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What does “adulting” really mean to millennials?

Jun. 19, 2017
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For language to work for people, it must be a fluid and ever-changing organism. It has to adapt to its environment in order for people to communicate their experience. It’s always done just that--the US alone has thousands of “speech communities,” that is, a group of people sharing a common language or dialect.      

The Internet has changed language forever, connecting people who once had no communication, and has created a cyber speech community, where language is shared and transformed over the Internet, sometimes without ever entering into speech. Millennials alone have coined a plethora of Internet and slang terms, from “doggo” and “pupper” (a phenomenon NPR dedicated an entire article to), to acronyms like “FOMO”, “TBH”, “TFW”, to two-word terms like “shots fired,” “throwing shade,” “no chill,” and “Netflix & chill.” The list goes on. 

No term, however, has received as much backlash as “adulting,” a term that originated in an unknown place on the Internet (probably Twitter) circa 2014.

Urban Dictionary defines “adulting” as “to do grown up things and hold responsibilities such as a 9-5 job, a mortgage/rent, a car payment, or anything else that makes one think of grown ups.” The term’s usage on Twitter increased by 700 percent in 2016. It’s an irritatingly fake word (it’s not yet in any official dictionary), and used on many posts and Buzzfeed listicles to imply that the mundane things millennials do as they grow up--like, say, cook themselves dinner and take out the trash--are difficult and should be rewarded. 

Just one example of “adulting” from the Internet:

via: Britco

Though the usage of “adulting” is often juvenile, the term offers insight into millennial culture surrounding our anxieties about the world today. The expectations of young adults have changed since our parents were in college or starting their careers. Many of the goalposts of success for the baby boomer generation have become outdated American stereotypes: the imagine of the white picket fence, the stay-at-home mom, and the working-class dad are the quintessential image of the American Dream after World War II. But this dream failed many Americans, and in fact the 50s and 60s saw a rise in usage of antidepressants and resentment of traditional gender roles. Moreover, the US economy was booming then. The middle class family could afford to buy a house, a car, and live a comfortable life. 

Today, it’s becoming increasingly common for millennials to live at home until their mid to late 20s and marry much later. This is not out of laziness or lack of commitment, but rather out of necessity. The economy is much harsher for young adults, we have heavy student debt, and we work full-time jobs. Perhaps due to an increase in divorce rates, we get married later hoping to find the right person. And even if we do marry young, we can’t afford to have children until later in life. “Adulting” did not emerge as a term simply because millennials don’t know how to handle adult-like responsibilities. Sure, by living at home we put off certain responsibilities until later in life, and in this way we may be inadequately prepared for the responsibility of managing life alone. 

But that’s not everything the term means, and certainly not everything people should take away from it.

“Adulting” refers to a greater existential anxiety faced by millennials: it implies that one can grow up without necessarily knowing how to be an adult. It speaks to the sense of uncertainty people face today as they enter their twenties, an age where they are no longer teenagers, but have not yet figured out how to navigate adulthood. We aren’t really daunted by the fact that we have to iron our clothes or pay our phone bills, we’re intimidated by the multi-layered complexity of what it means to be an adult today. We have greater freedom in our social lives than many generations before us, which means we also have relationship problems that offer no easy answer. In our twenties we often wonder why old friendship aren’t lasting, we experience our real first heart break, and we begin seeing our imperfections and moral grayness in a new light. 

Perhaps the most intimidating task of all is that we begin our careers in an unstable job market where success in our field is more than a decade away.

“Adulting” reduces the burdens of adulthood to a hobby, and perhaps rightly so. The term may be used to refer to the accomplishment of cooking a meal or shopping alone, but that’s not really what our generation wants a pat on the back for. We don’t see ourselves as “special” because we accomplished an adult task; rather, when we talk about “adulting” we indirectly reference the existential anxieties about growing up that are unique to our generation. 

To have done simple things like paying a bill becomes symbolic of the greater and unique responsibilities we have to protect the environment, work multiple jobs, and live paycheck to paycheck for years despite having a college degree. “Adulting” became a phenomenon not simply because millennials don’t know how to be adults, but because they see the scope of what it entails for people entering adulthood in the 21st century. To equate adult-like responsibilities to a hobby is largely ironic: we know all too well that being an adult in this day and age means much more than accomplishing small tasks.