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 Meanwhile, one in three adults ages 45 to 63 is unmarried, and a growing number of middle-aged men have withdrawn from the labor force.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?