Where Have All the Grown-Ups Gone?

There I was, reclining in the waiting room while my son met with his speech […]

David Zahl / 9.15.14

There I was, reclining in the waiting room while my son met with his speech therapist, as I do every week. Computer on my lap—heaven forbid I sit there unoccupied—I was reading A.O. Scott’s treatise for The Times on “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture.” I like Scott’s writing, so I ignored the instinct to roll my eyes at the prospect of yet another think-piece about stunted millennials; I had time to kill, after all. It opens with some bold claims:

Something profound has been happening in our television over the past decade, some end-stage reckoning. It is the era not just of mad men, but also of sad men and, above all, bad men… The monstrousness of [Don Draper, Tony Soprano and Walter White] was inseparable from their charisma, and sometimes it was hard to tell if we were supposed to be rooting for them or recoiling in horror. We were invited to participate in their self-delusions and to see through them, to marvel at the mask of masculine competence even as we watched it slip or turn ugly. Their deaths were (and will be) a culmination and a conclusion: Tony, Walter and Don are the last of the patriarchs…

It seems that, in doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grown-ups…

In my main line of work as a film critic, I have watched over the past 15 years as the studios committed their vast financial and imaginative resources to the cultivation of franchises (some of them based on those same Y.A. novels) that advance an essentially juvenile vision of the world. Comic-book movies, family-friendly animated adventures, tales of adolescent heroism and comedies of arrested development do not only make up the commercial center of 21st-century Hollywood. They are its artistic heart…

Nobody knows how to be a grown-up anymore. Adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable. It isn’t only that patriarchy in the strict, old-school Don Draper sense has fallen apart. It’s that it may never really have existed in the first place, at least in the way its avatars imagined…

A bit overstated, I thought to myself, even though I agreed with the central observation. I was glad he was talking about the hidden consequences of the Mancession—someone had to—but maybe a little miffed he was slagging off young adult literature in the process. The comic book fan in me—ahem, graphic novel fan—took umbrage; you can have a mortgage and still like Adventure Time, thank you very much. If anything, in a world that only seems to be getting more demanding and frantic with each passing Apple keynote, the nurturing of the inner child and the need to escape from the grind feels more pressing than ever.

Anyway, in midst of my waiting room reverie, another father sat down across from me. He was dignified looking and quite a bit older than me, he may have been a grandfather, I didn’t ask. When he reached into his briefcase and grabbed a largish hardback, I was encouraged. American adults still read books! We may not resemble Don Draper or Tony Soprano—thank God—but that doesn’t mean we’re all perpetual adolescents, pouring our intellectual energy into gaming consoles and reality TV, or whatever it is people do on Twitch. These are adult responsibilities that my comrade-in-waiting and I had embraced, not only having children but taking them to doctor’s appointments. The portrayals of adults on screen may be in peril, but reality is another matter, I assured myself.

But then I caught a glimpse of the cover of my neighbor’s book, and the bubble burst. He was reading Allegiant, the new installment of the Divergent series of young adult novels. Not only that, but having just watched the film adaptation of Divergent, I was genuinely tempted to ask him for spoilers. The movie was no Hunger Games, but I had enjoyed it quite a bit more than the previous night’s viewing… The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

Damn! That brief glance was enough to puncture the various defenses I’d been formulating—about the largely false dichotomy between ‘pop’ and ‘serious’ culture, the self-selecting nature of people who work in the fields we’re talking about, how ‘adulthood’ is usually a code word for suppression, the subversiveness of Judd Apatow’s filmography, and what about counterexamples like Coach Eric Taylor, etc. It all seemed too transparently self-justifying, especially when you’re someone who’s got a theological tribute to The Muppets in his backlog…

The rest of the article contains quite a bit to chew on and by no means is it limited to the encroachments of cable television. In fact, Scott even takes a stab at tracing American juvenilia back to its historical roots in the Revolution (from British ‘parents’). If it sounds a bit reductive, it is, but he’s careful to include himself in the diagnosis:

allegiant-by-veronica-roth__oPtFrom the start, American culture was notably resistant to the claims of parental authority and the imperatives of adulthood. Surveying the canon of American literature in his magisterial “Love and Death in the American Novel,” Leslie A. Fiedler suggested, more than half a century before Ruth Graham, that “the great works of American fiction are notoriously at home in the children’s section of the library.” Musing on the legacy of Rip Van Winkle and Huckleberry Finn, he broadened this observation into a sweeping (and still very much relevant) diagnosis of the national personality:

“The typical male protagonist of our fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat — anywhere to avoid ‘civilization,’ which is to say… sex, marriage and responsibility. One of the factors that determine theme and form in our great books is this strategy of evasion, this retreat to nature and childhood which makes our literature (and life!) so charmingly and infuriatingly ‘boyish.’ ”

Maybe nobody grows up anymore, but everyone gets older. What happens to the boy rebels when the dream of perpetual childhood fades and the traditional prerogatives of manhood are unavailable? There are two options: They become irrelevant or they turn into Louis CK… Or, if you prefer, a loser.

The humor and pathos of “Louie” come not only from the occasional funny feelings that he has about his privileges… but also, more profoundly, from his knowledge that the conceptual and imaginative foundations of those privileges have crumbled beneath him…

Thankfully, this is not a post about masculinity (we just had one of those!). It may be impossible to discuss juvenilization without delving into the growing confusion/ambivalence about masculinity, yet as Scott points out, the issue spans the gender divide. That is, as any number of successful new sitcoms about fiercely regressive females would attest, the ladies are holding their own; apprehension about growing up (AKA fear of commitment of any kind) has codified into social law across the board.

And so we judge those who would seek to forsake adolescence before the rest of the pack–you know, that unbearable guy whose 401(k) is thriving before his 25th birthday. What is wrong with him?! Doesn’t he know you only live once? Of course, having kids or a high-powered job does not inoculate you of recreating high school, both socially and spiritually.

To be clear, while pop culture has done its part to normalize ‘adultescence’, Scott doesn’t go so far as to claim that it created the phenomenon. People have always been afraid of taking on adult responsibilities. It could be that shirking them has not always been a possibility in the way it is today (for a certain demographic, at least).


Of course, if we can be sure of anything, it’s that the reaction is coming. But it hasn’t yet. While we’re, er, waiting, we make do with the double-talking appeal of Mad Men style social norms, which Scott describes thus: “We are invited to have our outrage and eat our nostalgia too, to applaud the show’s right-thinking critique of what we love it for glamorizing.” Dramas set in the past (or Westeros) allow us to yearn for our absent (and in some cases exiled) parents from a safe distance, without threat of being outmoded or old-fashioned.

A.O. is not finished though. He closes with a stunning indictment of how our culture has come to conceive of adulthood, i.e., why we feel adulthood is something we not only need to oppose but exterminate:

To be an American adult has always been to be a symbolic figure in someone else’s coming-of-age story. And that’s no way to live. It is a kind of moral death in a culture that claims youthful self-invention as the greatest value. We can now avoid this fate. The elevation of every individual’s inarguable likes and dislikes over formal critical discourse, the unassailable ascendancy of the fan, has made children of us all. We have our favorite toys, books, movies, video games, songs, and we are as apt to turn to them for comfort as for challenge or enlightenment.

I do feel the loss of something here, but bemoaning the general immaturity of contemporary culture would be as obtuse as declaring it the coolest thing ever. A crisis of authority is not for the faint of heart. It can be scary and weird and ambiguous. But it can be a lot of fun, too. The best and most authentic cultural products of our time manage to be all of those things. They imagine a world where no one is in charge and no one necessarily knows what’s going on, where identities are in perpetual flux. Mothers and fathers act like teenagers; little children are wise beyond their years. Girls light out for the territory and boys cloister themselves in secret gardens… The world is our playground, without a dad or a mom in sight.

That last part sounds a little half-hearted to me, like he’s trying to convince himself the picture is rosier and less exhausting than (he knows) it is. I’m not so sure humanity could tolerate an authority void, even if we wanted to.

Religion goes unmentioned but it’s implicit. I mean, what is the crisis of authority he mentions if not a crisis of faith(lessness)? But here’s where things get interesting. Some would have us believe that Christianity represents a/the solution to cultural rudderlessness, that to recover the faith of our parents would mean recovering their confidence in facing the world as adults. And perhaps it does, at its core. Yet Christianity has not been exempt from the juvenilization the article describes. It may have even presaged it.

9780802866844A couple years ago, I reviewed Thomas Bergler’s The Juvenilization of American Christianity, which lays out its title’s claim in no uncertain terms. Bergler argues that the faith which was once viewed as the bastion of seriousness and adulthood has changed dramatically over the past half century. And he’s not just talking about the prevalence of guitars on Sunday morning (even in liturgical churches). He talks about how, in the wake of the post WWII youth movement, Christianity has been cast almost irrevocably in romantic terms, e.g., in many corners of the church, “personal relationship” has become an unimpeachable phrase.

Then there’s the kneejerk anti-institutionalism of mainstream American Evangelicalism, the emphasis on (good) feelings over theology, the obsession with sexual purity relative to other Christian virtues, the subtle and not-so-subtle appropriations of pop culture (pot kettle black warning!) – would any of us really deny this? Which is not to suggest that all of these developments are ‘bad’–some have been important correctives (not to mention re-energizers)–only that the shift in tone may have inadvertently led to a juvenilization of the Christian message as well.

And yet, there is nothing juvenile about The Gospel, with its emphasis on death and guilt and reconciliation and healing, all very adult subject matter.

One of the refrains I often hear from pastors who preach the basic Gospel every week—the forgiveness of sins through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—is that, contrary to what one might think, the people in their congregation who give them the most headaches are not the older, stodgier types. It is always the younger crowd, usually, I hate to say it, the ex-para-churchers. They are the ones who police the preacher’s every word (and each other), demanding something “more” than the Good News of Christ’s finished work on the Cross. They are the ones who seem more interested in marching orders than absolution, perhaps because they have an adolescent—and, ironically, unbiblical—view of themselves and their potential. They “push back” when confronted with the tragic dimension of the human condition, and I suppose you can hardly blame them.

The older people in the congregation, on the other hand, tend to relish the comfort and assurance they hear in a message that takes into account the storms and shipwrecks of life. Transformation simply does not have the same appeal to a 70-year-old as a 30-year-old. Mercy does. Maybe that’s the real reason why millennials are leaving the church, or why church bodies will always tilt toward the elderly. ‘Youthful self-invention’ usually has to run its course for the Gospel to sound like the Good News it is.

When patience runs out, there is a temptation to resort to the Law to make people put away childish things, to force-feed maturity, even if we know that 1. the efficacy of such an approach is dubious at best and 2. no one escapes the ‘moral death’ Scott mentions forever. Adulthood is coming, regardless of whether or not our screens can bear it. The great irony of Christian maturity is that, when it happens, it flows from the absolution of one’s abiding immaturity, not from the injunction to grow up. Or so I’ve heard.

In the meantime, it is no small solace that in God’s eyes, we never cease being children. And more than that, he never ceases being an Adult. Not just any adult, but one who welcomes the hopelessly juvenile, protects those who cannot protect themselves, and forgives our transgressions, even our regressions.

He is no Tony Soprano, in other words. Badabing!