The cookie-cutter concept of growing up

Noella Chye 7 March 2017

Adulthood is a daunting prospect for many of us, and it is only made more intimidating by the fact that in our societal system, we find laws, both spoken and unspoken, about what constitutes adulthood, and when we reach it. Consequently, for many, one’s childhood and teenage years are spent pre-empting adulthood, instead of experiencing the natural transition that it really is. At age 18, we are, all at once, eligible to vote, plunged into university (for the majority), and free of the need to have a legal guardian. Together, the onslaught of independence and responsibilities creates the impression that adulthood begins stringently at a fixed age, and is characterised by a checklist of milestones. In light of this, it is hard to remember that the process of maturing happens neither at the same age for everybody, nor in a split second, which makes it more important to keep the distinction between legal and actual adulthood in mind. Peer and societal pressure have also come together to create a false image of adulthood, as an example of what John Stuart Mill termed “the tyranny of the majority”. We are in a culture where an unspoken set of social milestones, such as consuming alcohol, or having a newfound ‘mature’ appreciation of art and ‘the smaller things in life’ have become an indicator of one’s maturity, and the pressure to be sure of yourself, or to fit into a laughably narrow notion of mental health are criteria for how much of an adult you are.

For some who have grown up in alternative backgrounds, or simply feel like adults later in life, the blurring between the images and reality of adulthood can be isolating. It is highly likely that most of us are victims of this at least to some extent, especially in the Bubble. This shows itself whenever we look at the people around us, whose lives appear to be in perfect order, and whom responsibilities never seem to faze. We associate perfection and competence with adulthood, so that whenever we fall below this ideal, we think of ourselves as less of an adult, instead of recognising the rather obvious fact that adulthood and incompetence are completely compatible. In reality, however, we may, and probably are, just adults in a way that is not recognised by laws and social norms. 

Practically speaking, there is little we can do to change the system, such that it reflects the natural process of maturity at least a little more. Letting people dictate when they feel ready to take on the responsibilities associated with adulthood, such as voting, and living independently of a guardian simply isn’t feasible. I can certainly imagine someone exploiting the system to avoid employment and paying taxes because they “just don’t feel like an adult quite yet.” What we can do, however, is remind ourselves and each other of the reality of growing up, and empathise with those whose experiences simply do not fit into the mould that our society has crafted. For those who are indifferent to these struggles, feel that those who are victims of the struggle need to buck up and move on, or find that the system suits them well, it is important to remember that this is not the case  and may not work for everyone. Yes, the majority grow into these responsibilities, but for those who take a longer time to, it is important to recognise them as adults in their own right.