Adulthood has been taking a beating in popular culture recently. Young adult fiction reigns on bestseller lists; teenyboppers top the musical charts. TV shows and movies glamorize the video-game-playing, ice-cream-for-dinner, extended adolescence that many now spin into their 30s.
So philosopher Susan Neiman decided to take a professional approach to rehabilitate the maligned life stage. Her new book, Why Grow Up? Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age, makes a philosophical case for the value of maturity, and for valuing middle and old age.
Unsurprisingly, the choice of argument displeased many, even Neiman’s friends. She describes the reaction of two grandfathers who have been successful and lived full lives: “Both were dismayed, and one was disgusted, on hearing my choice of theme. The other said bluntly: ‘My hero was always Peter Pan.’”
Their recoiling from the praise of adulthood hearkens back to the great Y.A. debate of 2014, kicked off by a Slate article by Ruth Graham arguing that adults who read children’s books should be embarrassed. The backlash was nearly universal and intense, but isn’t there a worthwhile argument to be made for encouraging adults to challenge themselves to read books written for mature readers?
Neiman doesn’t tread into such niche territory as young adult fiction, but she delves into the history of childhood, the philosophical underpinnings of growing up, and the reasons for undertaking this unappealing personal process. The author told The Huffington Post via email about the ins and outs of aging, and what it means for pop culture today:
Why should we grow up, if eternal adolescence is more fun?
Anyone who thinks that adolescents are having fun hasn’t been around one lately. Adolescence is a time of turmoil, anxiety, and extreme self-doubt –- all understandable enough because adolescents are in the process of developing a self. But even a later age –- say, the years between 18 and 28 –- is not an age most people would choose to repeat.
We make those years worse for young people by telling them they are the best years of their lives, which encourages them to think that everyone else is having more fun than they are, while they are the only ones wasting their allegedly best years with heartbreak and uncertainty. Moreover, by suggesting everything afterwards will be worse, it suggests that life is a downhill process, and prepares them to expect very little from it.
Do we have a responsibility to grow up?
We do. It’s a matter of taking responsibility for our own lives and not leaving it to others. But it’s a mistake to see this sort of taking responsibility in negative terms, for it brings grownup pleasures as well: the sense of knowing one’s strengths, one’s weaknesses, what one really cares about, and being able to act with less concern for how we appear to others.
Is teenage rebellion a necessary part of growing up?
It’s necessary to sort out your relationship to your parents and teachers, and to figure out what parts of your inheritance you would like to claim as your own and what you’d like to reject, but this is a process that usually happens much later than the teenage years.
The vehemence of the rebellion is different in different cultures, and in different eras. My friends and I have been struck by the fact that our children are less rebellious than we were. Certainly we have been less authoritarian as parents than our own parents were. Of course, now it’s easy to feel some compassion for our parents who were blindsided by the ‘60s, and must have felt helpless and confused about how to raise teenagers in those times.
Youth culture, including young adult fiction and films, have recently become widely consumed by adults. Does growing up entail reading books intended for grownups, or is our reading material irrelevant to our maturity?
It depends on the children’s books. C.S. Lewis, one of the greatest children’s writers of all time, said that he wrote the books he wanted to read and couldn’t find elsewhere. I still find his children’s books a source of wisdom, but was much less impressed by the Harry Potter series.
There’s nothing wrong, and much right, with finding out what young adults are reading and enjoying it. That said, we ought to give at least as much attention to training our minds as we do today to training our muscles. Those who don’t bother to read the great adult books are limiting themselves to lifting lightweights.
In today’s middle-class Western world, does growing up require choosing to make things deliberately difficult for yourself?
It does. Even in the 18th century, the philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote that we avoid growing up because we are lazy and fearful, and those who control society prefer that we stay that way, since it is easier to control people who are not mature and independent citizens.
Today it is even easier to let others do our thinking for us. Resisting that involves asking hard questions about the way the world is run. Oddly, such questions –- for example, why are $1.5 trillion spent every year on the arms industry, while there are not enough funds to combat poverty? –- are considered naïve. Instead we’re encouraged to turn our attention to collecting toys like smartphones and cars, which are described not as toys but as tools without which no adult life is complete.
Adult behavior has often been attributed to men while women have been deemed more childlike (e.g. Rousseau’s Emile). Since youth and childish behaviors are particularly prized in women, is it more challenging for them to embrace aging?
Indeed it is; in fact, older women face discrimination in many ways that men do not. It’s a pleasure to see a number of actresses, particularly comedians, recently calling this into question. While men too suffer from the absence of an appealing model of adulthood, it’s even more imperative for women to develop one. Part of this means recognizing that childishness has been historically prized in women so that men can remain the adults in control. But we can also help ourselves in ordinary ways. Why are we pleased when a friend tells us we look younger than our age? It seems banal, but it carries a sinister message: looking good equals looking young. How we respond to such well-intended compliments makes a difference.
A.O. Scott wrote a controversial article recently suggesting that the downfall of the patriarchy is equivalent (at least in entertainment terms) to the end of adulthood. How would you respond to this?
Scott’s essay confuses the patriarchy with adulthood, which is problematic, but he is right to say that nobody knows how to be a grown-up anymore. We had old-fashioned authoritarian models –- which in many ways were so rule-bound that it’s hard to call them adult in a Kantian sense –- and once those have been overthrown we are helpless. It’s crucial that we come up with models of adulthood for a less authoritarian, less patriarchal age.
Is a cultural focus on respect for elders a healthier model, as it would constantly motivate us to achieve more respect and status through age?
It is healthier, but it has to be earned, not enforced, as it often is in authoritarian societies. We earn that respect by rejecting the idea that adulthood is a matter of resignation, and by living adult lives that young people find appealing and want to grow into. One way to see how our ideas of adulthood have degenerated is to look at variations on Peter Pan throughout the 20th century. In the original novel, adults are simply boring; by mid-century they are that too, but also slightly menacing. By the time of Spielberg’s "Hook," the adult is so pathetic as to be ridiculous.
Has the obsession with youth reached a higher pitch in our current culture?
It has. We are blasted with mixed messages: half of them tell us to resign ourselves to the world as it is and grow up, i.e., give up any hope of real change in ourselves or the world; the other half feeds us advice about staying young. (Even Dylan’s song “Forever Young”, now often used in advertising, makes the mistake of confusing being young with feeling alive, joyful, and open to the world.) But the problem started long ago, which is why my book discusses the philosophers of the Enlightenment, the first time in history when the question of choosing one’s own life path became an option. Looking at the way earlier thinkers dealt with the question of growing up allows us to see that the problem goes far beyond the internet or advertising, and helps us to prepare deeper solutions.