Growing up appears to be one of life’s greatest puzzles. Apologies, but perhaps I use this almost offensive cliche because it is the only real ‘life experience’ I have so far, being 23 years old. Really, I am still growing up. But, I wonder, when do we stop? When, if ever, can we claim that how we are, right now, is how we will always be from now on? That we have gone to the school of youth, taken the tests, and graduated into the mature world? At what point can we truly accredit ourselves with a statement such as ‘I have grown up’?
I can confidently say I don’t know the answer to these questions. I suspect, in fact, that there is no single answer. To this extent, I won’t try to answer them, but simply explore them as they appear in my own mind, in the hope of inviting you to muse over them too.
An adult, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, is ‘A person or animal that has grown to full size and strength’. I find this perplexing. There are plenty of 16 and 17 year olds who are both bigger and stronger than I am. Conversely, I am also bigger and stronger than plenty of, say, 35 year olds. If you asked me, I would confidently label said teenagers as mere kids – and so what about their size. I suggest that the 35 year old would, equally confidently, tar me with the same brush.
Clearly, we all reach ‘full size and strength’ at radically different stages. Can ‘an adult’ be an arbitrary scale? An adult is, well… a thing, isn’t it? In any case, who deems us to be of full size and strength? I am not naively denying that being an adult has at least something to do with the evolution of our physical state, however, the scope of biology alone is not wide enough to determine adulthood. It’s just one piece of a much larger, and far more complex puzzle.
Here in England, and in the majority of the world, we are recognised as an adult at 18 years old, insofar as we obtain full legal control, and therefore responsibility, over ourselves. In America, it is 21 years old. In Indonesia, Myanmar and Yemen, at the ripe old age of 15, one would be considered an adult. The lack of both global consensus and sound reasoning behind these varying ages lead me to believe that the legal definition of an adult, just like that of biology, is a bit of a blunt instrument of measurement.
How can a particular age decree one an adult, and another a child? Granted, there has to be some point at which the laws change. I firmly agree – and would hope you do too – that in a court of law, a 16 year old should be tried differently to a 25 year old for the same crime. The point I am making is that being an adult is not like flicking a switch; we don’t wake up on our 15th, 18th, 21st, or any other of our birthdays with a renewed state of mind. Nor with a capability, or outlook, that we didn’t have the day before. Certainly not with a shift in ‘self’ so big that we can firmly, with unflinching resolution claim ‘I am now an adult. I have grown up’.
I have, in the usual sense of the phrase, left home. I have a full time job in London and pay rent for a room in a shared house. As I mentioned, I’m 23. Truthfully, though, do any of these trivial factors make me any more of an adult than the next person? I still talk to both my parents regularly. I know that, worst come to absolute worst, I am lucky enough that I could be bailed out. I have, should I need, a room to sleep in at either of their houses, and I am fully aware that I would be welcome back whenever.
Is the 18 year old who has started their own business on Instagram, saved enough to put a deposit down on a house and moved into it with a partner, more ‘grown up’ than me? What about, God forbid, the 17 year old who has been deployed to a battalion in the army and is running around with a fully loaded assault rifle? Does that make them an adult? Conversely, does anyone have the right to judge that the 28 year old who lives at home and works part-time at their local supermarket is not really ‘grown up’?
All of this illustrates the issue that is the title of this piece. There seems to be no clear and obvious answer as to whether or not I am an adult!
Perhaps it would be more appropriate to consider the notion of adulthood as a journey – a journey that is entirely personal to the individual. Growing up could mean a detachment from one’s parents and increased, or total, self-sufficiency and responsibility. It could simply mean getting older. Personally, I believe that becoming an adult has at least a small something to do with ‘stepping into oneself’ – for want of a more concrete and, frankly, less wishy-washy term. By this I mean an increased awareness of one’s place in the world, how we relate to others (and indeed how others relate to us), and a greater underlying understanding of ourselves. By these measures, though, it could very easily be argued that we are constantly in a state of ‘growing’ up, and never actually ‘grown’ up. Is that the key?
In a world where it is, by and large, decided when to eat, sleep, work and even when to have fun, we could perhaps do with a relaxation of the rules surrounding the concept of being an adult. Of course, not so much so that our entire legal system rests on one flimsy crutch, but enough so that there is both time and space for us all to grow up at our own pace.
Being told, by an uninspiring forty-something, sat comfortably on their high-horse; ‘God, you haven’t even started life yet, you are SO young!’ is really irritating. Maybe, though, this in fact illuminates the truth of the matter; I feel ‘grown up’ to me, but hardly at all to someone else. What is pertinent is how we perceive ourselves to be, and consequently how we behave; nobody should be able to tell you that you are, or are not, grown up – that is for you to embody. I reiterate; doesn’t some allowance needs to be made for us to grow up at our own pace?
A lot more questions seem to have been asked, rather than answered. At least in my mind, there seems to be no universal truth to adulthood. For now, though, I think it’s worth stressing that no matter what age you are, and whatever stage you are at, worrying that you should be at some stage that other ‘grown ups’ are at, is fruitless. It seems far more reasonable to suggest that growing up and becoming an adult is individual, dependant on circumstances, and to a large extent, up to you.
To help you understand what works for you, I encourage you to engage in some self-reflection – surely now is as good a time as any – and to ask yourself that question:
‘Am I an adult yet?’
By Gabriel Godfrey-Janni