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.