Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Did Generation X Destroy Adulthood - and Is That Bad?

As is appropriate for the "slacker" Gen X-er in me, I am coming a bit late to the conversation about the end, or changing nature, of adulthood in contemporary society - a discussion which was kicked off last fall by astute NY Times critic A.O. Scott in his piece, "The Death of Adulthood in American Culture." Scott initiated a firestorm of discussion, specifically because he conceded a bit of contempt for today's adults who still want to act like kids with their "X-boxes" or "flip flops" or other child-like amusements. Doesn't anybody want to act like an adult anymore? He also deftly anchored his discussion on popular culture, specifically with the death of sterotypical TV men like Mad Men's Don Draper or Tony Soprano. And, he connected the ideas to literary criticism by icons such as Leslie Fielder. It was an engaging bit of commentary, and I like looking at it from the perpsective of generational attitudes, specifically Generation X. The group of people who came of age in a time of low fertility, rising divorce, latchkey childhoods, and a sputtering economy were certainly likely to view "the adult world" with suspicion and contempt. On that note, I particularly enjoyed Scott's acknowledgement of this tradition in American thought. From Huck "lighting out for the territory" and Holden desperately trying to "hold in" childhood to avoid being phony to Rabbit simply giving up and starting to "Run," our opposition to "growing up" is part of the American DNA. This is the basic idea behind the "American Adam" concept, and it might just be that Generation X was the first group to actually have the opportunity to make it happen on a societal scale.

Y.A. fiction is the least of it. It is now possible to conceive of adulthood as the state of being forever young. Childhood, once a condition of limited autonomy and deferred pleasure (“wait until you’re older”), is now a zone of perpetual freedom and delight. Grown people feel no compulsion to put away childish things: We can live with our parents, go to summer camp, play dodge ball, collect dolls and action figures and watch cartoons to our hearts’ content. These symptoms of arrested development will also be signs that we are freer, more honest and happier than the uptight fools who let go of such pastimes

I know for years that my wife and I used to joke about that moment at which we would stop feeling like we were playing "dress up" every time we went out to a nice restaurant. Not sure when it happened ... but it did. But perhaps it wasn't that we really grew up and entered adulthood, but that we simply stopped worrying about what people might think. I do know that it seems like Generation X might be the truest embodiment of the American Adam concept simply because it simply and soundly defied and eschewed the corruption and lack of authenticity that typified the adult world. Lines got blurred because Generation X committed to the idea of choosing lifestyle over career, and we entered all the phases of life, from school to job to home ownership to parenting with the same "fast casual" attitude that came to define our youth and coming age. And, that's not at all a bad thing.
Maybe it was time to give up and let go of the adulthood myth, and Alexandra Petri of the WashPost says, "Good Riddance" 

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