Adulthood crept up on me quickly, the way a shadow suddenly appears over your shoulders in a horror film.
It began with a few parking tickets. Then I took out some school loans. Then, one time, my car broke down, and I called AAA instead of my dad. I had a job and bills to pay and a rent check to sign every month. Suddenly, the future felt like an immediate monster, rather than a faraway fear.
Despite being saddled with the responsibilities of adulthood, I don’t yet feel like an adult. The other day, I ate a churro for dinner. I lead a largely sedentary lifestyle, and have no plans to change that. I haven’t been to the dentist since my parents stopped making appointments for me. My favorite shows are the teen soaps that air on ABC Family. After assessing these lifestyle choices, it feels fraudulent to call myself an adult. If pressed to self-identify, I’d call myself a proto-adult; maybe an adult teen.
I’m not alone. Jokes about adulthood—and our inability to completely inhabit our roles as grownups—dominate the Internet and pop culture. They're sometimes qualified with the phrase “because I’m an adult”—a justification tacked onto the end of a poor decision. Consider, for example, Mindy Kaling’s appearance on Conan last March, when she told an audience she eats whatever she wants—specifically, high-calorie meals at McDonald’s “because I’m an adult”.
On Twitter, in particular, these jokes flourish. A quick search for the phrase “because I’m an adult” generates quips about eating ice cream for breakfast and watching the Disney channel. We finally have control over our own lives, and these are the decisions we make because we're adults: buying coloring books, playing video games, and sleeping in. These jokes make a farce out of adulthood. They reveal life's ultimate deception: that adulthood is a childish illusion; that adults are imposters, liars in suits.
The other joke, here, is that you can never self-identify as an adult. You must be recognized as one by your tribe (e.g. the moment you stop being carded at the door). Calling yourself an adult is as good as an admission that you aren’t one because real adults never have to justify themselves. "Because I'm adult" jokes are like fake IDs at the bar—an obvious indication that you’re not part of the club.
Having taken full appraisal of My lifestyle choices, it feels fraudulent to call myself an adult. If pressed to self-identify, I’d call myself a proto-adult. Maybe an adult teen.
People who aren't full-fledged adults may still be “adulting”—but this is a purely performative act. Search “adulting” on Twitter, and you’ll see college kids complaining about paying their bills, 20-somethings announcing their first credit card, and young professionals discussing health insurance. But these people are not adults; they're just going through the motions of adulthood. They may dress the part, but the clothes still hang loose on them.
Modern pop culture has endless examples of people who are not adults, but merely practice adulting. Kaling’s alter ego on The Mindy Project, a teen girl living in a grown woman's body, is one such example. She’s obsessed with love, but incompetent when it comes to relationships. She dresses the way a 13-year-old wishes adults would dress. She’s often immature, childish, selfish, and inconsiderate of other people. Hannah Horvath (played by Lena Dunham), a flighty writer who must somehow survive without the cushion of her parent’s financial support, also exemplifies this archetype in HBO's Girls. Meanwhile on New Girl, Jake Johnson and Lamorne Morris’ characters play men who refuse to grow up and can't seem to hold down "adult" jobs.
But the most significant contributions to Hollywood's pantheon of maturity-challenged characters come from director Judd Apatow, whose films almost exclusively focus on man-child protagonists. Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and This is 40, among many others, are about people who try to adult, but are incapable of being adults. They lose jobs. They eat ice cream for breakfast. They fail at relationships, both romantic and platonic.
Even the Don Drapers and Walter Whites of our cultural landscape couldn’t make it stick. Adulthood was a failed enterprise for both characters, who spent their lives feeling like imposters, and trying to hide that fact by masquerading as adults. Eventually, though, even their own children started to see through the veneer of age.
At some point in recent history, adulthood stopped being a fact of life, and instead became a vague aspiration. “Adulting” isn’t about age—it's about our roles within and relationship to the consumer economy. It’s about the jobs we hold (full-time or part-time?) and the things we buy (Cheetos or kale?). What differentiates children from adults is the acquisition and control of money.
Indeed, society only recognized childhood after kids stopped working; at that point, we began spinning the myth of childhood, enabling our youngest to enjoy an early life free of adult stress. Given widening class disparities in recent years, though, childhood has become less of a promise and more like a fairy tale—and it’s one we barely believe in. The United States is reportedly the only country on Earth to incarcerate children for life without parole. And if the enemy of childhood is poverty, than how do we contend with 32 percent of children in the U.S. living below the line?
This, too, is the reality of adulthood. We are no longer capable of being the adults our parents and grandparents were because our social and economic conditions will not allow it. How many 20-somethings do you know have no health insurance and benefits? How many 20-somethings do you know have a hard time paying rent? How 20-somethings do you know work as contractors in the gig economy, supplementing their income by moonlighting as Uber and Lyft drivers?
Being an adult means financial independence from our parents and from the generation that came before us. But we’re working within an economic reality that has made that kind of independence impossible because it doesn’t pay us enough to survive. We are the first generation of young adults to earn less money than our parents.
We joke about adulthood because adulthood is a joke. The suit and tie, the briefcase, and all those other outdated cultural signifiers of maturity no longer seem relevant to the lives we lead today. But we also joke about adulthood because we know the adult dream that was sold to us—a mortgage, a four-door sedan, two-and-a-half children—wasn’t all that interesting to begin with.