Illustration by Dave van Patten

Adulting Through the Ages

This might be the first time in history we’ve had the luxury of using “adult” as a verb

Lately you’ve been going through a few changes. Your brain is now registering salad. Your circulatory system is around 70 percent coffee. Your hormones are all over the place, telling you it’s late and you’ve got work in the morning. Please don’t be alarmed: This is all perfectly natural, as are the feelings of shame and confusion you may be experiencing. You’re not alone. It’s 2016, and no one in their right mind wants to own up to being a grown-up.

So when exactly did our collective embarrassment shift its focus from the horrors of puberty to the horrors of filling in tax forms? Because it did. We’ve become sheepish about behaving responsibly in public; one giveaway is the now way-too-popular penchant for using “adult” as a verb in everyday conversation.

As seen in cries for help such as:

And in politics:

And in real-time youth marketing:

The message in the subtext is clear: in its verb form, adulthood gets demoted from defining arc of human existence to an act as transient as making coffee.

Apologizing for adulting has become so prevalent, in fact, that the American Dialect Society included “adult (verb)” among its Words of the Year nominees for 2015, alongside mic drop and zero fucks given.

“I’d always wanted to invent a word, so I feel kind of great about that,” says Kelly Williams Brown, whose Adulting blog and 2013 New York Times bestseller, Adulting: How To Become A Grown-Up In 468 Easy(ish) Steps, are probably directly responsible for the term. “It started as a trickle where people would send me a shirt that said ‘Adulting is hard, I don’t want to do it today.’ Then it really hit the zeitgeist in a way that wasn’t entirely evident to me how or why. If you look at a Google Trend of it over time, all of a sudden it just blew up.”

For Williams Brown, adulthood today isn’t defined by the checklist of big life events sociologists and economists love to define as the demographic markers of maturity — entering the workforce, getting married, having kids and so on. Instead, she says, you know you’re an adult when you’re living life steady-as-she-goes “with a minimum of fuss or expectation that people are going to give you a standing ovation for, say, paying your rent on time.”

“It’s not something you are or aren’t,” she explains. “It’s something that you do. And it’s something that’s done in small ways, deliberately, throughout the day.” Such as making your bed in the morning, which Williams Brown casts as her own personal Everest. True adults will accomplish this feat in 45 unremarkable seconds. “They don’t find it,” as she once did, “to be this enormous, self-sacrificing moment of nobility.”

But what about those big, daunting turning points that used to define our progress? For many living through their 20s, they no longer seem relevant to the process of growing up because they’re not even dots on the horizon. The median age for marriage in the U.S., for instance, is higher than it’s ever been — 27 for women and 29 for men, compared with 20 for women and 22 for men in 1960. Kids also are being kicked down the road (figuratively speaking, of course). Across the whole population of the U.K., only a fifth of women aged 25 are mothers already, compared to half of such women in 1975.

Intensifying these long-term demographic drifts have been eight years of economic strictures that seem specially concocted to prevent anyone under the age of 30 from getting a foot in the door of either a secure job or a home of their own. Many in the Great Recession demographic have found that when they finally have been ready to take those plunges, the opportunities to do so have all evaporated. “Stability of income allows for a lot of the other things that we ascribe to adulthood — like buying a house and getting married,” Williams Brown says. “And we live in a time when none of those conceits are necessarily the case anymore.”

According to Jeffrey Arnett, a psychology professor at Clark University in Massachusetts and author of the book Emerging Adulthood, deferring the trappings of maturity has given young people “more freedom for exploration than young people in times past.”

“Their society grants them a long moratorium in their late teens and 20s without expecting them to take on adult responsibilities as soon as they’re able to do so. Instead, they’re allowed to move into adult responsibilities gradually, at their own pace.”

Even for the experts, then, what makes a grown-up a grown-up is hard to lock down. Which suggest that, just as no one had ever encountered a modern teenager before Elvis Presley invented them in the 1950s, the notion of adulthood as we understand it might only be a relatively recent historical phenomenon.

Going way back, our legal concept of an “age of majority” is quite literally Byzantine. It dates from the great book of Roman laws codified under the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the 530s AD. Its tutela impuberes rulings defined adulthood in terms of having had sufficient education to make responsible decisions, stating that a male child no longer needed a tutor, and hence could own or dispose of property, as soon as he was physically capable of having children. And, licking a finger and sticking it in the air, it fixed that age at 14 for boys and 12 for girls.

This decision set the norm for marriageable age across most of Europe for the following thousand years and more — through to Shakespeare who, writing in the 1590s, made his 13-year-old Juliet the object of courtship, betrothal and balcony hijinks.

From this benchmark emerged even lower bars for sexual consent. For centuries, common law across most of Europe and the U.S. established the lower age for legal intercourse at somewhere between 10 (which by 1880 applied in 37 U.S. states) and 13 (in England and France).

Despite the Victorians’ reputation for moral uprightness, the baseline didn’t move much until 1885 when a pioneering London journalist, William Thomas Stead, demonstrated how easy it was to sell a 13-year-old girl into prostitution by buying her from her alcoholic mother for £5 (equivalent to around $750 today), chloroforming her and waiting for her to wake up inside a brothel. (How’s that for stunt journalism?) Having made his point with maximum psychological trauma, Stead humanely stopped the experiment there, and, though he was later tried for abduction, the articles he wrote for The Pall Mall Gazette — given the perfect heavy metal album title of “The Maiden Tribute Of Modern Babylon” — provoked moral fury and a clamor to raise the age of consent.

Barely a month after the “Maiden Tribute” articles were published, Parliament imposed a legal restriction of 16 (which still applies in the U.K. today), and by the 1920s, most countries in Europe and the majority of U.S. states had followed suit, applying formal age limits ranging from 15 to 18 (with the exception of Spain, where it stalled at 12 until 1999).

Loss of innocence is no guarantee you’ve attained the status of a grown-up, of course. So perhaps a more reliable lens on adulthood is that other historical marker of maturity, at least among boys: the appropriate age at which they could be killed in battle.

Not long after the Justinian Code condemned generations of pre-teens to matrimony, the Franks, the Germanic people who would later come to dominate Europe under Charlemagne, were compiling their own law book. They directly related the age of majority to a boy’s ability to bear arms, which their 7th-century code, the Lex Ripuaria, identified as age 15.

During the era of chivalry, from the late 11th century onwards, the age of military manhood rose among the nobility — to 17 in France and 21 in England, prefiguring the modern consensus of 18 as the inauguration of adult life. It’s thought this was because of the sheer length of time it took to learn courtly etiquette as well as the weight of all that shining armor, effectively ruling out younger Galahads from attaining majority.

But the reprieve was only for a tiny, extremely posh minority. For everyone else in male feudal society, which is to say tenant farmers, childhood abruptly flipped into backbreaking adult life as soon as they could handle a plow. In England in the 1200s, according to the medieval cleric Henry de Bracton, a farmer was considered “capable of conducting his rustic employs” at the age of 14 or 15 — and therefore liable to pay rent to his feudal lord.

Much later, during the Industrial Revolution, the barrier between childhood and adulthood just about vanished altogether — with children as young as 5 being sent to work in factories and mines in cruel, sometimes lethal conditions. At its peak, child labor under 15 in both the U.S. and Britain reached 15 percent of the workforce. Whereas a series of labor reforms put a check on this in Britain as the 19th century progressed, in the U.S. child labor went largely unregulated by the federal government until FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s.

The kicker to all of this is that during the Industrial Revolution, and in all likelihood for countless centuries preceding it, puberty occurred much later than it does today — records from the mid-19th century suggest biological maturity was kicking in at 15 for girls and 17 for boys, several years from today’s averages of 11 for girls and 12 for boys. (Historians believe it’s because of improvements in the diets of modern wealthy nations.) In other words, the vast majority of people throughout Western history were experiencing adulthood (or at least their era’s version of it) before they hit puberty.

So for the most part — in relation to sex, mortality, work and physical development at least — the accepted thresholds of duty and responsibility have been wandering all over the place for the best part of 1,500 years. And it’s only in the past century or so that we’ve bundled them up into our own era’s accepted definition of “adult.”

“There’s no specific age when adulthood begins,” says Jeffrey Arnett, “but it’s certainly later than it used to be. That’s why ’30 is the new 20’ has become a popular saying. [People] also feel grown-up later than before, which is one of the reasons they wait so much longer to get married and have a child.”

If it’s so arbitrary, then, why waste a minute worrying about growing up? Perhaps trivializing adulthood as a verb is the most appropriate way to talk about it after all. If it doesn’t feel relevant to most of the stuff we do, let’s call it out as an unfortunate zombie state we occasionally lapse into to get all the boring stuff out the way, before we return to our M.O. — of being relaxed about things.

And for anyone who’s still feeling anxious about their #adulting…

…perhaps it’s time to reintroduce a simple test they were using in a market town in England almost 700 years ago: “There is a certain custom in the town of Shrewsbury from the time whereof memory runs, that whoever is of the age of 15, and knows how to measure yards of cloth and knows a good penny from a bad, is of age.”