In order to write about adulting, I had to add it to Microsoft Office’s dictionary. But it is a word, and a verb, according to both Urban Dictionary and the American Dialect Society (ADS). To adult is to “behave like a grownup,” says the ADS.
I find this definition disappointingly reductive. If adulting is simply behaving like a grownup, why is it almost exclusively used by millennials, applied to themselves? What even is a grownup? And how does this relate to the Trinitonian’s Back to School issue, anyway?
Tasked with having an opinion on adulting, I instead found myself trying to define “grownup.” Dictionary.com tells us a grownup is “a mature, fully grown person; an adult.” But fully grown in what sense? And if a sixty-year-old man is decidedly immature, is he not a grownup? The meaning, it seems, is more complicated than a dictionary definition can explain. I’m not sure if you remember learning about a word’s denotation and connotation back in high school, but this is that lesson in action. The denotation simply does not suffice.
As small children and young teenagers, applying the grownup label is relatively straightforward. At that age, it is established as a sort of us-versus-them word, something children knowingly distance themselves from and are distanced from. When you’re a child, you can’t watch that TV show because it’s for grownups. You wouldn’t take eating your vegetables so seriously or complain about the commute because you’re not one of those grownups; that’s not you. Grownups have real responsibilities and know what they’re doing “” they’ve got life figured out. This is generally the understood meaning of grownup for childhood and adolescence. What is a grownup? Well, it’s just what I’m not. It’s them, not us.
As teens grow into their college years, this understanding of the grownup as something the self is not becomes problematized. The comfort of knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are most certainly not a grownup is no longer a luxury you experience. A feeling of uncertainty creeps into the definition of grownup, as young adults find themselves watching R-rated movies, doing their own laundry and taxes, living among their peers and managing their schedules. This ambiguity, coupled with a realization that grownups don’t actually have everything figured out, spurs a time of self-reflection, wherein “grownup” is redefined and explored. Turns out the transition between childhood and adulthood is gradual. Turns out it’s not seamless. This is where adulting comes in.
Yes, adulting is typically used by millennials when they are performing mundane grownup tasks that aren’t really optional, like paying the electricity bill. But I don’t think it’s entirely accurate to cast the adulting trend as yet another manifestation of the bare minimum effort, self-congratulatory, special-snowflake syndrome that supposedly plagues my generation, as other opinion pieces on the topic have. It’s true that paying bills and scheduling your own dentist appointments isn’t groundbreaking or particularly laudable, but doing these things for the first time is something worth having the language to describe. For a generation that is starting families and buying houses later than any before us “” even opting out of these quintessential grownup things all together at times “” the transition between childhood and adulthood is elongated and fundamentally different than it used to be. If we have to work longer hours for lower wages, at least let us have adulting.
So what is adulting? Adulting is a transition. Adulting is a time in your life when you are negotiating and renegotiating your place in the world, your responsibilities and ultimately, your own identity. Adulting is a process. Adulting is a liminal space. Adulting helps college students describe their experiences. At Trinity, due to our three-year residency rule “” although I’ll concede that this has recently been blurred since so many juniors are now living off campus “” adulting is amplified during senior year. This year, as we all come back to school, be patient with us seniors and our adulting. Let us get excited when we make perfect mashed potatoes without Mom for the first time, get our vehicle registration renewed on our own or finally move into our own apartment. We know these actions are not moving mountains.