Wednesday, October 8, 2014

On the Death of Adulthood

Mayumi Otero, Brave New World

I recently read an article in The New York Times titled "The Death of Adulthood in American Culture." Some excerpts:

This slow unwinding has been the work of generations. For the most part, it has been understood—rightly in my view, and this is not really an argument I want to have right now—as a narrative of progress. A society that was exclusive and repressive is now freer and more open. But there may be other less unequivocally happy consequences. It seems that, in doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grown-ups.

A little over a week after the conclusion of the first half of the last “Mad Men” season, the journalist and critic Ruth Graham published a polemical essay in Slate lamenting the popularity of young-adult fiction among fully adult readers. Noting that nearly a third of Y.A. books were purchased by readers ages 30 to 44 (most of them presumably without teenage children of their own), Graham insisted that such grown-ups “should feel embarrassed about reading literature for children.” Instead, these readers were furious. The sentiment on Twitter could be summarized as “Don’t tell me what to do!” as if Graham were a bossy, uncomprehending parent warning the kids away from sugary snacks toward more nutritious, chewier stuff.

It was not an argument she was in a position to win, however persuasive her points. To oppose the juvenile pleasures of empowered cultural consumers is to assume, wittingly or not, the role of scold, snob or curmudgeon . . . .

In my main line of work as a film critic, I have watched over the past 15 years as the studios committed their vast financial and imaginative resources to the cultivation of franchises (some of them based on those same Y.A. novels) that advance an essentially juvenile vision of the world. Comic-book movies, family-friendly animated adventures, tales of adolescent heroism and comedies of arrested development do not only make up the commercial center of 21st-century Hollywood. They are its artistic heart.

. . . .

What all of these shows [Girls, Broad City, Masters of Sex, Bob's Burgers] grasp at, in one way or another, is that nobody knows how to be a grown-up anymore. Adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable. It isn’t only that patriarchy in the strict, old-school Don Draper sense has fallen apart. It’s that it may never really have existed in the first place, at least in the way its avatars imagined. Which raises the question: Should we mourn the departed or dance on its grave?

. . . .

[W]e can see that to be an American adult has always been to be a symbolic figure in someone else’s coming-of-age story. And that’s no way to live. It is a kind of moral death in a culture that claims youthful self-invention as the greatest value. We can now avoid this fate. The elevation of every individual’s inarguable likes and dislikes over formal critical discourse, the unassailable ascendancy of the fan, has made children of us all. We have our favorite toys, books, movies, video games, songs, and we are as apt to turn to them for comfort as for challenge or enlightenment.
Y.A. fiction is the least of it. It is now possible to conceive of adulthood as the state of being forever young. Childhood, once a condition of limited autonomy and deferred pleasure (“wait until you’re older”), is now a zone of perpetual freedom and delight. Grown people feel no compulsion to put away childish things: We can live with our parents, go to summer camp, play dodge ball, collect dolls and action figures and watch cartoons to our hearts’ content. These symptoms of arrested development will also be signs that we are freer, more honest and happier than the uptight fools who let go of such pastimes.

I do feel the loss of something here, but bemoaning the general immaturity of contemporary culture would be as obtuse as declaring it the coolest thing ever. A crisis of authority is not for the faint of heart. It can be scary and weird and ambiguous. But it can be a lot of fun, too.

And a friend of mine talked about it over Gchat for a bit. Some excepts from that:

P:  ...i guess if that article disturbs me, it regards the implications vis-a-vis, say, the climate crisis

P:  it's a civilization-threatening problem that rather requires adults to solve

P:  "The world is our playground, without a dad or a mom in sight" suggests a worldview in which rising oceans, failing crops, and resource wars are someone else's problems to deal with

L:  i dunno, i am always skeptical of such views because i wonder how much of it is just a lack of the expected manifestations of adulthood

L:  vs. a lack of responsibility itself

L:  and any analysis that doesn't take into account how people under 35 or so have been royally fucked over by economic pressures is delusional

L:  and there is so much implicit "why aren't you getting married and pumping out kids" involved in this article

P:  i guess the article hit a bit of a nerve because of some of the people i work with

P:  i wish fewer of them were get up/go to work/smoke weed/watch cartoons/sleep/get up/go to work/smoke weed/watch cartoons/sleep people

L:  thats always the example. but again, i think it's a lot of surface-level analysis

L:  so i go to work/drink nice wine/read depressing existential literature/sleep//repeat// what's the fucking difference

L:  same pattern, "adult" content

L:  the history of the modern age is a history of apocalyptic thinking and self-reflection on the "depravity" of the present moment

I chewed on what she said, and then wrote her an email.

So you asked (rhetorically) what the difference is between two sorts of people and their routines—the "work/smoke weed/watch cartoons/sleep" loop and the "work/drink nice wine/read depressing existential literature/sleep" loop—and I was mulling it over, and I had a thought.

I have a coworker in his early twenties who cleaves to the games/toons/weed regimen. He's pure pleasure principle. His view of the world is somewhat askew. He believes that aliens must have secretly influenced the growth of civilization: one of his arguments is that the idea that human beings could have invented stuff like the microwave oven without the intervention of extraterrestrial intelligence is absurd. He is very poor at perceiving nuance: government is categorically bad, freedom is absolutely good. He doesn't know very much about history. He once had to be reminded that more massive objects exert a greater gravitational force, and not the other way around. He expresses some pride at never reading any books that don't have pictures. He comes to work, goes home, smokes a lot of weed, watches cartoons, plays video games, hooks up with random women, goes to bed, repeats.

On the face of it, between the abstract you (who reads extensively, goes to art galleries, etc.) and him, in terms of how each of you might be expected to act as people living in relation to other people, as consumers, and as voters in a (putative) democracy, I'd certainly prefer more people were like you than him. I would trust (the abstract) you to be a mother more than (the abstract) him to be a father. To what extent are your habits the provenance of your characters?

What Hannah (and B.F. Skinner, for that matter) might suggest is that most of the differences in character are the consequences of education. You've got a masters; you seem to have been a fairly conscientious student, and you apparently expend some fair effort to continue to refine your understanding of the world. My coworker didn't go to college; he considers it a waste of time and money, and seems confident he's got a grasp on what he needs to know.
I wonder to what extent his video games/weed habits were present during his high school years? Could they have fostered his disinterest in education? (I myself was too preoccupied with spliffs and Street Fighter to be a very responsible or effective student, and look how I turned out. Bleh.)

Hannah and my other friends working in education would also consider the parents, who are responsible for creating the environment of his upbringing: were they more similar to the abstract you or more like the abstract him? If he reproduces, how might we expect his kids to think and behave?

For me, the Times piece aroused some concern (not new) about the transmission of culture. The supposed extinction of the traditional tokens of adulthood doesn't necessarily mean a practical infantilization must be in its ascendancy, but it's a prospect that worries me all the same. If the invisible mechanisms of society consistently acculturate masses of people who facilitate and reinforce the most deleterious components of the mechanism, a collapse does become possible.

I'm not saying I'd like a return to puritanism; I'm saying I don't want a slouch towards Brave New World.

You did say that the modern epoch is a 500-year history of announcements that society is rotting and ready to crumble. True: but the people in the mid-twentieth century who were convinced the world would end in a nuclear holocaust or were wringing their hands about the influence of television upon society (fun fact: Marshall McLuhan himself was telling his friends TV was a "vile drug," and if they wanted to preserve any part of Western culture, they'd better grab some axes and go around smashing sets) had as much cause for concern as people in the present day who react with consternation to the reports that we're burning through natural resources almost (well, rounded up) twice as fast as they can be renewed.

I do hope I'm not being ridiculous; I'm totally not saying that dudes playing video games and getting high and women not rushing out to have children are going to be the cause of some impending crash. (After all, I smoke weed, occasionally play video games, often watch cartoons, etc. BUT PERHAPS I AM A SYMPTOM OF A PROBLEM.) But I'm in the habit of wondering about the sorts of people we've been conditioned to become and the sorts of people we're conditioning to replace us, and the Times piece poked at a nerve.

Circuitous; maybe not very well argued. Obviously a tentative working out of something. But it was fun to read/discuss/write.



  1. There is also the looming issue of inadvertently falling in a facile black-white generalising contrast represented by the two persons compared in this post. To wit, your co-worker seems like the classic example that bemoaners of a "childish" adulthood would love to pull as an example: ignorant, careless, ineffectual and completely irrelevant to the advance of society. On the other hand, your friend is a polar opposite, representing the "classic" adult: responsible, educated, mature, critical.

    However, (and even though it could be argued that these correspondences between life outlooks and measures of greatness are more likely to happen than to not) this is not a fast-and-hard rule. Youthful adults are very much capable of contributing to society as much as traditional adults, the only true difference being the type of content that they enjoy. On the other hand, "old-guard" adults are very much capable of tremendous screw-ups, many of them caused by the very unspoken rules of expected "adult behaviour" that our late ancestors have operated under, specially in the last couple of centuries. Hell, America's (and, subsequently, the world's) most recent economic crisis was born of the collective womb of many caviar-eating, wine-sipping, fine-art-owning, expensive-suit-wearing adults that embodied everything that the previous generations would have called an "outstanding adult".

    That is the problem with the original article lamenting YA-reading adults: It starts from the content and presupposes that the content is veritably inferior to the "adult" alternatives and that as such, it makes inferior adults. In all truth, the issue, as always starts with the people. Sure, there's a reproachable type of adult who by their very nature prefers easy-reading (or watching/listening/etc.) content high in escapism value and unlikely to cause introspection in the same way that some highly critical, intellectual and progressive people tend to favour high-brow content. However, using content itself to trace the line is ridiculous. That is, not to mention the fact that content is lumped together in wide, somewhat arbitrary categories such as "YA fiction" or "classical poetry" and neither genre is completely devoid of nor entirely encompassing of virtue.

    1. Conceded. Although—as I work out why the original piece struck me as it did (in all honesty I'm thinking it probably has something to do with my relationship with my WW2 vet grandfather, which is a box of vipers I'm not sure I'm ready to air out here), I'm not sure I could call the orchestrators of the financial crisis "outstanding adults." The sort of solipsism necessary to act as they did seems to me an exceedingly vile sort of childishness.

      Maybe a working definition of a cultural "adult" should be a prerequisite for my following this line of thought any further.

    2. Excellent point (and sorry for the tardy answer). I employed a "classical outstanding adult" definition going by the easily identifiable societal trappings that our forefathers valued as sure signs of maturity and capability to contribute to the community at large... much in the same way that the writer of the article pretends to define the execrable modern "childish" adult by the content he or she enjoys.

      As with everything is not the outward appearances nor the choices of consumable entertainment what makes a good man or woman but their deeds. "By their fruit you will recognize them", and "It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man", and whatnot.

  2. All this talk about young adults reminds me of the movie Young Adult! You should watch that if you haven't. Totally relevant.

    Honestly, I don't know where this is going, though. Maybe I don't know enough weed smokers, but I don't think university-educated people are particularly mature, especially grad students, even after they get their degree. You know how it is, while you're studying... adulthood awaits. They're also quite prone to believe conspiracy theories, except not those of the plebe, fancy university conspiracy theories!

    Plus, most hard-working, high-achieving people I know could not care less about culture. I know "fine suit-wearing" adults, but none of them have Maokun's whole package deal. Maybe you have to be really, really rich and basically be a modern day feudal lord.

    What seems imature to me is that people still believe in the "grown up", the responsible adult who's in control and has all the answers. Maybe we could all stand to have better cultural taste, but to see it stretched into another "the world is doomed" tirade is too much.

    1. It is too much, yes. Clearly I'm trying to think something through and haven't quire arrived there yet.

      Clarification: when I say "culture" I don't mean the institutions of art, literature, etc. I use it in the anthropological sense: it's more or less everything about us that isn't the sole product of genetics. Art is just a part of culture—and it enjoys more weight in the present age than ever before in human history. I type this I realize I'm running late for work and have to leave you with the incomplete thought. Sorry!

    2. Here's the short version. Questions: is arrested development an actual trend? Is it a problem? To what extent does our media landscape (our most ubiquitous and one of our most powerful cultural influences) influence this phenomenon?

      My mistake (as well as Mr. Scott's) was beginning without firm definitions of "maturity" and "adulthood." I can't really make any assertions about either of those things until I can say what they mean.

  3. Just to throw it out there, as far as climate change goes there's a not-insignificant portion of people who think the 'parent' that will come along to fix our problem for us is God. They expect divine intervention to fix our mistakes for us, which is a kind of arrested development in its own way.

    And I agree with your friend's comment that the 'work, consume media, sleep' cycle isn't any better when it involves 'adult/mature' media. Drinking wine isn't better than smoking weed, watching 'serious' movies is not inherently better than watching a superhero movie. I mean, the article starting this slammed YA fiction, but look at the bestsellers among 'adult' fiction. Dan Brown? James Patterson? I haven't read Patterson but I've read Brown and I doubt Patterson is too different in his self-insertion fantasy characters and cheap cliffhanger pacing. And that's supposed to have more value than Harry Potter?

    I have to disagree with your friend's assertion about lamenting the present being a relatively new thing. Plato, frigging Plato, complained about the younger generation not respecting their elders and not having sufficient values. This may be one of the oldest things in human culture.

    As far as the death/disappearance of adulthood, I think some reflection should be made about the how adulthood is defined more as a destination than a journey. I know, it's sooooooooo Deeprak Chopra 'Isn't this deep?' pseudo-profundity, but this is a case where it applies. I'm not just curious how people like that article's author define 'adult,' but why they think people should be reaching that state the way we reach the end of a journey. Is there a checklist of 'adult' behaviors/accomplishments/philosophies acquired? Are the life lessons and virtues held up in YA titles no longer applicable once you reach a certain age or had certain life experiences? Do you hit a certain birthday and have to say to yourself 'I guess Captain America can't be a hero to me now because I've outgrown the things he stands for.'?

    Yes, I'm oversimplifying what an article I didn't read said, but fuck it. The issue of maturity in those who are legally adults is not as simple as categorizing every piece of media into 'for children,' 'for teens,' and 'for adults,' because the *real* categories we should be thinking of are 'for entertainment' and 'for mental stimulation,' and those aren't determined by age. There are thought-provoking stories meant for younger audiences and there are dumb-as-shit 'stare at this so we can run commercials in front of your glazed-over eyes' stories meant for adults. Compare Avatar: The Last Airbender to, I don't know, The Big Bang Theory or Two and a Half Men.

    If video games and cartoons for adults didn't exist, there would still be countless grown men wasting their time watching sports and action movies that have the same objective of killing the viewer's time as the latest AAA game release. I mean, the person writing this article is a film critic; did they miss all those 80's action movies and teen sex comedies? What the fuck is this 'Things *today* are so bad.' bullshit?

    1. I have to disagree with your friend's assertion about lamenting the present being a relatively new thing. Plato, frigging Plato, complained about the younger generation not respecting their elders and not having sufficient values. This may be one of the oldest things in human culture.

      Actually, this is exactly what she was talking about; she in the context of the conversation, she was only arguing that it was nothing new. She might have well replaced "modern age" with "human history."

      Of course, Plato was writing after Athenian power and culture had reached their inflection points, so perhaps he wasn't entirely mistaken.

      (Although if we're picking nits in this region it might be worth considering the stasis of the European Dark Age. I wonder how many people were complaining about the kids and their crazy ideas during the centuries between the aftershocks of Rome's fall and the dawn of the Renaissance [modern age], when cultural evolution was apparently at more or less a standstill across much of Europe.)

      As far as the death/disappearance of adulthood, I think some reflection should be made about the how adulthood is defined more as a destination than a journey.

      Point. A very good point.