There I was, a professional 30-year-old working woman with a mortgage and a newly-earned promotion, and I still felt like I belonged with the 21-year-old interns. As everyone sectioned off into tables at our department Christmas party, my co-workers gravitated toward each other in a predictable fashion: the married with kids at the same table; the young, single women at another; and the recent college grads and interns at another.
Even though I was closer in age to the married-with-kids folks, I still felt like my co-workers thought of me as one of the fresh-out-of-college assistants. I got the impression that without a husband or kids, many of my office mates didn’t know where to put me. And honestly, I felt the same way sometimes. The office and church were two places where I struggled to feel like a real adult, when so much of what defined “adult” were the life markers of marriage and motherhood.
I came across this article in The Atlantic called “When Are You Really an Adult?” and it struck a chord with me. It’s a fascinating read that traces the history of how we define being an adult.
The articles states,
[I]f you think of the transition to “adulthood” as a collection of markers — getting a job, moving away from your parents, getting married, and having kids — for most of history, with the exception of the 1950s and 60s, people did not become adults any kind of predictable way.
And yet these are still the venerated markers of adulthood today, and when people take too long to acquire them, or eschew them all together, it becomes a reason to lament that no one is a grown-up. While bemoaning the habits and values of the youths is the eternal right of the olds, many young adults do still feel like kids trying on their parents’ shoes.
The author traces the legal, physical, cultural, educational and historical markers we use to define adulthood and ultimately concludes that there really isn’t any set of agreed-upon markers for adulthood.
What adulthood means in a society is an ocean fed by too many rivers to count. It can be legislated, but not completely. Science can advance understanding of maturity, but it can’t get us all the way there. Social norms change, people opt out of traditional roles, or are forced to take them on way too soon. You can track the trends, but trends have little bearing on what one person wants and values. Society can only define a life stage so far; individuals still have to do a lot of the defining themselves. Adulthood altogether is an Impressionist painting — if you stand far enough away, you can see a blurry picture, but if you press your nose to it, it’s millions of tiny strokes. Imperfect, irregular, but indubitably part of a greater whole.
Not a very satisfying ending, I’ll admit. So what are the markers of adulthood? Here are a few I’d suggest that don’t have anything to do with age, relationship status or financial independence.
- Spiritual maturity. We’ve got to be rooted in knowledge of Scripture, discerning and not swayed by every new fad or teaching. We can’t be defined by how long we’ve been Christians, but instead, we must be defined by the fruit of our spiritual lives.
- Self-awareness. We’ve got to have an awareness of our strengths and weaknesses, and how they affect ourselves and others. This involves actively dealing with our “junk” (through professional counseling, or through wise introspection).
- Generosity. We don’t just want to be financially generous, but to live a life that seeks to love and serve others above ourselves. We’ve got to be willing to be inconvenienced for the sake of someone else. That requires an attitude that recognizes life is not all about us, but strives to make much of God and faithfully serve His people.
Ultimately, it’s OK if adulthood isn’t perfectly predictable or if it looks different from what you expected or assumed. So one hand, let’s cut ourselves some slack and be OK with lives that have their own markers of adulthood. But on the other hand, let’s strive to do adulthood well by pursuing God and loving others with all we have.