What does it mean to be a grown-up? I haven’t used that word in awhile; somehow it doesn’t seem very grown up to say it. Children call adults grown-ups; grown-ups don’t call themselves that.
But it’s the word I want to use here, because I feel like a kid today. It’s not that I did anything particularly thoughtless or irresponsible, or that I’m experiencing a sense of childlike wonder. No, I don’t feel childish or childlike—I just feel like a kid, a little lost, looking for guidance, in need of someone to tell me what to do. In my experience, this is something grown-ups are loathe to admit—that they (we?) are at a loss, cannot handle things themselves. So, I feel like a kid today.
When I wrote about church, my thoughts turned to why my generation has trouble with it. When I think of “grown-upness,” the same thing happens: the concept calls to mind all that’s been written about how we millennials just can’t seem to grow up in the way the world wants us to, expects us to. Depending on whom you ask, we’re floundering or exploring or procrastinating or freeing ourselves from the status quo. I’m not sure which of these, if any, we’re doing; all I know is it all feels very disorienting.
Every generation thinks they’re the exception, that they’re creating something new. In my experience, when people talk about millennial exceptionalism a mocking tone often creeps in. The term “unique and special snowflake” comes to mind. We’ve been brought up to think we deserve trophies just for showing up, they say. We think that our workplaces should accommodate our schedules rather than the other way around. We’re delaying or disavowing marriage and kids because we’re selfish. We believe the world cares enough about us that they want to see pictures of what we ate for breakfast…they say. And perhaps they’re right. Perhaps many of us do think we’re special snowflakes deserving of trophies and flex time and freedom and perfectly cooked quinoa porridge.
Setting aside that these stereotypes only take into account a very privileged, very white subset of millennials (a subset of which I am, for better or worse, a card-carrying member), they often don’t look at why we feel the need to be unique or what this is doing to us. I said at the beginning of this that I feel like a kid today. A lot of people my age(ish) I talk to feel like this every day, and it’s not because they want to. All of this nonconformity, this throwing off of expectation, betrays our lack of trust in anyone or anything. We’ve watched our parents divorce, our economic system unravel, our politics devolve into deadlock, our institutions become outdated at best and disgraced at worst.
And so we believe we have no choice but to start something new—but we, like everyone else, have no idea what that new thing will be. This uncertainty looks a lot like failure, and we feel that, deeply. Almost everyone I know has experienced depression or anxiety serious enough to feel abnormal and in some cases debilitated. Many of those people, myself included, are ashamed to admit this publicly; we know it plays into millennial stereotypes that we can’t handle ourselves, can’t grow up. And believe it or not, most of want to be grown-ups, want to feel some sense of stability. So we keep trying.
We try, with varying degrees of success. Some of us have gotten good enough at “adulting” that we have convinced everyone but ourselves that we know what we’re doing (and yes, we’ve turned the word “adult” into a verb—those who can’t do, conjugate). I even know a few people with a stable job, partner, multiple children, and a house they bought with their own money. Others are still floating, looking for a way to fit their special snowflake shape into the blizzard coming down around them. Most are in between, kids some days and grown-ups others. All of us, from what I can see, are painfully aware of the tenuous balance life in all its forms requires.
I hoped that by the end of this—and I feel that I am nearing the end of it—I would have some conclusion, something to please millennials and our elders alike. We got this! We’re not as selfish or stunted as you or we think we are! We can function in the current adult society! Sorry, no. All I can say is I am truly hopeful that we’ll make something of ourselves and the world we’re inheriting. Yes, I know a lot of people who are anxious and depressed and feel like they’ll never grow up. But here’s the thing: they’re still dreaming, still creating, still doing some really amazing, love-spreading, life-giving, community-changing things.
We might not know what we’re doing, but we’re showing up. Isn’t that all we can ask of each other?