“I went to the stock market today. I did a business.”
-Vincent Adultman, Bojack Horseman
Noted geek person Simon Pegg said a number of things that have the Internet up in arms. Comic book movies are infantilizing us. We care too much about superheroes. We no longer frequent Gritty Adult Dramas like They used to make Back In The 70s. We are children, distracted from Real Issues by shiny carrots. He has since walked it back a bit (don’t bite the feeding-hand, Simon!) but I think his basic contention, that we’re being “infantilized,” deserves a little attention.
Every so often it is good to have someone state the contrary of what everyone is doing — “YA LITERATURE IS TERRIBLE!” “I HATE FEMINISM!” — just so you get an occasion to defend yourself and your choices.
Simon Pegg is definitely right about one part of this: we are experiencing an adulthood crisis. Levels of acknowledged adulthood are at an all-time low.
I think this is for a couple of reasons. First, the Internet. One of the units of currency online is the mortified admission that you have no idea what you are doing and don’t feel that you belong in the company of true adults. Anna Kendrick has built a twitter career on it. The Internet is where you go to admit that you are an impostor.
Even in print, there’s this trend of books by Successful Youngish People (often ladies) insisting that We Have No Idea How To Be Adults But Here Is How We Have Managed To Fake It. “Adulting.” “Grace’s Guide: The Art of Pretending To Be A Grown-Up.” This is the stuff of which careers are made. (Full disclosure: I have written something that might be considered an entry in this genre myself and you should buy it or something.)
By our own admission, we are a nation of giant babies standing on each others’ shoulders, hidden under long trench coats.
The grown-up is an endangered species. “Adult” is now a verb, not a noun — it’s something you do for a brief period of time, an unpleasant task you are periodically required to perform. Laundry, dishes, taxes, 9-to-5’s, parenting — anything that requires you to Appear To Know What You’re Doing. Don’t worry, everyone on the Internet is always reassuring you. One of the subversive, exciting revelations occasioned by the presence of Literally Everyone Who Does Things on social media is the confirmation of your suspicion that Nobody Actually Knows What He Or She Is Doing.
The trend against adulthood certainly existed before we were all online all the time — some people would say that all the Seminal Boomer Moments were a slow-motion refusal to grow up. The fumbling twenty- or thirty-something baffled in the face of Real-World Tasks is hardly a novel 21st-century concept. But the Internet fired this phenomenon up to eleven. Its prime gift is the reassurance that you are not alone, and that has propelled Niche Geek Things That We Loved As Kids into the center of pop culture. You, in your rabid fandom, no longer exist in isolation. You can find others of your kind and make topics trend and generate buzz. You do not even have to wait for an annual convention.
We are all still kids, underneath, and we love the same things now that we did then. The only enticement we saw in adulthood was the ability to eat ice cream for breakfast.
It is possible that this has always secretly been the case — that even the people in charge of things who look as though they have their acts together are just as baffled as you, that even they are as surprised by their own success at passing for grown-ups as you are. That there were never any adults here, and only now, with the Internet as vehicle for our chagrined admissions, have we begun to realize it.
Or maybe something has changed. Maybe we no longer put the premium on being a Man or a Woman that we used to.
I have the dim sense from old movies and anthropological texts that there used to be a gap between childhood and adulthood. The wardrobes were different. There were rituals that took you from Boyhood to Manhood — you had to ride out into the desert and slay a wildebeest and then you were allowed to hang out at the country club and go around the golf course in a foursome and sit in smoke-filled rooms and Run Things. There was no incentive to admit that you didn’t know what you were doing. To the contrary. Being a Man or a Woman was a desirable status and you got there by putting away childish things. No more dolls. No more short pants. You looked forward to growing up because you could do things then that you as a child could not do — you know, like wear suits, carry briefcases, win the respect of your grey-flannel-suited peers.
But that was a while ago.
Now you keep your Action Figures as long as you like, you look forward to growing up so you can eat ice cream for breakfast, and there’s no shame in reading YA. The narrative has changed.
I like a good ice cream breakfast, my walls are covered in Star Wars posters, and I think YA can be terrific, but — we can’t pretend this isn’t happening. Where are the adults?
So what do we do? Is this bad? Should we be watching more Gritty 70s Things? (Isn’t that what prestige TV is for now?) At least, this is everyone’s new narrative. Even accomplishments come wrapped in humblebrags. Admitting you have no idea what you’re doing is Internet chic.
Do we still need Adults?
We have leaned in to the idea that the things we loved as kids are still valid and important things to love and build communities around as we get older. We play dress-up. We make a big thing about how none of us are really grown-ups, deep down. Growing up feels like losing.
We still get all the things done that Adults used to do. We hold down jobs. We make art. We march for justice. We get married. We buy real estate and pay taxes. We just do it while admitting that, all things considered, we would rather be watching “The Empire Strikes Back.”
What have we lost by this?
The joys of adulthood are something I have a dim picture of. It looks like Don Draper. It is smoking in a leather chair with bourbon in one hand. But it is better than Don: it is competent and it admits to being competent. It takes pride in this. It is not rueful or mortified.
Maybe a certain amount of pretense is good. Maybe the fiction that actual adults do exist and are in charge is a valuable one and we will regret its absence. The Rubicon between childhood and adulthood, one that you had to cross if you wished to fulfill your destiny, has been such a fixture of human existence for so long that it seems it ought to have some point to it.
Where your grandfather went to meet with his Rotary Club, now your mom hangs out with her 501st Stormtrooper Legion and it fulfills about the same social function. Did we lose something by moving from one to the other? Is a society unified by Adult Interests like Smoking and Playing Tennis Or Golf, Then Adjourning To Rooms Full of Leather Chairs And Starched Napkins And Vague Racism, better than one organized along the lines we now seem to be hammering out?
Maybe there is something to be said for the loss of pretense, for organizing around the things you love and for taking stories seriously. But there’s also something to be said for Growing Up. It’s just that, for the life of me, I can’t remember what it is.