You never hear anyone say it out loud, but the unfortunate gerund “adulting” is everywhere. Peculiar to social media, it’s a term that seems to be wielded most frequently by young women — and the pastel-bedecked brands wooing them — to signify the completion of quotidian grown-up tasks like doing laundry, going to work, exercising and cooking a meal. Every day I don’t eat canned soup is a day I win at adulting; Me: I just bought my first business cards! I feel like a real adult now!; Also Me: They are purple and blue and green and pretty! #adulting; or the meme that nearly broke me: “I’m done adulting. Let’s be mermaids.”
I confess that as my 30s progress, I’m becoming distressingly Andy Rooney-ish (a reference the #adulting crowd might not even get), but my burgeoning crankiness isn’t why I hate the word. And I don’t hate it because it’s an example of a noun becoming a verb, something that one linguist told me “a lot of pedants hate in general.” I hate it because it’s a self-infantilizing rejection of female maturity in a culture that already has almost no love for grown-up women — deploying “adulting” to describe what’s otherwise known as “life” is a sure way for a woman not to be seen as an adult.
According to the folks at Merriam-Webster, using the word “adulting” to mean “to do the things that adults regularly have to do” started appearing on Twitter in 2008 and 2009, but it surged in popularity in 2014, when Grammar Girl named it her word of the year. Per Digiday, the term’s use really exploded in 2016, with more than 80,000 online mentions of the “adulting” monthly. This is a common trajectory for new words nowadays, says Robin Lakoff, professor of linguistics emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley. Before social media, young women would invent new words and they’d eventually reach the written form. But now many words begin in writing, and then later, migrate to speech.
The way most women are using it online is “self-referentially ironic,” according to Lakoff. Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, who took on #adulting in the pages of the Wall Street Journal just last week, misses that crucial irony — he argues that millennials just don’t want to grow up and their social media is a straightforward representation of their deepest selves. But I don’t think that’s the case. As Danielle Tullo delightfully rants for Cosmopolitan, women who use the term aren’t deeply impressed with themselves for doing basic adult tasks like laundry. They know it’s not a huge achievement, and though millennial-bashers think 20-somethings want a trophy for purchasing car insurance or managing to regularly put on clean underwear, they really don’t.
She’s right — but I’d take Tullo’s argument a step further. Young women are just afraid to be public about their actual achievements because if their public persona is self-assured, they are also perceived to be less likable. Portraying themselves as less competent in their online personas is a hedge against a societal ethos that regularly denigrates mature women and devalues their knowledge, sending the message that youth is the only worthwhile currency a woman has. I’m not just talking about Hollywood, where a 37-year-old woman is apparently too old to play a 55-year-old man’s girlfriend.
Age discrimination begins for women in the workplace at 35. That’s reflected in popular culture by the popular TV show “Younger”: A 40-year-old woman passes herself off as 26 to get the job she needs to make ends meet as a single mother. Research shows that when women become mothers, they are seen as less competent than their male or childless counterparts. And you already know the kind of trashing that mature women’s expertise took in the 2016 election. “It makes sense that women would want to hold onto their youth when everything commercial in our society says, you better hold onto your youth,” Lakoff says. “Men don’t get that message.” They can mature at their leisure, and be rewarded for it.
Here’s the thing. Maybe you won’t get public affirmation for being a non-ironic adult female, but it’s still pretty great. I manage people at my workplace. I’m a married, taxpaying, organic-food-making mother of two, and while I may no longer be adorkable, I feel in control of my life. Sometimes I even eat cold pizza for breakfast, which, I suppose, falls somewhere along the adulting spectrum. But I’ll never, ever be a mermaid.