Why millennials think adulthood is a scam

If you think about it, Midsommar is actually the perfect coming-of-age movie. As in, age is coming for you. For the film’s fictional cult, each life stage is very firmly defined — from 18 to 36 you’re in the “summer” of your life, and from 36 to 54 is fall. At age 72, life is over. The movie is violent, but the existential horror stems from our collective obsession with and ritualisation of how someone must exist (or stop existing) in society. And though it’s taken to an absurd extreme in Midsommar, there’s something recognisable in how uncompromising and painful it is to grow up and grow old in this world.

If we’re lucky, we spend most of our lives legally as adults, but the finger-wagging and navel-gazing about who has actually achieved adulthood sometimes makes it seem like we’ll never grow up. The oldest millennials are 40 — already enjoying that brisk fall weather — but the generation has long been portrayed in the media as being perpetually young, or at least childish. Now, according to some, it’s the pandemic that will “finally” make millennials take adulthood more seriously. After a harrowing year of quarantine, it’s being said, millennials are wising up — you know, grown-up stuff. The implication is that delaying or denying this transition means you’re not totally future-oriented, existing in the moment like a child who hasn’t mastered object permanence yet.

But what is adulthood, anyway? It feels like it’s easier to define it by what it isn’t than what it is. You’re not fully an adult if you don’t live by yourself, if you don’t have a well-paying career (different than just “a job”), if you haven’t partnered up or had children. Meanwhile, millennials can’t seem to shake the stigma that we’re self-indulgent; we switch jobs too often, we have no respect for stability and good ole fashioned hard work. Avocados can turn mushy fast, but avo toast discourse stays perfectly ripe forever.

When we keep litigating whether millennials (and even younger generations) are taking up the mantle of adulthood in the right way, what are we really talking about? Often, it’s not genuine concern over whether we’re happy, healthy, and thriving in society. Instead, it’s using the excuse of financial independence — what many consider a clear marker of adulthood — to criticise the way young people relate to money, and to make it seem like any financial difficulties they face are their own fault.

So many of the ways millennials are apparently failing to be adults have to do with how little money we have due to our childish ways, but a lot of the generational stereotypes of laziness or fickleness are easily countered by data. For one, millennials are not job-hoppers.

What millennials have had to contend with are multiple recessions that have limited career advancement and wage growth. “Even though previous generations have experienced recessions and they’ve experienced major economic dislocations, on average the economy has recovered more than it has for us,” Gray Kimbrough says. “There was a study looking at the Great Recession that found that, particularly for the younger Gen Xers and older millennials, it impacted the trajectory of their earnings over the next decade. You find a job that works, that’s paying you, and you stick with it — when in a better time you might keep looking for a better job that would offer you more growth potential in a place that you’d rather be.”

When we think about how the economy is growing generally, as well as how it’s treating people who are entering the labour force, things have gotten particularly bad in recent decades,” he says.

One reflection of that is how, despite being the most educated generation ever, overall, millennials’ median wage is lower than that of Boomers. The benefit of higher education is also not as high as it once was, because more people are getting higher academic certificates and also because University itself is so unmanageably expensive.

Many millennials recognise that we’re “lagging behind” Baby Boomers and even Gen X, but I don’t think we really grasp how different our world is. But several factors will affect how long this tipping point will take. For one, people are living longer. Even if our income rises, we’ll have to save more money for retirement, and inheritances will come later since our parents are generally living longer too.

When so much of the adulthood conversation surrounds milestones that both require money or are signs of a certain level of financial security, like homeownership and marriage, it feels like we’re saying that being an adult is about accumulating wealth. But, if you’re never going to own a home, if you’re never going to get an inheritance, then can you ever fully grow up? Is the social respect that comes with being a bonafide adult only for people who have money, who understand money, who embrace the systems of wealth accumulation?

This is why the term “adulting” is awful. I hate it. First, it’s twee. But besides that, to use it means to basically agree that millennials don’t exist in a permanent state of adulthood. We’re cosplaying through minor adult-adjacent behaviour like paying phone bills and doing laundry, but to be an adult requires something more — something more expensive. In the end, “adulting” is an expression of anxiety, where the very fact that you feel anxious about the way money works is evidence that you’re immature. But being an adult doesn’t mean you never feel insecure, confused, or out of your depth; it definitely doesn’t mean you internalise normative ideas of how adults live. We don’t have to pretend to be adolescent imposters just to admit there’s turbulence in adulthood today.

Clearly, our economic reality makes many traditional markers of adulthood harder to attain — but the best rebuttal isn’t always “it’s not our fault” or “we’re doing our best.” It might be to question why these markers are even desirable to begin with. Why is it assumed that, between owning a house in the suburbs or renting an apartment in the city, a rational adult would always choose the former? Why is it assumed that homeownership is something everyone wants eventually? Or at all? Same goes for marriage and having children.

I’m not romanticising financial insecurity. But there’s a difference between wanting stability and entertaining mythology that says “I’m a less serious person if I don’t have a mortgage.”

I’m not alone in how the pandemic — and adulthood more broadly — has sharpened my values and politics. Our worldview is often formed by the era in which we enter adulthood. There’s a popular notion that people naturally become more conservative with age, but this isn’t really true. People’s political views remain fairly stable throughout their life. Some even theorise that the perception of becoming more conservative exists because poor people are so much less likely to reach old age in the U.S. How long you get to enjoy adulthood is a privilege of wealth, too.

Adulthood isn’t a prescription, but a description of what life is like for people of a certain generation, and what choices are available to them. It would be nice if the future were a place where different conceptions of adulthood not only are respected, but where anyone can be a secure, happy adult — even if they aren’t rich.

by Whizy Kim, from Refinery29

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