Bullish Life: What Does It Mean To Be An Adult In The Modern Age?

Adults are able to commit to something

…and keep doing it even when it makes them unhappy for awhile.

A 2009 study “followed 515 married patients with serious cases of cancer or multiple sclerosis for five years. The overall divorce or separation rate was 11.6 percent—not much different from the general population. But when couples did split, the patient was six times more likely to be a woman than a man.”

Statistically, I’m sure that in a few of those cases, the sick spouse was a total lying, cheating jerk before getting sick, and the couple was going to break up anyway. Cancer equally strikes decent people and total assholes. But running out on your cancer-stricken spouse is, in general, extremely non-adult.

Of course, I’m not just talking about marriage here. You know who is seriously adult? Hospice nurses who keep getting up every morning and going to work.

Sorry, that’s kind of dark, I guess. But you ask me about adulthood, I’m not going to write about finally “investing” in a Balenciaga trenchcoat.

Adults are willing and able to be responsible for someone other than themselves

Sure, one way to do that is by having kids (see Maybe Work-Life Balance Means You Should Work MORE for some thoughts on financial planning for motherhood). But this is by no means the only way.

I also think – cue totally biased personal opinion – that being responsible for others as part of one’s politics is a marker of adulthood.

So Ayn Rand doesn’t qualify in my book, sorry! That woman was a moral infant. (See Bullish: Actually, We’re All Kind of the 1% and click to page 2 if you just want to read the part wherein I have at Ayn Rand and also use the phrase “Fleshlight full of money.”)

Brief story: at high school debate camp, I did a project on libertarianism, entitled “Nozick, Friedman, and Hayek.” We could have a genuine intellectual debate about Hayek. But Nozick? Here is the sort of argument I found persuasive for one summer when I was 16: Imagine a totally just society. Now imagine that Wilt Chamberlain is a very good basketball player, so lots of people each give some money to watch him play basketball. Then Wilt Chamberlain has more than everyone else, but since all the transactions were consensual, THEREFORE ALL INCOME INEQUALITY IS OK.

Nozick never mentions the part where those people have kids and some of the kids don’t get to go to school or the doctor. (He also never touches on what happens when they guy who owns Wilt Chamberlain’s team actually gets most of the money, and he uses it to buy off politicians. Etc.) There’s also a bit about, “If you threw books I didn’t want through my window, I don’t have to pay you for them, even if I liked the books THEREFORE NO LIBRARIES.”

This is an excellent opportunity to link to Ezra Klein on Bloomberg:

Still, for my money, the worst of Romney’s comments were these: “My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”… The problem is that he doesn’t seem to realize how difficult it is to focus on college when you’re also working full time, how much planning it takes to reliably commute to work without a car, or the agonizing choices faced by families in which both parents work and a child falls ill.

The working poor haven’t abdicated responsibility for their lives. They’re drowning in it.

And from Olivia Ghafoerkhan on the We Represent the 47 Percent blog:

“I’m willing to pay more in taxes for hungry school kids, for Pell grants, for Medicaid, for food stamps. I am not willing to pay more in taxes so you can pay less. That is taking personal responsibility, Mitt.
Paying taxes, supporting programs that lift people out of poverty and allow them to pursue the American dream. Because your world, your wealth, is made possible because of that same dream.

You were right. You can’t teach those people, those 47%, about personal responsibility because you do not know about personal responsibility.”

So, yes, I think anyone who is part of the “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps (with the help of a lot of other white people and also roads and laws and functioning public utilities and stuff), so why should I be taxed for other people’s education and healthcare?” is not much of an adult.

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    • Rabia

      When I was a teenager, a series of things happened that made me think long and hard about what it means to be an adult. One thing I remember very clearly as a turning point (in my life as well as during that time) is being on the phone to a friend, and saying: “I’m beginning to realise that ‘growing up’ means understanding how much the world sucks and that we have to deal with it the best that we can”.

      I think you put it much more eloquently above.

      Also, I’m saving the quote: “A life that causes people to thank you after you’re dead is probably a good indication that you lived in an adult manner.” I think that’s a pretty damn good life philosophy.

    • JessieAnne

      I’ve been thinking about the definition of adulthood all year. I turned 25 this year and went ‘Cripes, I better get my shit together!’ Stopped wandering around with a backpack, signed up for Open Universities and got somewhere between 1 and 3 jobs at any given time. I have savings now! Whilst I feel I’ve taken the slow boat to adulthood, 25 is confusing- just how adult should a 25 year old be?
      Sometimes I subsist on toast and brandy and other weeks I eat …well, perfectly. Does it matter? I don’t think so.
      The most telling thing I’ve experienced is a series of conflicts with my (now ex) partner and one friend of mine. Whilst I think we all behaved in a flawed manner, I know that initially I abdicated personal responsibility, and it really worsened things.
      Take home lesson? Adulthood is about how you handle your responsibilities, including acknowledging your impact on other people. It’s taken 9 months but that’s all I’ve come up with so far. :)
      Thanks for the post!

    • http://twitter.com/arletterocks Arlette

      The links. They are busted. Like, all of them. What gives?