This summer, as graduation parties are celebrated across the country, older teenagers will find themselves expected to swiftly eject from a liminal stage they began only a few short years prior. Dwelling in the uncomfortable region between childhood and adulthood, it will be impressed upon them to direct their verve towards and subsume their fears within growing up. But what does this actually mean?

“Adulting,” a once witty phrase from social media summarizing the onerous rigors of fulfilling the expectations that go with being an adult, has been a humorous solace for some, assuring them that the burdens of responsible adulthood really are difficult to learn and enact, but has served as confirmation for others that our culture enshrines and rewards the evasion of duty. 

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The concept found wider currency due in part to Ben Sasse’s book, The Vanishing American Adult, a full-frontal assault on the lowered expectations American society is placing on youth and adulthood both. Or so he charges. Sasse diagnoses many of the nation’s ills as stemming from a refusal to accept the responsibilities of growing up. But there are unacknowledged, unexamined presuppositions rooted in privilege that spoil his argument and compel him to pronounce judgment where mercy is needed.

Sasse valorizes a vision of the past in which “[o]ur national forebears had an almost compulsive preference for productivity over passivity.” But he overlooks who these forebears are, what institutions and inequalities enabled them to achieve, and what story they were enacting in history. And because he doesn’t do this he also doesn’t satisfactorily interrogate the words “productivity” and “passivity.” Why is productivity “good”? What sort of productivity? Defined by whom? 

And is “passivity” the only alternative to productivity? That choice becomes inevitable if a certain definition of productivity is presupposed, one based on exhausting, quantifiable, sellable services and goods as the primary thing accomplished by one’s life. When work is lauded as the greatest good, leisure becomes little more than recuperation from that work. Recreation that doesn’t instrumentally serve this chief end is banished to insignificance, leaving us with the sharp binary of being productive or doing nothing.

Sasse construes the problematic division of our day not as one of rich and poor but of “dignified working poor versus supposedly lazy, undeserving poor.” This is cashed out in terms of those who work very hard for very little without complaining as opposed to those who are more vocal about the conditions and terms of their work. Sasse praises the first and excoriates the latter but doesn’t identify the problem they share: the condition of doing far more work for far less money than the managerial class over them.

Adulthood in this account is depicted as an arrival into a state of maturity which is competent to navigate the hard realities of the world without presuming they should be simpler. But the expectation to accomplish them without difficulty or complaint is cruel for being impossible.

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Perhaps the turbulence of the last thirty years have made it clear that control and mastery are ideals that don’t actually match the world of which we are a part. The demands placed upon young people are more crushing than they’ve ever been, and they are ubiquitous. When we are chastised for not exemplifying self-reliance, we think that such a goal is impossible. We don’t see how the failure to accomplish the impossible can be held against us, but that doesn’t inoculate us from guilt and shame. 

This hallowed notion of adulthood as growth into total independence and self-reliance is a myth, a fantasy we envision for ourselves as a consolation against the long series of confused, bungled missteps, failures, and misapprehensions that are our lives. For there are none who are genuinely self-reliant: to be a creature is to be radically dependent, to be in need at all times of goods you cannot manufacture or provide for yourself. To be is to hang over the abyss of non-being, held in place by a beneficent God who delights in giving what cannot be earned. To try to escape dependence and need is to try to escape our humanity.

In this paradigm the longings of our hearts are suspect and treated like liabilities—perhaps because those longings witness to other, more fulfilling possibilities than the secularized present. Maturity is tantamount to extinguishing those longings and settling for what you can get. That there is nothing beneath you, that imagining otherwise is a sure sign of your naïveté and entitlement. But all jobs aren’t intrinsically dignifying or character-forming. As most of us know, the jobs available to most of us are regularly exhausting, galling, and pay far too little. 

God himself sounds a note of doubt through the noise pollution of fallen economics: “Why do you work for that which is not bread and does not satisfy?” (Isaiah 55:2). The place where we are demanded to arrive isn’t that desirable. Can’t most of us recall older adults who have arrived there, but whose lives are dreary, preoccupied with lifeless ends and means. It’s hard to not conclude, if this is the outcome I’m supposed to attain, then I’m not interested.

Young persons need help, and badly, but seeking it out can reinforce the dejection such people already experience. They need to hear that no one can possibly hope to achieve all of their dreams precisely in the ways they have dreamt them. That some ambitions are unwise, imprudent, defiling. That limitations are real, that many of them can’t be overcome, that they are good if accepted as the rules and boundaries of our play. That self-denial is an ingredient in the path of discipleship and the only way to accomplish our goals with integrity and Christ-likeness.

But self-denial is not self-hatred or self-exclusion. It isn’t the abandonment of the idiosyncrasies that make one the person she or he is and give shape to their lives. Resignation to disappointment is not maturity. Settling for the least you can secure is not wisdom. And the death of desire is not adulthood but something else entirely: a living death, a severance from the contingencies that make life worth living.

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We all are desperately in need of a new story to frame not only our work but our very selves. For one thing, if we are swiftly moving towards a future with significantly fewer jobs; then we will have no choice but to reconsider how to fill our days and flourish. But now, in the present, an enormous number of us can’t enjoy our leisure time without feeling guilty, whereas for retirees and people without work over fifty hours a week are spent on average watching TV. We aren’t in need of training for jobs: we need training for living with freedom and integrity.

Because it’s not that honoring commitments and maintaining your livelihood is inauthentic or the stuff of existential nausea—at least, not intrinsically. We all are obligated to make the best of it with what we have at our disposal; to be prudent, to be fair, to care for those whom we are entrusted with. But when overwhelm at the myriad needs of modern life is proof of guilt, when lament over the demands of our schedule, the lack of fulfillment in our jobs, and our lack of sleep, when our confusion over how to handle all of the expectations placed upon us is categorized as pampered bellyaching, then these good things quickly become corrupted and inject our lives with dreariness and dismay that after all of our efforts this is where we’ve arrived. 

Does our discontent mean we’re failed adults? The shame that would drive us towards that verdict owes to the modern attempts at meaning-making we have too often uncritically accepted as the true story of the world rather than the gospel. But the fact of the matter is that no adult save One has perfectly executed adulthood, and the beauty of it is that he is willing and eager to share that life rather than demand others flawlessly replicate it. 

So don’t surrender to the propaganda demanding you resign yourself to drudgery and the death of your dreams. Resisting conformity to the world (Rom 12:2) includes spurning the reduction of our hope to securing a good job and buying a big house. The war between generations is a war the Christian has the freedom to refuse, to instead take what is good and jettison what isn’t. Learn to inhabit the responsibilities the Lord places upon you and your life and you will find ways to be the person you were made to be. It’s more fun this way.