If you ask people ‘what is adulthood?’, they initially look at you as if you are asking a self evident question or have lost the plot. However, when they do respond, you soon find out people have pretty diverse ideas. The apparently simplest answer is the chronological one – you’re an adult when you reach eighteen years of age; but are you? You might be able to vote, legally drink alcohol in a pub and marry without parental consent, but at the tender age of ten you are ironically seen as responsible for your actions in a criminal court. Also, adults up until about the age of 24 receive less in social security benefits and wages than those over that age. So younger adults have all the responsibilities, but not all the rights, of all adults – not very fair really, is it?
For the Baby Boomer generation (those now aged mid 40s to mid 60s), adulthood was often characterized by living away from your family, having a job and a corresponding pay packet, or a family of your own; or for the elite few, going away to university. These experiences involved being financially, emotionally and geographically independent. For young people today, their early experiences of adulthood are very different. A vast proportion (over 40%) now attends university. However, because of state withdrawal of financial support, many have no choice but to live at home, attend a nearby university, work part time and/or seek financial support from their family. Only students from the most affluent families can afford to study at a distant university now, but they too are still dependent on their parents’ money. Those young adults who are ejected suddenly and often precariously into full independence are often those who are the most disadvantaged and vulnerable, such as those leaving care. There is also a far more flexible process to living independently than previously. Young adults may now work away or go away to university, but then may move back into the family home for a few years to save up for a house.
When young people today are asked what constitutes adulthood, their answers range from autonomy and self responsibility to responsibility for others and marriage, from independent thought to clubbing or criminal activity. Some older people view young adults today as irresponsible, glorified children who take no responsibility for themselves or others and still depend on their parents for everything, including money, hence the colloquial terms KIPPERS (kids in parents’ pockets eroding retirement savings), kidults and adultescents which you tend to see in media coverage. Others argue that high general unemployment and even higher youth unemployment, increasing university attendance and a succession of financial recessions from the 1970s onwards, have rendered young adulthood different and a much more unpredictable and uncertain time than for previous generations. Additionally, what seemed secure identity markers for past young adults, such as notions of masculinity and femininity, are also now increasingly unclear. So young adults today are not only struggling and juggling with the meaning of adulthood, meandering career paths and general identity uncertainty, but with what an adult man or woman should be like now. Should today’s young men be strong, driven and assertive or open with their emotions, caring and non sexist? Similarly, should young women be nurturing and family orientated or should they be self-focused and career orientated or both? In an increasingly multicultural society, people from different cultures have also brought different understandings of family and adulthood into the debate. Whilst for some, adulthood is about living independently from their parents or alternatively relying on them for financial and emotional support, for others it is about bringing older parents to live with them, particularly if they are vulnerable and need support.
All of which raises interesting further questions (if it doesn’t necessarily provide answers) to the question ‘what is adulthood?’.
Lorraine Green is a trained sociologist and a qualified social worker. She is currently Lecturer in Social Work at Manchester University. Her recent book Understanding the Life Coursecombines the important insights sociology and psychology have to bring to the study of the life course, particularly illustrating their relevance to social work and welfare.