Adult Before 30?

Oct 16, 2003 |Steve Watters

Some think it takes guys 30 years to become adults. The question is, do you meet these low expectations or exceed them?

In the early 1980s, all 30 of the companies that made up the Dow Jones, including blue chips such as 3M, Coca Cola, and Proctor and Gamble, were trading for less than their liquid value. That means if you bought out all their stock and simply sold off their buildings, trucks and machinery you could make a nice profit.

When you consider how expensive those stocks are now (even after inflation and some recent drops), it’s obvious those companies were undervalued. Even though those companies had all their fundamentals in place, the market just didn’t have high expectations.

If you are currently a man in your 20s, you should be aware that your stock is substantially undervalued as well. Many observers have downgraded your stock because of a growing number of 20-somethings who seem to be little more than kids in big peoples’ bodies. In fact, some commentators now simply write off the whole period from age 20 to 30 (what I call “The Hungry Years”). Watching the trends, they have little reason to expect today’s 20-something to grow up and offer anything of value before the age of 30.

Consider these recent reports, starting with a quote from Frank Furedi, a professor of sociology at the University of Kent at Canterbury.

“Our society is full of lost boys and girls hanging out at the edge of adulthood. . . . Society has come to accept the idea that people do not become adults until they are in their late thirties. As a result, adolescence has extended well into the 20s” (Spiked, July 29, 2003).

In similar fashion Edward Eveld writes in the The Kansas City Star that “not too long ago, the saying went, it was a bad idea to trust anyone over 30. Now 30 is the new 21 or 22. It’s the threshold of becoming an adult” (Sep. 21, 2003).

Expectations are at an all time low. But what changed? Is it no longer possible for guys to become adults during their 20s? Like Coca Cola or 3M of the early '80s, the fundamentals seem to be in place. A 20-year-old man is at the same level of biological maturity that 20 year olds were generations before.

“By 20, most of the mental and bodily characteristics that have been evolving in the pre-adult years are at or near their peak levels,” wrote Daniel Levinson in his classic book from the 1970s, The Seasons of a Man’s Life. Levinson marked the period from 17 to 22 as the age that men move from adolescence into adulthood.

But despite reaching their peak of physical development and having the capacity for the demands of adulthood, guys for some reason still aren’t making the transition.

What about the age milestones that once propelled guys into adulthood? For many in the past it was 18 — the point at which they finished high school and were recognized as mature enough to vote. The next big threshold was 21, when they were considered sufficiently responsible to drink alcohol. The last big age milestone before 30 has been 25 — the point at which they began sliding down the backside of the 20s. Incidentally, 25 is also the point of maturity rental car companies require their customers to achieve.

Such milestones appear arbitrary, however, when you read biographies about guys who didn’t wait for some magic age (especially not 30) to take on adult responsibilities.

David was 17 when he killed Goliath.

Bill Gates formed Microsoft at age 20.

At 23, Theodore Roosevelt became the youngest man ever to be elected to the New York State Assembly.

Winston Churchill became a hero when he escaped from his captors during the Boer War. While captive, he penned the following line, “I’m 25 today — it is terrible to think how little time remains.”

These achievements prove that maturing into an adult isn’t simply the result of accumulating birthdays.

So what does it take to become an adult? When you survey the books on this subject, you consistently see two words: commitment and responsibility.

Of course commitment and responsibility are not as sexy as physical development or birthday parties. No one’s making sitcoms or movies celebrating commitment or responsibility. In fact, anyone looking to popular culture for their cues has to assume that everything good that will happen in their lives will happen before they become adults. For that reason, we tend to frontload our lives and try to push off the traits of adulthood as long as possible. But a guy who can embrace commitment and responsibility in a countercultural way during his 20s has an incredible opportunity to break out of the pack — long before his peers who are living down to low cultural expectations.

The path to adulthood and its undervalued benefits involves two key pursuits: making commitments and assuming responsibility.

Making Commitments

“You need to make a commitment,” says Les Brown, a motivational speaker, “and once you make it, then life will give you some answers.” Commitment enables us to move from the disconnected random episodes of adolescence and into the more unified and sweeping chapters of adulthood.

One of the first commitments we make is to an employer. In exchange for payment, we commit to give a certain level of time and effort. Striving to meet employer expectations is a great way to experience the fruits of commitment.

The more complicated task is making commitments to people who can’t always respond with tangible rewards. That’s why we’re so often reluctant to sign up to teach Sunday School classes, serve as youth mentors or take on similar obligations. But it’s in making commitments to people that we experience community — the sense that we are not alone.

Among the commitments a guy can make, it is the covenant of marriage that has historically proven to be a reliable rite of passage into adulthood. The whole business of serving someone for better or worse, for richer or poorer and in sickness and in health has a way of challenging the adolescent in us. I still remember the wake up call I had a few months into my marriage when I came home with a bonus check. All the way home I thought about the things I wanted to buy with that money, only to have my wife greet the news by saying, “oh great, now we can buy a vacuum cleaner.”

Assuming Responsibility

“Responsibility is the thing people dread most of all,” says actor and author Frank Carne, “yet it is the one thing in the world that develops us — gives us manhood or womanhood fiber.”

The first step toward adulthood is taking responsibility for yourself by cutting ties of dependence. Recent surveys tell us that as much as 38 percent of 20 to 34 year olds are living with their parents. This arrangement greatly delays the maturity process because the safety net makes it harder for you to be fully responsible.

Taking responsibility for yourself is only the beginning, however. The real test is being responsible for someone else — allowing someone else to depend on you.

Of all the commitments and responsibilities I took on during my 20s that pushed me toward adulthood, it wasn’t until six months before my 30th birthday that I felt fully settled into the role. That’s when my wife and I brought our new son home from the hospital. Looking up at me from his crib, I could sense him saying, “I don’t know where you are on the whole growing up thing, but I’m counting on you to take care of me.”

“The value of marriage is not that adults produce children,” says author Peter DeVries, “but that children produce adults.” Our son and daughter are growing up quickly, but we feel like they’ve grown us up just as much.

The frustrating thing about responsibility and commitment is that they rarely provide instant gratification. By their nature, they challenge our adolescent desires for freedom, autonomy and self-fulfillment. But like weight conditioning, we need that challenge to tear the old muscle and build the new — that’s the process that finally makes us men.

Despite the dismal forecast for the third decade of your life, this is your prime time. All the fundamentals are there for you to be successful. The difference between you and the next guy is your appetite for commitments and responsibilities. Take them on now and you’ll rocket past poor market expectations and show a skeptical world what incredible things a man can still do before 30.

Copyright 2003 Steve Watters. All rights reserved.

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