The Invention of Youth, or, Are You A Real Adult?


It’s a commonly-taught aspect of history that kids-as-kids, helpless and cherish-able beings who should be provided a nurturing and protective lifestyle completely different from adults, didn’t exist before the modern era. A hundred years ago, grade-schoolers had to toil in the factory or the field and get their hands whacked off by machinery or be immolated cleaning out the chimney flue. Only recently has society started to think of childhood as a thing and books like the new All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior explore how we’re still trying to figure out and codify what childhood is (but this is not a book review about that book).

More recently, in my generation and maybe the one right before it (us Millennials and our big siblings the Gen-Xers), there has come an extension of young-adulthood into a nebulous grown-adolescence gray area of Twentysomethings.

The average age at which we get married and start having children is older than anyone before (almost 30 for those with college educations). The average age at which we leave home is older than anyone before (Millennials have the sad reason that old people destroyed our economy and left us no jobs; Gen-Xers were just disaffected and stoned). The expectation of immediately beginning a long-term career with one company and starting to climb the ladder like a corporate puppy is gone, because in the new market people change jobs every few years and no one is rewarded for staying in one place.

The result is that the Twentysomething is no longer a married, child-rearing, independent corporate upstart setting out for the white picket fence. And without all of those things, the Twentysomething – for better or worse or both – has a lot in common with what used to just be teenagers. The social-emotional-existential result can be seen in plenty of movies and books and internet blogs, where Twentysomethings deal with the insecurities and insights and awkwardness of figuring out who they’re supposed to be and what they’re supposed to be doing, constantly declaring the over-repeated-but-relatable truth that they don’t quite feel like “real adults.”

(Sidenote: During my time as a teacher in Chicago, I noticed that this phrasing and mindset is not common in low-income communities. In fact, it’s all but nonexistent. This is probably because young people there have had to shoulder adult responsibilities like working long hours and caring for family members since they were children. If anything, the young people I knew during my time there already felt more grown-up than they were. But my thoughts in the rest of this post center on people who are not in low-income communities.)

My theory is that for recent generations, youth and the idea of being young has lasted so long, and been so integral a part of identity formation in terms of relating to other groups, the media, and our subject positions to society, that being young has become an integral part of our deep identity regardless of age. Lacking those markers and personality-changers of traditional adulthood (wife, kids, suit-wearing job), we have been addressed as young and addressed ourselves and each other as young for so long it became part of who we are.

The French Marxist philosopher Althusser would say we’ve been interpellated as “young,” which in layman’s terms means: if you call somebody a certain thing long enough, enough times, they become that thing. (Think: if you tell someone they’re dumb for most of their lives, or if you call a girl easy enough times, it will affect their behavior eventually).

Now that I’m 27, and will be 28 before too long, me and my peer group are entering the leaving part of the twenties. And, I think, we’re entering the leaving part of being Young. A 30-year-old might be considered young, after all, as a relative adjective to other people, but a 30-year-old will never be called Young, as in, a fundamental part of their identity. That is a thing of the 20s.

And so, as we begin to consider leaving our 20s, it’s left to us to construct a post-Youth identity. That means taking stock of what you’ve done with the almost-3-decades so far, and whether you’re in place to do what you want with the next several decades. Of course, everyone in history has faced those questions as middle-age starts to feel less and less like it’s forever away. But for recent generations that for various reasons are more socially and economically adrift, the questions of life also come with a salient crisis of identity: how will we describe ourselves and what we do when we can no longer resort to the catch-all of being as young as we are?

I don’t have any answers, although I’ll talk in future blog posts about my ideas. I’m fascinated to find out how my generation will turn out, the things we’ll do and talk about and change in the world as we grow older, and how, as we become the wholly adult generation, the things we do will be by definition what adults do. Even if it’s keep posting about how we don’t feel like real grown-ups.


6 thoughts on “The Invention of Youth, or, Are You A Real Adult?

  1. I had a weird ‘mid-twenties’ crisis while I was taking college courses with a bunch of eighteen year olds, because at that time, I was the “old person” in the class. It was mostly the realization that I would never again look at the world through the eyes of a teenager, or be able to completely relate with the hormone crazed ‘youngsters’ sitting next to me. Now as I hurtle toward my mid-thirties (and middle age), I have officially entered what I call the Old Zone. I realized this yesterday when a teacher showed my class of third graders a picture of an older man as part of an art lesson. While all the kids were saying “Ewww! He’s so old!” I was thinking “Hmmm, he’s pretty damn good looking.” Yep, things change as you get older. But my most important rule for life is to never completely become an adult. What does “adult” even mean in the grand scheme of things, and is it really that important to completely grow up?

    • I know what you mean, Georgeann. I took one course with undergrads recently and I was surprised by their laissez-faire attitude towards living. They were like, “yeah, I didn’t write the paper, I don’t know, I’m stressed out about stuff.” I would be stressed out if I didn’t write a paper. But when I was in undergrad I don’t think I even showed up to class very much. Beyond becoming uncool, I think the big secret is no one really grows up – we just put up a good front. Curmudgeons were always curmudgeony if you think about it, and no one ever has things totally figured out.

  2. Pingback: NaNoWriYe | themidnightdiner

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