adulthood is at once aspirational and abominable. It’s where we end up without seeming to deserve or understand it, its opaque rules serving as a comfort or a cop out. As a concept, “adult” typically pre-empts analysis of where we’re trying to go, what we are trying to be, and why we are so anxious about achieving it.

The acrimony between boomers and millennials is a stock drama at this point: Boomers say that millennials are childish and irresponsible, while millennials say boomers bequeathed them a world in which “conventional” adulthood is no longer possible. The flip side of this sentiment is a lionization of “the youth” — the savior-making of Generation Z, a blind faith that young people, who are supposedly endlessly capable of understanding new technologies and uncorrupted by the prejudice that older people are unable to totally excise. Younger generations are assigned the responsibility of saving us all.

The idea of closing a “generation gap” — between, say, boomers and millennials — depends on a refracted, emptied concept of adulthood. Often the phrase captures not miscomprehension between cohorts as much as a generalized dread of obsolescence and hope that there is some protection to be had in a label, in belonging to a subset with a relatively stabilized set of norms.

While the proliferation of “microgenerations” can seem to create fissures between those born even half a decade apart, social media have also facilitated a sort of intergenerational mixing as never before — shared interfaces between individuals who might never have had one. This emphasizes “age” not as a defining empirical fact of one’s life but an adoptive characteristic. Being “old” appears as a choice, one that can be intermittently abandoned or reversed.

This week Rachel Giese critiques the valorization of youth as magic, hyper-evolved world saviors, particularly following the Parkland shooting. She argues that this tendency is the flip side of an old argument that posits teens as doomed phone-addicted zombies. Both views serve to dehumanize kids and absolve adults of responsibility.

Tiana Reid explores how the construction of the black family as perverse exposes the flimsy boundary between normative and taboo adulthoods. These forms of family life are being defined in social media practices and interpretations of them but in a way that doesn’t adequately take race into account. Centering black families and black adulthood tropes reveals that inadequacy and shows an alternative way to understand the preoccupations with adulthood in a capitalist society.

And Hanif Abdurraqib writes about growing older at a time when age can seem less like a number than a characteristic, an aesthetic that one can opt in or out of. This is helped by the fact of connectivity: one can belong to a community, however defined, of those together alone at home.

In a way, we are all being constantly reborn: the rate of acceleration for tech, culture, even intimate relationships is so rapid that conservatism feels untenable and some nebulous idea of “evolution” imperative. But evolution is not teleology: There is no certain destination at which we can expect to arrive, and no one we can count on to meet us there.


“Children’s Crusade,” by Rachel Giese

“Move On Up,” by Tiana Reid

“Acting My Age,” by Hanif Abdurraqib

Thank you for your consideration. Visit us next week for Real Life’s upcoming installment, YOUTUBE GENRES, featuring belief, manipulation, embodiment, and home.