Since I turned eighteen I’ve been wondering when it will happen: What magical moment will officially mark me as a legitimate adult?
I know I’m not the only one asking these questions. Thanks in part to a lackluster economy, many young adults are putting off traditional steps, such as marriage, home ownership, and children. It’s actually such a phenomenon that researchers are putting in the hours to redefine these quarter-life years. One such study, by University of Maryland professor Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, cites evidence from more than 300 interviews with “emerging adults,” or those ages 18 through mid-twenties.
Arnett identified shared traits among emerging adults, such as a feeling of being in-between and lacking stability, as well as embracing a time of possibilities. He goes on to describe his subjects as “wary but hopeful, and strikingly optimistic even if their lives in the present are often unsettled.”
It was almost like he had coffee with my friends.
It's nice to know I’m not alone here. But still . . . emerging? There’s something about that gerund that makes one feel half-baked, like a work in progress. Right now, I’m a few months away from turning twenty-five. Outwardly, I have sort of maintained this, “Oh, I’m already a hundred years old because I drink of lot of tea and spend Friday nights eating pita chips and working through Rosetta Stone,” image, but inwardly I’ve been feeling a little nervous. Shouldn’t I feel older? Shouldn’t I have a dog, or a husband, or maybe a wallet that doesn’t attach to my car keys by now? I’m excited to see what I’m capable of, what I can accomplish. My fears are less about aging and more about measuring up. I want to grow up.
But how do I do this? If the benchmarks are no longer weddings and babies, then what are they? I started thinking about moments when I’ve felt like I went beyond "emerging." I recently vented to a friend about the intricacies of getting through the airport. I would need to drop off my car, take a shuttle, and switch to another terminal—all with an enormous checked bag in tow. She listened patiently and said, “You’ve got this—you’re an adult.” Which I repeated like a mantra when my connecting flight was delayed, and then again when said suitcase made a painstakingly late arrival to baggage claim. Was it stressful? Yes. But did I make it? Yes.
Is growing up more than twenty-first birthdays and graduations, first apartments, and salaried employment? More than even getting married or having kids. Forgive my Carrie Bradshaw-ing over here, but maybe adulthood is a gradual process, like growing out a bang trim gone wrong, little-by-little, until finally your forehead looks okay. No one hands you a certificate the moment you pay your own cell phone bill, but that’s still one step closer to independent womanhood.
So I mass-texted my friends (while drinking tea and eating pita chips on a weekend evening, no less) to ask when they most feel grown-up. Their answers blew me away—I think many of us young women can relate. See what they had to say below.
Almost everyone saw the first post-grad job as a major sign of growing up. One friend with a particularly tough schedule mentioned the first time she had to miss a major holiday for work, while another said it was only after she mastered her public transportation commute that she truly felt successful. Seeing oneself as a teacher or a mentor also plays a huge role. Managing an intern or leading a project team allows for personal growth. It’s an adult responsibility with the potential for real consequences, as well as real rewards.
With gainful employment comes regular paychecks (woot, woot). But after the initial rush of a newly flush bank account, many of us also feel the sting of a new, solo credit card bill, or a new, solo phone bill. Being an adult comes with a cost. Filing taxes, updating car registrations, and paying utility bills can really cement our adulthood. Donating this new money to charity and investing in a retirement plan also ranked high on the #adulthood list.
Leaving mom and dad's place and moving, whether across the country or to a studio apartment close to home, is another sign of growing up. It's now up to you to cook, clean, and pay the bills. One friend said she knew she was truly growing up when she found herself genuinely excited about an in-unit washer and dryer. It’s the little things, right?
I’ll be the first to admit I am no longer packing my collegiate metabolism, and with that, working out has gone from novelty to necessity. Several people talked about going to bed early, and vastly preferring brunch to bar-hopping. Another friend referenced a recent wardrobe purge and the sudden realization her college outfit go-tos were way past their prime.
FRIENDS AND FAMILY
Social media is both brilliant and terrifying, and for many of us, it's a source of age-related anxiety. In the wise words of Teddy Roosevelt, "Comparison is the thief of joy.” Engagements and baby announcements are programmed to hover at the top of our newsfeeds; seeing our peers couple up and procreate reminds us that we could be, too.
But participating as our friends hit milestones can also make us feel just as much of an adult. Your baby sister already has kids? Well then that makes you the coolest aunt in the world. When your childhood best friend gets engaged (while you're still single), focus on helping her prep for the wedding—and enjoy rocking out on the dance floor with all your mutual friends come reception time.
I asked my twenty-seven-year-old friend, a friend I really look up to, when she feels most like an adult.
‘That’s tough,” she said. “Most of the time, I don’t.”
To me, this was especially poignant. This is a woman with a great job, a master’s degree, an adoring fiancé, a cute apartment, and a wildly intelligent cat. She had achieved all these benchmarks—both superficial and traditional—yet she was still uncertain about adulthood.
So maybe we're not going to have that “I have arrived” moment. Maybe we'll keep growing and emerging, one step at a time. And you know what? Maybe that’s a good thing.