I'm Turning 35; What Does Adulthood Even MEAN Anymore?

35 is totally an adult. And it's awesome.

Aug 27, 2012 at 2:00pm | Leave a comment

On September 2, I will turn 35. This is not me taking the exit for ComplainingAboutMyAgeVille -- I stopped to pee back at OMGGettingOlderIsAmazingtown and am steaming on through to WowIAmAWeirdOldLadyBurg.

For me, every birthday is pretty all-out amazing. In some ways, this is down to me being amazed I am a living, breathing, functional human being. It's trite to say getting older is better than the alternative, particularly when we don't really know much about the alternative (though I'm totally a sucker for those near-death experiences TV shows). However, a lot of these dreadful sayings become cliche because they are rooted in truth -- and I'd rather be 35 than dead.

Honestly, though, I'd rather be 35 than 25.

That was a rough year.

I've been thinking about aging and the general passage of time a lot lately. I get like this every year around my birthday, and I think it's a human sort of thing to do any way. It isn't like there are any easy answers to what it means to be older than you were the year before. Particularly with studies suggesting "adulthood" is a moving target -- one that seems increasingly difficult for young people to take aim at.

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Adult-me gets to dress my dog up as Supergirl.


I'm not surprised by this. There's a lot of social nonsense about what "adults" look like -- it's usually married, with kids or with kids impending, with careers and houses and cars and all of that 1950s propaganda about the perfect family. This economy, which isn't exactly new, is by itself a huge obstacle for anyone who ties adulthood to markers that are dependent on fiscal independence. It's hard to feel like a grown up when you're splitting rent with roommates you aren't romantically involved in.

When I graduated college, I was living with two guys in a house we rented across the street from the main campus. It was not a nice neighborhood or a nice house. But it was, most of the time, a pretty good time. (There was one memorable time when the water got shut off and I was on my period and had kind of a fit but other than that, it was decent.) I don't think I felt particularly grown up then; I hardly felt anything but panic about my future and desperation to get some kind of job and misery about my then-relationship.

Everything was uncertain. And I do not do well with that kind of impenetrable mystery. I run disaster scenarios in my head, just to prep myself for the worst that could happen, you know?

It makes sense to me that people are having a hard time figuring out when they are adults. I think there are a couple of generations of folks floating around with Imposter Syndrome (the idea that you're just faking it and someone, somewhere, sometime soon is going to catch you out for the fraud that you are).

We're living at home or living with other people instead of living alone. We're staying in school longer or going back to school. We're not taking vacations or having kids or making large leisure purchases the way we used to. So how do we know we're adults?

Of course, there has always been a segment of the population for whom these things are true. It's not uncommon for poor folks to marry young as an escape from their parents' house -- or apartment, as the case may be. It's not uncommon to split rent and utilities with someone just so you both have a place to live.

And so I wonder what a survey of people who didn't grow up in the suburbs, like the people in that study, would look like.

I may not have felt very grown up, flailing around and trying to make my life take some sort of coherent shape, but, in hindsight, I really was. I think if you are making the kinds of choices that shape and direct your future, you're making grown-up choices.

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Adult-me bought myself a birthday present -- and, oh, I smell good. Thanks for the tip, Tynan!


Being an adult is not owning property or having kids, though those things can be part of it for some people. Being an adult doesn't mean being financially independent.

Being an adult is often defined as being self-sufficient; the trick is that self-sufficiency does not mean you don't depend on other people. We seem to have this mistaken belief that to be self-sufficient you must never ask anyone for help. This idea of self-sufficiency is a lie. And it's a lie we tell ourselves to our own detriment. Because unless you're prepared to go live in a cave somewhere and not even barter, we all depend on each other. If that includes sharing bills with your parents so none of you end up homeless, well, guess what?

You are an adult.

Because I think being an adult is about responsibility and awareness. It's about realizing the circumstances of your life and making the choices that you have the room to make. Going back to school so you can find a new job is an adult decision. Staying in school because you like to party -- well, that may be an adult decision, as long as you're making it with both eyes open.

Because maybe being an adult is not an all-or-nothing state. I mean, we're all childlike in some ways, which isn't a bad thing either. Adulthood is not about putting away your video games and wearing only below-the-knee skirts. Adulthood is about owning your choices, including the childish ones.

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Adult-me gets to buy a car that isn't 100% practical.


I don't think America, as a national culture, deals well with nuance. (This is possibly because ideas have to be simplified to be communicated in a memorable way to as many people as possible without something important getting screwed up.) And I know a lot of people like hard and fast rules and boundaries. But adulthood is a wiggly, wriggly idea that squirms around and turns itself inside out when you try to pin it down. Adulthood is, more and more, a concept that refuses to be packaged up neatly in a 10-second sound bite for mass media broadcast.

Developmentally, we're biological adults long before we're social ones. And I think it makes sense that we're shifting away from what passed for adulthood rituals based on age. Getting tanked at 21 is a weaksauce adulthood ritual, right? There's getting your driver's license, but not having a car shouldn't mean you aren't an adult.

I can't say I always feel like a grown up even now. But, because I do not conflate "adult" with "boring and old," those times aren't really jarring, don't create any sort of dissonance for me. I like being an adult, as murky as the definition waters are. I like knowing, as much as we are all bounded by situation and circumstance, I am the boss of me. And sometimes that means being straight-up childish and then dealing with the consequences.

It's scary -- if I can't pay my bills, it's because I've failed somehow. But I wouldn't trade that for being a kid again, in essence powerless in any of life's big choices.

Maybe that's part of what prevents people from identifying themselves as adults; there's a lot of fear that comes along with taking responsibility for your life, no matter who you live with or what job you work. It's a hard thing to do when the national prospects look kind of grim.

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Adult-me is about to turn 35 -- this is what 35 looks like for me.


But every year, every birthday, is another year I've had to practice this whole living thing. I don't know that I'm really any better at it than I was at 25, but I'm more comfortable with it, less afraid. I like it better and better. I'm not living it to anyone else's schedule, or to anyone else's idea of what being a grown up should look like. And the older I get, the less guilty I feel about that.

Other people's milestones don't have to be my milestones. And there's so much left to do.

I'm about to enter the second half of my thirties. I like 3s and I like 5s so, by their powers combined, it's auspicious to me. That doesn't mean bad things won't happen. I'm sure they will because they always do.

But it's another birthday. Another year of being an adult. And it's going to be great.