Ignis Fatuus

The New Adulthood

How hipsters are redefining what it means to grow up

By David Dick-Agnew

… there’s a shield around us
we are heady we are groundless
& we burn our friends & kill their names
build insecure & petty fames
& tattoo things that we believe
stars & skulls & hearts in half-sleeves

there’s a shield around us
tell me how is it you’ve found us
’cause we hide our tracks & watch the ground
our footfalls they don’t make a sound
we’ve cursed the names of our hometowns
we’re compassless & nowhere bound

sent a letter to Mom & Dad
Mom & Dad the money’s running out
got a letter from Mom & Dad
I swear to God they don’t get me at all

– “Young Shields,” Casiotone for the Painfully Alone

o write about adulthood, even to contemplate it, you first need to know what it is you’re writing about.  A cursory definition, though, does as much to confuse the subject as it does to clarify it.  We each have an intuitive sense of what it means to be an adult, and what distinguishes an adult from a person at an earlier stage of development, but to define adulthood as something simple and binary that can be easily determined by any single factor belies our knowledge of what it means to be an adult.  As something ambiguous, almost subjective, adulthood is as much a state of mind as something determinate that is thrust upon us, and for that reason, identifying what makes an adult is like defining how many grains of sand constitute a pile.

In spite of this subjectivity, our conventions for defining adulthood tend to be social, external, and concrete.  An adult is something we become as we mature, but we can only recognise it when it presents as a series of actions.  So while maturity may be a continuum, adulthood is seen as a set of categories we either fall into or don’t—a very limited and inflexible way of looking at identity.

Adulthood is not the same as being of age, obviously; we rather arbitrarily pick ages at which someone can begin to drive, to smoke, to drink, to have sex, to vote—they are arbitrary, but they are also binary, clearly defined by age, and non-negotiable.  I don’t think anyone would argue that these make a person an adult, alone or in combination.  Getting your driver’s licence at 16 is certainly one step on the way, but adulthood is more than a single step, at least in contemporary culture.

It was not always this way; other cultures have marked the passage from childhood into adulthood without a lot of grey area in between; one day you are a boy, and the next you are a man.  Of course, a transformation this profound may be straightforward, but it isn’t simple.  It must be marked by ritual.  The bar or bat mitzvah, for example, marks the day a 13-year-old child raised in the Jewish faith becomes responsible for his or her actions—a reasonable enough working definition of adulthood, although 13-year-olds are not so responsible for their actions that they can be tried as adults for crimes they commit, or do any of the things mentioned above.  There are dozens of other examples of ritual or ceremonial recognition of the passage from childhood into adulthood: confirmation within the Catholic church, usually between the ages of 12 and 16; the Rumspringa of the Amish at the age of 16 to 18; the Quinceañera of Latin America at 15; the débutante balls of the American South at 21; the Vision Quests and Sundance Rituals of Native Americans; and the Walkabouts of the Australian Aborigines, to name just a few.  Some are merely ceremonial, but some are established as a trial.

In many cultures, the rites of passage are (or were) specifically tied to the onset of sexual development and maturity, such as the menarche-centric ceremonies of India, Australia, Africa or North America, or the bizarre practices of the Etoro and Baruya of Papua New Guinea.  Perhaps the most striking of the rites of passage into adulthood is the subincision ritual of the Aborigines, and certain Pacific Islanders, Africans and South Americans; I won’t describe it here, but suffice to say it is ghastly.  It begs the question: why the need to ritualise the passage to adulthood, and why with such ceremony, and why is it so often brutal?

The rites of passage acknowledge transformation, but transformation is a gradual process.  Adulthood is given special consideration because it is the point at which a child becomes a contributing member of society—a recognition of their passing from the stage of being a dependent to being a provider.  This is more than a simple socio-economical shift, of course; tied up in this is both personal identity and status within the tribe.  The ceremony, which is often attended by everyone, or at least everyone of the child’s gender, is a formal acknowledgement from all that this transition has finished taking place; the transition may be long but the arrival is abrupt.  The child has become one of the people who possess power in the tribe, and just to clear up any doubt about where someone falls in the overall power structure of the tribe, this is formalized as a binary characteristic; either one is an equal or one isn’t.  In terms of social status, it’s cut and dried.

What’s interesting about all of these rituals is that they are purely symbolic.  By contrast, a wedding is symbolic, but a marriage is material (that is, finances change, living arrangements change, sexual practices change), so there is a material basis for the wedding ceremony.  For the coming-of-age ritual, there is no material basis.  This may be why these rituals have been so important to tribal politics, on the one hand, and why they are de-emphasized in modern culture, on the other.

The shift from a rigidly structured society to our own more complex, individualistic one would explain the disappearance of the coming-of-age ritual.   In a culture that clearly demarcates the extent of childhood and the beginning of manhood or womanhood, a young adult knows where he or she stands.  As least so far as identity is tied to one’s social status, one’s identity is never in question.  The utility of having set, non-negotiable, patronage-free roles and power structures within a society should be obvious; certainly most reactionary conservative movements are fanatically devoted to the idea.  The alternative, that power comes from within, and is a function of one’s efforts or character rather than the seat one occupies, reflects modern values of individualism, cultural pluralism and egalitarianism.

Of course, when the transition becomes prolonged, and is not marked by a single ceremony but by a series of ambiguous rites (or, worse, by nothing at all), one’s identity as an adult becomes murky.  Am I an adult? This is an existentialist question our ancestors had little problem answering.  Today, it’s not so clear.

n a recent interview, Joe Mande, founder and curator of Look At This Fucking Hipster said, “Even though [hipsters] are young adults and often college-educated, they have a certain kind of childish quality to them. They’re like college-educated babies.”  He goes on to hypothesize that it’s the result of being coddled and told how special they were as children.

Struggling to find adulthood during an adolescence that extends later than ever, and in the absence of a more traditional ceremony, is not unique to hipsters, nor is it new.  Consider the following: in 1998, Andrew Papachristos of U. Mass. published a paper in which he argued that street gangs—who still often practise initiation rites—have taken the place of traditional rites of passage for at-risk youth; it has been argued this extends to include the hazing rituals of fraternities as well.  Hazing can mark a moment of arrival—of acceptance to equality within a group—much the same way a more traditional rite of passage could.

But for those who forsake coming-of-age rituals altogether, even watered-down substitutions, it becomes more difficult to tell when adolescence ends and adulthood begins.  With no mantle of adulthood clearly placed on their shoulders, how does one know when to abandon their “childish qualities,” especially when there’s no compelling reason to do so?  A recently released study of Canadians showed that teenagers are Canada’s happiest demographic—and why not, when they’re granted freedom and autonomy, with few responsibilities?  (As Judith “Miss Manners” Martin said, “Once you identify a period of life in which people get to stay out late but don’t have to pay taxes—naturally, no one wants to live any other way.”)  Since there is no moment of ritualised transformation, but instead a series of markers that, cumulatively, make up the modern rites of passage, the path to adulthood becomes increasingly self-determined, and indeterminate.

In 2004, a group of sociologists from U. Penn. published a paper comparing attitudes towards these markers of adulthood across the last century; certain markers, such as marriage, were de-emphasised, while the overall trend was, in the words of one reporter, “that it takes much longer to make the transition to adulthood today than a few decades ago, and longer than at any time in America’s history. According to traditional benchmarks, 65 percent of males had reached adulthood by the age of 30 in 1960 and only 31 percent had reached adulthood in 2000.”

These traditional benchmarks include, almost universally, “leaving home, finishing school, getting married, having a child, and being financially independent.”  As statistics show, “the number of early 20-somethings in college has doubled over the past five decades. Today, there are more women than men attending college. Attending graduate school is more common, also, thereby increasing the length of time people spend preparing for adulthood.”

Statistics Canada has a wealth of information on the subject.  In 30 years, completion of post-secondary education has more than doubled among 18-to-34 year olds.  Among the same group, the percentage living married or common-law, and the percentage living with children, have fallen by over a third.  Kids 30 years ago left home roughly 2 years earlier (of course, in other cultures moving out isn’t as important; in Japan, for instance, only 7% of respondents in a survey said living apart from in-laws was important for a successful marriage, compared with 51% in Canada and 47% in the US—proof that the value of any of these markers, taken in isolation, is indeed subjective and mutable).

Statistics like these can give us information about changing habits, but not necessarily about changing values, or about a generation’s changing identity.  To get that information, one needs to ask directly.  So in 2003, a study was conducted by the University of Chicago to do just that.  Respondents were asked to rate the importance of 7 markers of maturity (completing education, working full-time, becoming financially independent, living independently of parents, getting married, having a child, and supporting a family).  Predictably, importance was shifted away from marriage and childbearing and towards education and financial independence.

At 26.2 years of age—according to those surveyed—someone could reasonably be expected to have hit all seven markers.  By the logic of the survey (and the people surveyed), 26 is the official age of adulthood, assuming one stays on schedule. Of course, staying on schedule is becoming increasingly difficult.

n interesting convergence: as young adults are placing more emphasis on their careers and their finances as the indicators of adulthood, these same careers and finances are taking longer than ever to establish.  Post-secondary school is becoming more the norm, and post-grad work is becoming more common (4 in 10 American adults aged 18 to 29 were enrolled in school as of 2008), meaning young adults don’t enter the workforce until later.  Simultaneously, the advantage traditionally given to those workers who had higher-level education is vanishing.  An entire battery of forces is coinciding on young adults today to prevent them from fully realising the goals most important to them:

  • Home ownership costs have nearly doubled in Canada in the past decade, and a recent dip notwithstanding, are on course to double again in the next decade.  The US market has taken a larger slump—but this is of no help to the people who entered the housing market before 2008.  Home ownership is one of the major markers of adulthood, but it is being priced out of the grasp of most young people.
  • Overall household debt in Canada now tops 115% of personal disposable income.  20 years ago, this figure was 72%.  This increase hits young families disproportionately.  Lifelong debt has gotten so pervasive, and become so taken for granted, that according to a study released last month, 39% of Americans define success in life as being debt-free, and a further 29% define success as being able to cover basics like education and retirement.
  • Graduation from a post-secondary institution has become a more important marker than in the past, but student debt has increased—not just the number of people relying on student loans (which basically doubled in the 15 years between 1985 and 2000), but also the amount being borrowed by the average student.  Tuition increased (in Ontario, more than doubled) in the 15 years between 1991 and 2006.  In the US, student debt for the 2008-2009 school year spiked to 25% higher than debt from just one year prior.  Meanwhile, the advantage of having a post-secondary degree, in terms of the increased wages it demands, has more or less disappeared.
  • Real wages for the middle class continue to fall, which of course only exacerbates the increased pressures on housing and student debt.  Even worse: not only have real wages fallen overall (especially towards the bottom of the pyramid), but the wage gap between new entrants into the job market and older employees has also increased, especially for young men and recent male immigrants.  The increased wage gap between 1981 and 2004 represents stagnation or decline in starting wages for new hires, while senior employees enjoyed wage increases between 14% and 22%.
  • Exacerbating the drop in wages: pensions and benefits have been cut, frequently by replacing full-time year-round employees with freelance and / or contract employees; the overall percentage of freelancers working contract positions nearly doubled in the 5 years between 1989 and 2004, and during the same period increased from 14% to 25% for people in their first year of employment.  This also means lack of stability (which also discourages investment in real estate, for example), since contract employment is never guaranteed for very long.
  • Unemployment among Americans aged 18-29 is 37%, the highest in more than 30 years.
  • The average cost of a wedding in Canada is nearly $20,000.00 and in the US, as high as $27,800.00—a number which has increased nearly 12% just in the last two years.  If young adults decide to put off a wedding (or having kids) until their careers are stable, then the wedding and kids—the final important markers of adulthood—are put off even longer.

These economic forces all work synergistically against young adults trying to create for themselves the same types of lives as their parents enjoyed.  It’s difficult to imagine the ways in which they work in conjunction with one another, which is why it’s hard to make a clear argument for why, exactly, it’s taking many people longer today to establish a career and a mortgage and get married and have kids (see the comments for a cute mathematical shorthand of why this is).  It is, you could say, the emergent properties of all these forces working in concert that together worsen each obstacle standing in the way of establishing a young person’s adulthood.

ecause these obstacles to fulfilled adulthood are complex and inter-aggravating, it’s sometimes hard to come up with clear reasons why immaturity—this “prolonged adolescence”—persists longer.  It’s more than just economic postponement.  Some analysts argue that earning power as we have come to expect it is not just being delayed, but that we may see “an enduring downward shift in lifetime earnings for these groups.”  This means more to people than just having a house or pension.  It has a chilling effect on a citizen’s ability to engage in society.

In his 2007 book “Giving,” Bill Clinton attributes a quote to Peter Singer, saying that Warren Buffett has donated more money to charity, even adjusted for inflation, than Rockefeller and Carnegie.  Buffett has said he plans to give away 95% of his fortune.  Of course, that would still leave him with over $2.3 billion, more than enough to keep him warm until the day he dies.  Young adults with the aforementioned economic woes are more likely than not—between student loans and mortgage—to have a negative net worth.  If anything, Buffett’s generosity may be indicative of the gross disparity between the super-rich and the rest of society, larger today than at any time in recent history.

Clinton goes on to explain that while people who give (of their time, of their money) do so in the belief that they are making the world a better place for their children, and their et cetera, those who “choose” not to give, on the other hand, suffer from an antithetical delusion: they “don’t believe that what they do would make a difference, either because their resources are limited, or they’re convinced efforts to change other people’s lives and conditions are futile.  They don’t feel morally obligated to give.”

In his book “The Trap,” which coincidentally also came out in 2007, Daniel Brook poses a counterargument.  Because of the financial burden placed on new graduates, you have two choices: you can pursue your ideals by working in an industry you have no moral qualms about, thereby condemning yourself to poverty, or you can sell out and make big money working for an evil corporation.  I’m sure it sounds more nuanced when he says it.  But he reflects a choice not covered in other laments for young adulthood like Tamara Draut’s “Strapped” or Amy Kamenetz’s “Generation Debt“—the choice between single-mindedly pursuing a career (and wealth) within a system designed to concentrate capital in the hands ever fewer individuals, or leading a richer life, getting involved with friends and community, starting a family, participating in civil dialogue.  The pursuit of career and financial stability, for the unprivileged classes, means putting off or giving up on marriage and a family, whereas the pursuit of marriage and a family virtually ensures that one will be making mortgage payments until death.  What Clinton misses is that—according to this line of reasoning—young people most committed to giving something back to their community are least able to do it, whereas those who have something to give are not leading socially responsible lives.

Admittedly, this may be a false dichotomy.  What is certain is that community involvement, as another indicator of maturity, is affected by the aforementioned markers already being pushed back.  Consider voter turnout as a measure of community involvement: homeowners are over 50% more likely to vote than renters (an increase from less than half the demographic to over two-thirds), and are more involved in community and environmental affairs.  Even just getting married makes you more likely to vote.

If community involvement—whether that’s voting, volunteering, or going to PTA meetings—is at least partially contingent on things like marriage, homeownership and childrearing, then it follows that as marriage, homeownership and childrearing are delayed or avoided, so too will be involvement in the community.  Since integration into the existing structure of a community was the impetus behind the coming-of-age ritual in the first place, it becomes apparent why single, childless renters who fail to integrate as tightly into the greater community also fail to present as adults.  Sadly for these people, integrating into a community may be one of the most important factors in overall well-being.

Instead, people with “delayed adolescence” form a loose subcommunity of like-minded young adults.  As it turns out, fitting in with one’s peers has always been more important than fitting in with the adult world, the reason why peer pressure trumps social pressure almost every time—which brings us back to hipsters.

et’s examine the archetype of the hipster a little more closely.  Hipsters may be the most stereotypical example of people with delayed adolescence: they remain as superficial as teenagers despite being in their 20s and 30s.  They are single, urban, and don’t contribute to society—least of all through their careers, through which they meander aimlessly.

Hipsters are still, even in 2010, painfully ironic.  While the rest of the pop-culture world has moved on to a very un-ironic appreciation of Stephanie Meyer and Justin Bieber, hipsters are the last bastion of hardcore postmodernism: “Aesthetics,” writes Time Out New York’s Christian Lorentzen, “are assimilated—cannibalized—into a repertoire of meaninglessness, from which the hipster can construct an identity in the manner of a collage, or a shuffled playlist on an iPod.”  Or, from an Urban Dictionary definition of a hipster: “A contrived identity constructed out of a pastiche of symbols co-opted from bohemian movements of the past, and then reassembled and repackaged. Yet, unlike bohemian subcultures of earlier periods, the hipster lives by no common creed, ethic, or collection of political beliefs.”  Hipsters are adults with lives that smack of a lack of depth, despite, as Lorentzen says, “fetishizing the authentic”—the classic postmodern paradox.  They are bourgeois.  They emerge from the upper-middle class but embrace bohemianism as performance rather than social conscience.  They are highly informed but are intellectual dilettantes, Wildean in their conscious and aggressive detachment and lack of depth.  Or so the stereotype goes.

Is hipsterism a fad?  Is it simply fashion?  Is it a self-indulgent phase one goes through, like all young adults, and then reluctantly sets aside when adulthood can no longer be deferred?  Or does it represent a kind of disengaged self-awareness that won’t fade until replaced by heavier matters, like starting a family?  Does the absence of responsibility lead to an inescapable fixation with persona?  As Rob Horning says, “In always pushing ourselves to repudiate hipsterism, we may drive ourselves to new ways to conceive of our identity—but what good are these if these are always ripe for becoming the new modes of hipsterdom?”

If this is the case—if hipsters, the poster children of prolonged adolescence, are doomed, in trying to keep ahead of hipsterism, to “always remain on the hipster path,” in Hornings words—then hipsterism may be here to stay.  They may actually comprise an entire generation who will age but never become adults in the traditional sense.  All this talk of the “delay” of career development, homeownership, marriage and childrearing is constructed under the assumption that all these things are, eventually, inevitable.  But they’re not; if a generation is sufficiently overeducated and disenfranchised, it’s possible they will never marry, buy a home or have children.  According to the criteria selected by society as a whole, they will never reach adulthood.  Instead of devoting their attention to cultivating children or a career, to what else can they turn their attention but the cultivation of themselves?

one of this, again, is without precedent; spinsters and bachelors are established archetypes in popular imagination.  But they are merely unmarried and childless; there’s no assumption that they are also feckless, ironic, post-modern aesthetes.  There’s also a certain pejorative antisocial taint to the terms, which is quite unrelated to the criticisms levelled against hipsters and is not applied to them.  I would argue hipsters and others criticised for their “extended adolescence” are part of a broader trend than the isolated spinsters and bachelors of traditional family-centric society—a subculture that calls our assumptions about adulthood into question.

If many young adults are to remain permanently single, childless, renting instead of owning, dating but not marrying, working contracts instead of finding permanent, rewarding careers—and this is certainly the trend, applying to more people and extending longer into their lives—it may constitute a sizable group of people who live their lives without hitting the markers of adulthood.  Does this constitute a cohort of people who never become adults in the traditional way?  They may develop their aesthetic sense, acting as tastemakers.  They may mature emotionally and intellectually, becoming outsider cultural and political commentators.  But the pat markers we rely on to define adulthood, in such material terms, grow increasingly useless to define us.

So what, ultimately, is adulthood?  Is it personal responsibility for one’s actions, as the Jewish tradition put its?  Is it material acquisition, or reaching certain career and family goals?  Or is there a way of considering maturity in immaterial ways, even if it means resorting to the subjective and the ambiguous?   My own take, in the end, is that we reach adulthood when we have invested more into our own personal development than the people responsible for getting us to the point where we’re able to do this.  Some of us may never reach this point, but whether or not we do can’t be measured by a census.  Adulthood, for these people, is an identity to take on—not one bestowed by the tribe.