Not a teenager, not an adult

23 March 2020

It is the eve of my 21st birthday. Surrounded by red cups and semi-conscious friends, I brace myself for another great year. 

Then it hits me: is this how my twenties are supposed to be? A cycle of day drinking before marching through the doors of the Royal Exhibition Building every exam season? I cannot drive. I cannot cook. I have never touched a water bill in my life. Surely this is not how my parents envisioned my adulthood when traversing seas for a better life. 

For many like me, the struggle to become a fully-fledged adult is not a new concept, and as a result, the inability to undertake the simplest of tasks has morphed into a running joke among our generation. Years of student life have conditioned us to believe that lodging our taxes and cooking any dish that isn’t pasta are things so distant they may as well be myths. Though this age-old struggle will never cease to be hilarious, we run the risk of dismissing the very real anxiety that young people feel when faced with unprecedented responsibility. 


Dear Google, what is the definition of an adult?

A person who is fully grown or developed. A human being after an age specified by law.

How informative.


Despite the numerical threshold delineating the transition between adolescence and legal adulthood, there is no concrete indication of when we should start feeling like an adult. Even the logic of imposing an age restraint for legal purposes often falters. In the USA, youth are not allowed to drink alcohol yet are able to join the military at the age of eighteen.  

With the ubiquity of social media, we often find ourselves falling into the pit of comparing ourselves (and in this case, our “adultness”) to those who display all the competencies of a mature and responsible citizen. What do we see in others that marks maturity, and can we ever really see those qualities in ourselves? Perhaps it is the number of part-time jobs taken alongside flashy postgraduate degrees. Or maybe it resides in twenty-somethings who have already moved out of their parental nests into the system of weekly bills and meal preparations. Surely it is when the excitement of a mid-year Dyson vacuum sale overcomes us to the point of asphyxiation. 

The rite of passage paving the road to adulthood changes with every generation. As with social constructs, it is reconfigured throughout different eras and cultures. The quinceañera is a celebration marking a girl’s fifteenth birthday in many Latin American countries. Although historically symbolising the transition to marriage and domestic life, the recognition of womanhood through the Quinceañera and the Western tradition of debutante balls is one of the few modern milestones of adulthood before the age of eighteen. The age at which we reach this stage also changes from that of our parents, due to generational and cultural differences. 

My mum was born in a small village in Southern Vietnam alongside six sisters and a single mother.  She learned to irrigate rice fields and cook for her younger siblings long before reaching puberty. The contrasts between my mum and I are jarring, however I understand that her circumstances were completely different. It would be illogical to think about my growth in terms of her life. Soldiers conscripted into the two World Wars were similarly thrust into extreme situations, inducing mental and physical transformations in order to adapt. Brains are not hardwired to develop at the same speed as we reach certain ages. Research by the University of Washington and the University of Colorado-Boulder suggests our maturation goes hand in hand with the necessity to survive, depending on the support systems available. Because of this, our mental development can accelerate when we are suddenly responsible for something other than ourselves. 

With the influence of North American media, adulthood is defined through the lens of a small-town freshman travelling miles for her dream college dorm experience. Moving out of home has therefore become the modern mark of our developmental blossoming. This simply isn’t accurate for a suburban Melburnian living a twenty-minute train ride away from university, yet I still fall prey to the idea that independence and living with parents are mutually exclusive. 

The expectation to move out becomes more complicated when considering socioeconomic situations. Consider the factor of being a second-generation Australian born to immigrant parents with no inheritance, and the prospect of early financial autonomy is bleak. Likewise, the coveted position of homeowning and accumulating enough savings to take such a step is dependent on factors unique to the individual. While it is true that financial success can be achieved in many cases despite circumstances, it helps to accept the realistic outcomes of the cards we were dealt. It is important to ask whether being financially equipped is a true indicator of maturity. 

This brings us to the important question: if it’s not age or financial autonomy, then what exactly ferries us to the wonderful world of adulthood? Surely it is the unwavering ambition, thirst for knowledge and mental fortitude that we are told resides in business moguls and elite athletes.  The mass-consumption of self-help books reflects society’s desire to adopt these noble qualities. As such, there is immense pressure to constantly become a better version of our previous selves. We need to acquire more skills than last year, obtain better marks than the previous semester and do more push-ups than yesterday. The running wheel never stops, and neither should we. This is what we are told growing up should feel like, but it doesn’t have to. Over time, this stockpile of “life lessons” lies forgotten and decomposed on our bookshelves until the next New Year’s resolution. 

While preaching about the benefits of unrealistic lifestyle reforms, many books push the notion that any level of success can be achieved through sheer individual willpower. Failure to do so indicates a lack of resolve. This simplification disregards inherent social structures that interact with class, race and gender influences. Under the guise of independent self-improvement, impressionable consumers are exploited and taught that success in adulthood requires the same old formula. 

Mark Manson offers an alternative approach to behavioural change in his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. Rather than fixating on the successes we lack or the mistakes we make, we should stop sweating the small stuff, focus on values that truly matter to us and accept failure as a step forward. The book encourages us to adopt a mindset that works to one’s personal capabilities and doesn’t offer revolutionary solutions by trying to carve out new identities for us. Our eligibility to the label of adulthood should not be defined by what we lack but by what we have learned through lived experience. 

Maturity is humility and responsibility. However, it is also hugely contradictory: it can involve financial stability or a total lack thereof. In any case, what constitutes maturity is subjective, evolving and often identifiable in everyone but ourselves. The grass is indeed always greener on the other side, especially when we reserve our scrutiny for ourselves. 

Surrounded by friends who care about me, I let loose on a day that shouldn’t mark some chrysalid metamorphosis into adulthood. This will be a great year.

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