In Huck’s Raft, his award-winning 2004 history of American childhood, historian Steven Mintz traced four hundred years of history to reveal both how much has changed in the American experience of youth and how much has remained surprisingly stable. Now, with The Prime of Life, which we’ll publish in the spring, Mintz turns to adulthood, putting the profound transformations we see today into new perspective by exploring how past generations navigated the passage to maturity. Below, he takes the recent publication of an obituary for adulthood in American popular culture as the starting point for a quick introduction to history’s consistent reshaping of what it means to be a grown-up in America.
Last week, cultural critic A. O. Scott’s New York Times Magazine article “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture” shot to the top of the Times’s most emailed articles list. Scott’s article was only the most recent instance of an author charting the demise of the grown up as a cultural ideal. Other recent examples include such books as Kay Hymowitz’s Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys, Christopher Noxon’s Rejuvenile: Kickball, Cartoons, Cupcakes, and the Reinvention of the American Grown-up, and Diana West’s The Death of the Grown-Up: How America's Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization. Books in this genre argue that too many young people refuse to embrace the attributes of full adult status, including marriage, a stable job, and even an independent residence, that too many mothers and fathers have abdicated the primary responsibilities of parenthood, and that too many of the middle aged refuse to “act their age,” dressing in inappropriate fashions, attending movies and reading books targeted at adolescents, and spending their leisure time in juvenile pastimes such as playing videogames.
Contributing to the sense that adulthood is dying are a host of unsettling statistics. Today, one in seven young adults 24 to 34 years old lives with their parents. Over half of college graduates surveyed two years after college reported lacking a sense of direction and an annual income of less than $20,000. Meanwhile, one in three adults ages 45 to 63 is unmarried, and a growing number of middle-aged men have withdrawn from the labor force.
So is adulthood dying?
No—and it’s a failure to adopt a historical perspective that goes back further than the 1950s that has led too many commentators to assume that contemporary American society deviates from a fixed, timeless norm of adulthood. In fact, the word “adulthood” only appeared in the late nineteenth century. Earlier in time, that phase of life was called womanhood and manhood. Manhood signified economic independence and household headship, while womanhood connoted authority and control over household tasks. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, adulthood came to be associated with maturity, responsibility, and seriousness. It also implied conformity to culturally prescribed gender and family roles as well as a clearly delineated timetable for achieving adult status. This definition of adulthood reached its peak following World War II, when those who failed to conform were stigmatized as immature and possibly homosexual. Criticism of this conception of adulthood initially arose during the 1950s, when such playwrights and novelists as Arthur Miller and John Updike exposed the shallowness of grown-up life, when Playboy magazine launched its critique of the demands that marriage placed upon men, and when a growing number of physicians and psychologists concluded that the organization of work induced hypertension and undue levels of stress in male workers, at the same time that the division of family roles left many wives and mothers discontented in their marriages and overly invested in their sons, preventing them from developing a proper masculine identity.
The 1960s intensified the critique of adulthood, associating this life stage with stagnation and “selling out.” Instead of admonishing grown-ups to “put away childish things,” popular culture called on adults to find their “inner child” and to recapture the playfulness, imagination, and sense of wonder associated with childhood and youth. Adulthood lost its allure as it became ever more tightly associated with stagnation, torpor, and quiet desperation.
In many respects, the decline of the definition of adulthood that dominated from the nineteenth century until the 1950s represents a clear-cut advance over the past. Adults today are far freer to define their identity as they wish, rid of many of the taboos, norms, and conventions that restricted their predecessors. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake for adults to simply strive to emulate youth’s freedoms and sense of possibility. After a prolonged period marked by the fetishizing of the young, the time has come to reimagine adulthood not in terms of rigid roles and expectations, but of those elements that make adulthood special: Responsibility rather than recklessness, maturity rather than naiveté, experience and empathy rather than unseasoned rawness, and the wisdom and compassion to embrace others and lead life to its fullest.