Are you an adult yet? How will you know?

By Caitlin Kelly

Toilet paper Español: Papel higiénico
Toilet paper . Yes, you actually have to go to a store and buy it! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Are you an adult?

Here’s a new book, with 468 tips from a 28-year-old, about how to become one:

Ms. Brown, a 28-year-old advertising
copywriter in Portland, Ore., has set out to become a kind of Dear
Abby/Martha Stewart/Yoda for millennials.

Her new book, “Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy (ish)
Steps” (Grand Central Publishing), is meant to help her peers navigate
the rocky shoals of maturity, to guide those 20-somethings who are just
figuring out that radio silence is not an acceptable breakup technique,
and food does not spontaneously manifest itself in the refrigerator.

“One of the most jolting days of adulthood comes the first time you run
out of toilet paper,” Ms. Brown said. “Toilet paper, up until this
point, always just existed.”

The idea for “Adulting” (which has just been optioned for television by
J. J. Abrams, executive producer of the “Lost” series) was refined when
Ms. Brown worked as a reporter for the Statesman Journal in Salem, Ore.,
consulting her Facebook friends for a column about what skills or
possessions they should have by the age of 30.

It’s an interesting progression, this growing up thing. I know some people in their 60s and beyond who still don’t have a very good grip on maturity while I recently met a 21-year-old, deeply serious, who worries terribly about others — and felt like someone a decade older in this respect.

I moved out of my father’s house in the first semester of my second year of university and found a tiny apartment.

Living alone there, I learned how to shop for clothes and food on a minusucle budget. Who to bring home and what would likely happen if I did. I learned to do my own laundry, find freelance clients for my writing and photos, how to haggle with cheap-o landlords and landladies.

As a freelancer, even then, I learned how to juggle the competing needs of my professors and my clients — not surprisingly, perhaps, the clients usually won!

When my mother, traveling alone, had health problems alone in places like Germany, Italy and India and ended up in trouble, I had to field calls from the Canadian and American consulates there asking me what to do with her.

So, truthfully, I have limited patience for people who find adulthood or independence frightening or overwhelming, who can’t understand the need to buy toilet paper or cook a meal or know how to figure stuff out.

And yet, here’s another new book that describes the very real struggles that working-class young adults are having as they try to gain traction in this crummy economy:

In a working-class neighborhood in Lowell, Mass., in early 2009, I sat across the table from Diana, then 24, in the kitchen of her mother’s house. Diana had planned to graduate from college, marry, buy a home in the suburbs and have kids, a dog and a cat by the time she was 30. But she had recently dropped out of a nearby private university after two years of study and with nearly $80,000 in student loans. Now she worked at Dunkin’ Donuts.

“With college,” she explained, “I would have had to wait five years to get a degree, and once I get that, who knows if I will be working and if I would find something I wanted to do. I don’t want to be a cop or anything. I don’t know what to do with it. My manager says some people are born to make coffee, and I guess I was born to make coffee.”

Young working-class men and women like Diana are trying to figure out what it means to be an adult in a world of disappearing jobs, soaring education costs and shrinking social support networks. Today, only 20 percent of men and women between 18 and 29 are married. They live at home longer, spend more years in college, change jobs more frequently and start families later.

The markers of adulthood to me aren’t then the usual: college-grad-school-marry-procreate-own real estate-get a job-get-another-job.

Not everyone has those dreams. Or can afford them.

They’re things we all can do, even in our teens — like writing thank-you notes on paper; bringing a gift when you stay with someone; going to a funeral for someone you didn’t know to show respect for their family, which you do.

Knowing how to cook a healthy, affordable meal and serve it to others, lovingly and gracefully.

Understanding the importance of volunteering your skills and mentoring others when you can.

Knowing how to handle your own money intelligently and responsibly — your credit score, low-interest credit card (singular), your taxes and savings.

Helping someone prepare for major surgery and helping them heal after it. Going to chemo with them or helping them choose a wig when their hair falls out.

In an economy when one-third of us are working for ourselves anyway, defining ourselves as an adult by “getting a job” is an outdated metric.

And, again from The New York Times, the putative value of getting an English degree — which arguably will never get you a decent job:

STUDYING the humanities should be like standing among colleagues and students on the open deck of a ship moving along the endless coastline of human experience. Instead, now it feels as though people have retreated to tiny cabins in the bowels of the ship, from which they peep out on a small fragment of what may be a coastline or a fog bank or the back of a spouting whale.

I was an English major, a choice I don’t regret. But I graduated with no debt.

Has that choice helped me as a writer? Frankly, no. I didn’t enjoy college much. I found it impersonal and bureaucratic and have never gone back for a graduate degree as a result.

What being an English major did teach me, by attending a ferociously demanding school, University of Toronto, was how to think, how to frame an argument, how to discuss ideas with passion and focus out loud with other smart, determined people.

So, those are life skills I’ve been using ever since. Chaucer and 16th. century drama? Not so much.

When, how and where did you learn your life skills?

What do you consider the markers or milestones of adulthood?

42 thoughts on “Are you an adult yet? How will you know?

  1. Great post about your book, sounds like some humorous common sense, I remember when I ran out of tp for the first time, in my first apt w/o even a kitchen table, eating ramen noodles and hot dogs most days, yuck!

  2. I think you are an entirely different kind of adult when your parents are no longer there to turn to. I see people older than myself whose parents have passed on and it seems like the transformation in them is something life changing. And I suspect it is something like what I see as simply being the way things are.

    Long after they can no longer really provide practical help or advice, parents give reassurance to their offspring that all is well. I don’t think you’re really an adult until you have to do that “all is well” thing entirely without them. And I suppose what that means is I’m saying most people aren’t really properly adults until they are in their 60s and 70s. But I also still think it’s true.

    1. I wonder. My father is alive and healthy at 84 and my mother is 78…but my husband lost his parents when he was very young, by the age of 30. He is a very self-reliant person, and I often wonder what it must have been like for him. I dread the day I lose my father especially…we have had some truly terrible fights, but he has also shaped me in many ways.

  3. I would quite like to slap Diana’s manager in the face. That sort of destructive ignorance makes my blood boil.

    Adult? Adult, shmadult. There are idiots in abundance at any age just as there are brilliant and wise people roaming the domains of the young. Two key factors in ‘growing up’ are surely the ability to learn from your own mistakes and those of others and the desire to be independent. There is no substantive growth without these present.

    We all want to survive, we all want to thrive. How we achieve these goals depends on our belief in making it happen for ourselves as opposed to waiting for others to facilitate our rise.

    Toilet paper? Give me a break!

    1. I like your definition.

      It is very painful to learn from one’s mistakes — first, in making them; second by truly facing the shite and third by figuring out how/if not to repeat them! The issue is also tricky because, ideally, we are growing (up) and the sort of mistakes we make, say, at 15 or 22 may not at all be the sort (one hopes!) you are making at 30 or 45 or 60…God knows, I am still quite able to be overly candid and I doubt that will change, even when it’s hurt me.

  4. I started earning money in high school and taking on responsibilities like dog-watching and stuff. I know how to cook, and I often do. And more than once I’ve made shopping lists and done the shopping. I think I’ve gotten a good head start, though I’m sure I’ve got plenty of learning left to do. Hopefully by the time I graduate I’ll be in a slightly better place than my peers, especially if people buy my book.

    1. Knowing how to navigate the world is essential, and kids who keep putting it off — or having parents who spoil and pamper them and infantilize them — are putting success at risk. I knew how to comparison-shop for groceries by the time I was 12 and was buying my own clothes (with a clothing allowance) at 14. That taught me how to budget.

  5. As a parent, I would be frankly horrified if my children couldn’t feed themselves. My older kids (12-17) can all cook a variety of meals and cakes (although the 12-year old is a bit of a dessert specialist! Apparently he believes he can live on cake alone). They all know how to vacuum, clean a toilet and mop a floor. They all come to the supermarket and understand the value of pricing up the food that we buy. They don’t always DO these things, and there is from time to time an attitude of entitlement, but at least I know they CAN do them and will be able to look after themselves. The 7-year olds are still on cupcakes, muffins and scones, but can peel veges, do dishes and manage a vacuum cleaner as well. Interesting comment that you aren’t really an adult until you no longer have parents – i wonder if that applies to those whose parents are absent as well?

    1. Yay you! Your kids — no surprise to me — sound terrific and you must be very proud of them. I think inculcating competence is a huge gift from parents to their kids. We all have to “grow up” and attain independence and it’s impossible without acquiring and developing basic skills, whether how to cook and clean to how to manage money. The sooner we learn them, the less terrifying adulthood and independence might appear…?

      I feel plenty adult with my parents alive — as to your point. I have not (sadly) spoken to my mother since May of 2010 (speaking of absent) and just mended fences with my father after six months of…stuff. I have never relied much, at all, on my parents for money (ever) or moral or practical support. I’d like to, and have really envied those who can as adults, but it’s not who they are or have wanted to be.

  6. Caitlin – I remember reading about the young woman who, according to her manager, was born to make coffee. She knows that is not true and she needs to reject that and try to move forward. I, too, took every babysitting and camp counselor job from the time I was 12, just to buy the small things that every teenage girl wants. As the oldest of six, I also took care of the younger ones since I was five and was counted on to be the “mother” when my own mother was sick, both mentally and physically. But being adult-like at such a young age means losing the happiness of being a child. Be that as it may, I watched people to learn how to act in social situations. I never gave up on educating myself either. But I think, at 62, I am finally coming into my own and that the biggest thing about being an adult is being able to feel compassion and empathy – that there are always people who have it harder than you and who walk around with pain every day. An adult bears that in mind when dealing with people.

    1. There is a word for what you experienced (which you might know?) — being parentified. I was, too, thanks to my mother’s illness, my lack of siblings or any other family support. It’s why I never wanted or had kids. I had already had way too much responsibility way too young and was burned out.

      But, having said that, I’m also aware of your point…about people in pain and feeling compassion and empathy. When I worked retail, I took the brunt of many of them…I described it in Malled as customers arriving at our store pre-pissed…i.e. their rage at us was usually not the least bit personal, albeit nasty. On my better days, I could manage some empathy.

      1. It is almost a monumental problem to feel empathy sometimes and sometimes it is not deserved. I do not mean to sound like a Pollyanna, because I am not. I recognize unjustified bad behavior for what it is. Being an adult means you can deal with it somehow, either by setting boundaries or realizing it is not you, it is their situation. Yes, I certainly was parentified, to an unhealthy degree. And I had only one child.

  7. It’s a funny thing about parents and our reliance on them. From the time I ‘left home’ (at which time my mother gave me a cheque comprising all the rent I’d given her since getting my first paid employment) I never sought money or advice from my parents, lived hundreds and ultimately thousands of miles and several timezones away from them, but still, they were there. As long as they were alive, it seemed, everything was right with the world. Even when I became the ‘adult’, and they, in effect the children, as I cared for them in their declining years, everything was as it should be: me and my parents.

    The world looks different when they’re gone. Am I now an adult? Was I not before-hand? I suppose I am, because in truth, until they died, I was a daughter, and buried deep inside my subconscious, that childish certainty of being loved in that way, and the equal certainty that that love equals unquestioning care and nurture remained, even if not called upon.

    Being able to cook something to eat, figure out how to balance a cheque book, add toilet paper to the grocery list (make a grocery list!) are hardly markers of adulthood. They’re useful life skills, of course, that we learn as a means of making life manageable, and the younger we learn them the better equipped we are to act like ‘adults’ – as what society perceives to be responsible, independent people. I don’t think these skills make us adult.

    Nor do I think a ‘desire to be independent’, as Dara proposed, is an accurate marker of adulthood. I wished to be independent from my parents at a very young age, plotting and dreaming of a life that would take me way beyond their sphere.

    Being able to learn from our own, or other peoples’ mistakes (as Dara proposed), on the other hand is, I think the beginning of wisdom – a threshold into adulthood.

    Oh dear, I’ll have to stop – this could turn into a book in itself!

    For me, I think, it’s the management of our psychological and emotional selves that is the true marker of adulthood.

    Thought-provoking post, as usual, Caitlin.

    1. Thanks for such a thoughtful comment…Lots in there to think about. My relationship with my parents has never been one of unquestioning care and nurture, sorry to say. There have been periods of that, but also broken by years of silence and no contact, initiated by me or by them. It’s a stupid waste. But it’s true that no one — except a wife/husband/partner — will likely know us as well or cherish us as much.

  8. Prior to my starting college 2 years ago I learned most of my life skills through self-education, work place education, and the infamous; “C’mon over here kid I wanna sho yas sumpin” education of the streets. I think my first milestone as an adult came when I concluded that nothing good ever comes out of pulling someones finger… After that cathartic revelation I believe the next was deciding not to go college right after high-school, moving out and trying my hand at being a professional musician while supporting myself by managing a 711, after that I’d have to say the first time a gal and I decided to try cohabitation, then when that went bust, after I tried the whole cohabitation experiment with a different gal. Then burying each of my parents, Mom first and three years later Dad. Then the protracted period of under-employment I went through until finally get that back under control too… That pretty much brings to the present day me… Hmmm maybe I should write a blog…. 😉

  9. I feel like there are so many articles and books out there that give ‘millennials’ like me a bad name. I moved out of home one month shy of my 17th birthday to a city 3 hours away from home to study. I already knew how to cook, clean and budget, because I was raised in a low socio-economic family.

    I have always been self sufficient and independent and incredibly career driven. I can’t fathom these people who have no clue and I hate to say I think it’s their sheltered upbringing. Sometimes people need to be thrown in the deep end to sink or swim

    1. Congrats on all those skills….you are so ahead of the game!

      It’s interesting that you assume (possibly accurately) that wealthy kids don’t have these skills as they may be pampered and spoiled. I grew up in a family with some money, but I was working part-time through high school and then freelanced through college as a writer, so I was doing many of these things years ahead of my peers…I was thrown into the deep end at 19 when my father sold the house and went off to live on a boat in Europe. I had no choice and very little notice to adapt. But I did.

      1. I guess it’s not always about wealth but really how people parent. And I think that having a more comfortable lifestyle makes it easier to provide for your offspring which can in turn equal pampering and spoilt children. But not always.

  10. I think ‘adult’ is framed by society as much as anything else. We seem to be pushing very hard at the moment not to let people grow up. I find it telling that in the Victorian era (a) there was no such thing as a teenager, and (b) a lot of the movers-and-shakers who became synonymous with Empire, as far as the British were concerned, often started their prominence aged about 20. It’s very pointed in New Zealand’s colonial history where major policy decisions that shaped race relations, national cities and so forth, were made by people who were younger than Ms Brown and her target audience.

    My personal experience is that I left home at 18, moved cities, and had to be independent. I had to learn – fast. Made a lot of mistakes; the school of hard knocks is a hard task-master. But I don’t regret it.

    1. Great point! Thanks for some important historical context…It’s so true we forget (or don’t know) what tremendous responsibility young people had in other times and places. I think maturity is a muscle — use it or lose it.

  11. Great post. I suppose for me, the real markers of adulthood are empathy and the ability to laugh at yourself. There is no real “bright line” between childhood and adulthood. I knew many hedonists in college who thought that “being a grown-up” (their words, a sign of not being one) began at commencement. They usually threw themselves into a puritanical lifestyle to atone for their childhood. Also, there is something to be said about Matthew Wright’s post above–in that at least in America–the average college-educated twentysomething will spend a great deal of time in between childhood and adulthood, based on a poor job market, debt burdens, a “MTV-esque” college atmosphere–an arrested development. Last comment: Being a adult, it seems, is a lot like class. If you have class, you needn’t say so. Proclaiming adulthood seems that way to me as well.

    1. Thanks!

      Lots to think about in your comment…I really dislike this word “grown-up”.

      I also think that college undergrad behavior in the States might be quite different from other places. It often seems like a four-year party with the atonement/get out of jail card of graduate school…I never went to grad school, so that’s a guess on my part.

      I’ve known children who were more responsible and serious about life than those much older. It might depend who truly needs you, and relies on you, to step up for them (as Judy and I did for our mothers when we were still young) — versus how long you get to simply dick around with little consequence. I live in a wealthy NYC suburb where children and teens seem to spend their lives being driven by their cheering parents from one sports tournament to the next. This is life prep? Really?

      1. I too dislike the word “grown-up.” It seems to be a proto-word from the nursery, where it ought to be left.

        As for college life in America, clearly the most shocking behavior gets the press. I am not sure of the numbers, but there are still scholars on American campuses. They are overshadowed by the “big man on campus” culture.

        As for your ‘burb, I see the same in suburban Washington, DC, where “helicopter parenting” is a cultural norm. Certainly the accrual of plastic trophies is not preparation for life. But adversity shouldn’t be the only path to maturity either.

      2. “adversity shouldn’t be the only path to maturity either.”

        I agree, but it often is! I’ve seen too many affluent people walk around simply expecting to get life’s goodies without much effort — and they do, through family connections and/or wealth and/or a fancy education — when some of the rest of us are clawing our way up that greasy pole.

        Entitlement makes me completely nuts.

  12. Good conversation to start! So many of the markers that we consider as ‘adult’ are empty as you point out. That first moment when there is a problem and you have to figure it out for yourself, that is really when it starts to sink in.

    It doesn’t matter how old you are, we are all constantly looking for guidelines and clues of how to take the next steps – especially right now in a time of rapid change.

    1. It’s great to have so many people weighing in on this one!

      If you are forced into responsibility early, or independence (usually at the same time), you get good at being resourceful, both relying on yourself and asking others for help. I like solving problems and can generally figure out a solution to most anything, which I know is a direct result of having to do this from an early age. Much as I would have loved more help along the way in my 20s especially, I also still feel gratefully disoriented when my husband now helps me or does things for me. It’s really nice…but I’m not used to it!

  13. These are strange times we live in. The media trumpets “personal responsibility,” which in my mind means growing up, becoming an adult. But there seems to be a stronger movement surrounding us which infantilizes young adults–particularly among what’s left of the middle class, encouraging debts, telling teens summers spent taking extra classes is worth more than summers earning money, pushing those markers of independence further and further away.

    There’s a relatively new category in fiction which is exploding, agents and publishing are hungry for it. New Adult. Do we really need an entire category for Coming of Age Part II?

  14. It depends on person’s family upbringing, history for some life skills. I have to say growing up in a 3 bedroom house with 1 bathroom for 5 siblings, my parents in a city outside of Toronto, meant whoever noticed, had to change the toilet paper!

    Methinks the authors of such topics are desperate for income. Turn blog material into a fee-based book.

    Or wait: Are all parents consciously teaching their teens these skills on a regular basis with good options?

    We were all naïve and a blank slate on some things after flying parents’ /parent’s coop.

    What I notice now as I bike around in neighbourhoods: Less teens grocery shopping with their parents. Less teens raking leaves, mowing the lawn, shovelling the sidewalk. I’m at a loss to understand why? Surely not everyone can afford/want a leaf blower, motorized lawn mower vehicle.

    I guess we have to make it a hip /chic activity to seduce the young’uns. That’s ok: Hence, now it’s rad to garden, yarn bomb/dyi sewing, can your own food, invent food dishes. Maybe that’s salvation right there for passing on life skills. I’m all for it!

  15. I think working full time made me realise I was an adult. Going to a night club, looking around and realising, technically, I am old enough to have given birth to some of these people was another defining moment for me!
    It’s funny how quickly I de-adult as soon as I go back to my Mum and Dad’s for a weekend. Suddenly it’s “Mum what’s for dinner?” and “Mum, can you help me straighten my hair?” Clothes go into the laundry and come out clean, as if by magic.
    I think my life skills are still a work in progress, I learnt about credit cards the hard way, I’m still a pretty basic cook and sometimes I still feel like a clueless teenager, then I remember ‘oh wait I’m 31, I guess I should have this life stuff somewhat figured out by now.”

  16. Love this discussion and I can see that 3 things changes me and each one took me closer to adulthood.
    1 my second divorce as yet again I had married a man just like my bad Dad!
    2 the death of my Mother and no one there to be that support and roof over my head if I ever need it again
    3 becoming so ill that my Dr wanted me to go into a dementia ward. I had to stand (although I physically could not) and fight for my right to better treatment and yes I got it.
    I still have moments of madness and childish fun as well, who wants to be a boring adult all the time!

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