April 08, 2011

Being A Grown-Up

Are you an adult? I’m not asking for a declaration of age, but of intent. Not a license to drink, buy lottery tickets, smoke, drive, or vote, but the sense of responsibility that ought to come with the lattermost of that list. I’m given to ask because of an article in the Wall Street Journal, essentially plugging a book called Manning Up: How the Rise of Women has turned Men into Boys by Kay S. Hymowitz. Apparently, there’s a new phase in the life cycle called ‘pre-adult’, which falls after adolescence and before adulthood proper, and is a synonym for ‘idiot’. This extension of the puerile state is one that we have probably all encountered, but it might be worth looking in the mirror, just to make sure you’re not a jerk.

The basic diagnosis is that a large number of young men (a typical example will hold a university degree and a sense of entitlement) who have had opportunities unique to their generation, have turned en masse into Bertie Wooster. Alas, they have no Jeeves, and thus, no restraint. Blessed with a disposable income, and with access to all the trappings of childhood that have been re-designed for the affluent twenty-something, they blunder through life without checks and balances, without responsibilities or a sense of ever wanting them, drinking and playing video games, and generally behaving as if life is one long frat party. They are really a deplorable lot.

I have personal experience with this new ‘difficult age’, for it is without doubt difficult to define adulthood for the up-and-coming graduate. But difficulty does not excuse a lack of effort. As some of my good friends will testify, I positively sought adulthood for many years. The forces outside ourselves will keep us locked in unsavoury patterns unless we move to assert ourselves. This move begins with the question, ‘what is my purpose?’ and finds its answers in responsibilities and duties of various kinds: personal, familial, and civic.

One must first ask how one is to be seen in the world, and to strive to be the best one can be. There is an element of the Golden Rule here, which I see as essentially reflexive. When we exhort ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’, we must first understand how we should wish to be done unto. If we set poor examples, and meander fecklessly through life, we can hardly be surprised if others treat us with aloof disregard. In order to serve others, we must first serve ourselves.

As the self is re-defined according to a model of goodness, the sense of relations to those dear to us take on a different aspect. The nature of friendship and family is slowly revealed for its true value. The importance of filial relations supersedes loose notions of fraternity, that essentially revolve around sexual conquest, alcohol and, these days, facebook gossip.

A sense of place is arrived at, and its context – the nation – comes into view. Define your nation as you will – the term has assumed a fluidity in recent times – but we shall not avoid a sense of civic responsibility that comes with a recognition of the value of that which we hold dear as adults. Understanding how we should be like to be done unto, and how we should like our friends and families to be done unto, requires a degree of striving and vigilance as a citizen lest the power structures of our reality threaten, or fall short of, our ideals of how life should be. The most appalling and dangerous symptom of the ‘pre-adult’ is his political apathy. As he happily rolls through life, he has no notion of the responsibility that comes with the freedom he enjoys. Be afraid of any young man who asserts that politics makes no difference to him.

Being a grown-up seems no longer to come naturally with age. If that is so, we had better start to think about what it takes.


  1. Doctor,

    you are advertising a political view of things now. It was once said to be more or less the comprehensive view of things, so good on you.
    But how to make it palatable? Words like responsibility are bad enough; the more political notions are even worse - always, there is a suggestion of the difficulty, of the burden, of the pain involved.
    You cannot compel people with your writings; in fact, you might be too gentle to do it if you could. How to persuade them then? How do you make necessity or hardship attractive?
    Who finds these difficult things choiceworthy?

  2. It is precisely because we have become accustomed only to doing that which is easy and pleasant that one needs to make this point. Our methods are shallow and our rewards concomitantly meagre. The difficult things offer far greater rewards, but it is not the end we must advertise but the means. The hard road travelled is in itself formative. If we cannot persuade people to travel it, we may have to drag them.

  3. Greetings from sunny Melbourne VB!
    I agree with all of your observations. One aspect of modern life that adds to the problem you've discussed is the lack of affordable housing for 1st home buyers. I can't speak about the overseas situation but here, many 'kids' are forced to remain at home because they cannot afford (or are unwilling to spend the money) to buy even a modest home. (As you can imagine, the parents are thrilled to have junior hanging around well into his/her 40s!) So, our society has thousands of university graduates on excellent salaries who are still living with mummy and daddy and many of these pathetic adolescents become indignant when asked to pay for their board, meals, washing and ironing. I had to man-up from a young age due to circumstances beyond my control so I have no empathy with such overpaid spoilt brats and I also have no sympathy for the overly indulgent parents.

    On a lighter note. I have been raising my sartorial bar as I vowed in my previous response. I have been sporting my preferred ensembs - bow ties, cardigans, grey flannels and brogues. I call it my Harvard professor look!!
    Best wishes,

  4. Top hole Ian! The Harvard professor look sounds just fine.

    You know, in Germany buying a house isn't the be all and end all. Even affluent professionals are renters. All these parents are just far too indulgent.

  5. Excellent post, VB. Reggie has railed against the deplorable infantilization that pervades his country, in manners of speech, dress, decorum, and politics, for some time now. Our nation (and increasingly the rest of the world) is full of too many people who may have grown up, at least as measured in the passage of time, but are anything but adult. Grow up, guys and gals!

  6. Ach, I have been wrestling with this head-on all day.

    It does feel very hard. But, it can't be avoided, if I'm to sit comfortably with me.

  7. Our culture makes an all-encompassing fetish out of "freedom". Freedom is certainly one of the most basic values, but it cannot be divorced from responsibility - they are the two sides of one coin. For all the constant pushing of freedom tropes, there is very little about responsibility.

  8. Simply shaming men won't do any good, especially when the Julie Klausner's of the world want commitment after giving themselves away for free in the neon-lit brothel of whichever city you please. Men have been and are willing to support the institutions of marriage, family and civic life, but by and large these are no longer shaped from durable material.


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