It’s Time To Rethink Age And Adulthood

It's Time To Rethink Age And Adulthood

Age doesn’t resonate with me. I guess I see myself as twenty-three or so if I have to pick a number — finished with college, free to experiment because why not: no one is counting on me for support, and I have many years to find a niche. Those who know me are surely chuckling right now, but I’m just describing how I feel.

Twenty-three felt like home for other reasons, too: I was living in a dormitory as part of graduate school, and new to Cambridge, MA, which seemed exciting — filled with talks, restaurants, cafés, and street life. Our dorm required no particular social interaction, and I had my own large room where I could hang out on my own for hours. But there were people all around who were in roughly my situation, ready for adventures when their schedules permitted. The dorm had few rules or expectations, but we did have resident assistants who planned occasional activities for us, and there were many events geared towards graduate students throughout the university: discussions, parties, and the like.

I was in my twenties, but I was still part of a cohort — and that cohort fit me. Essentially, we were all devoting time to academic study after college, and we all had the freedom to live on our own, apart from our families and old friends, in a dorm-like setting. My peers and I had a lot of academic work, but we also had an essential freedom. No one was super-tied to anyone. A few in my social set did have boyfriends or girlfriends, but they didn’t live together, and they frequently spent time with me and others apart from their partners.

Let me clarify before readers who knew me during that time explode from cognitive dissonance. I didn’t actually like graduate school: didn’t like most of my classes because they were filled with jargon and pretentious discussion, hated the whole notion of choosing fields and areas of specialization, nearly had a breakdown while preparing for my general examinations because I feared that my lack of interest in minute details of American history would surface.

I chose American studies because I thought it would be a convenient cover for my interest in contemporary educational issues and religious communities. The particular school I selected impressed all manner of souls at parties and cafés, while I nursed the hidden knowledge that I was there because I wanted to write about spiritual groups and explore deep questions under prestigious or at least socially acceptable auspices.

A Ph.D. program suited me well because it lasted many years, shielding me from much less pleasant possibilities, like a job focusing on paperwork and logistics. I had little interest in the narrow specifics of academia. I just didn’t want to be an adult.

You might find that funny, but I don’t. I feel a rare sense of pride in myself for realizing the truth before it clobbered me. I was absolutely right to avoid adulthood. Adulthood is the wrong state for someone like me.

To the extent possible, I’ve continued to avoid it. I keep my life very simple. I’ve created no children who depend on me for sustenance, and I shrink back from any relationship that might require me to help someone else financially. My teaching job involves intriguing discussions with smart, lively college students, and I see them as my peers since our discussions teach me as much as they teach them (and since, as far as I’m concerned, I’m still a student). I can grade work on my own time and figure out what kinds of assignments I want to give — in other words, what kinds of responses I want to read. My workload can become intense, but ambitious students like me need to expect that.

I still live in Cambridge, MA and spend a lot of time hanging around in cafés. Like any reasonably lucky kid, I have summers off. And like my fellow nerdy kids, I spend most of that time working on independent intellectual questions. This afternoon at the very beginning of summer break is typical: I’ve been tweaking a writing project all day, feeling perfectionist tension but also having great fun.

Some might call me an adult with a job, but that feels inaccurate, or at least incomplete. The larger world no longer has an easy or comfortable place for me. Most people seem to feel that they can hang out with few responsibilities to others for only so long. At a certain point, they need to “settle down,” which often means marriage, children, increased financial obligation, and the mind-blowing complexities of juggling demanding jobs with child-rearing and family life. Even those who remain single and childfree commonly decide to take on greater responsibility as they mature, moving into demanding community work. I, too, want to give to the larger world, but I know that my best hope of doing that is through writing and sharing my ideas, on my own time, keeping myself unstressed so my thoughts can flow with ease.

Of course, there are others like me — more than many might realize. But there’s little structure for us as time goes on. There’s no dorm that plans activities and assumes people will want to meet new souls and go on adventures.

I’ve been noticing more and more that religious groups often make sharp age or lifestyle demarcations, carrying stark assumptions about goals and desires at different ages. The Mormon worship communities near me are probably the most extreme, with a “married ward” and a “singles ward.” The “singles ward” is overwhelmingly young and filled with students. Reach, say, your fortieth birthday — or even your thirtieth — and I imagine you’d feel profoundly out of place in the singles ward.

But that’s Mormons: we all know they’re unusually family oriented… right? Actually, liberal Jewish communities can have similar values. I’ve noticed that many of the most lively activities through local synagogues and Jewish groups are for “twenties and thirties.” Bowling, apple picking, textual discussion, pizza parties… all sorts of opportunities that shouldn’t be age-specific are tagged with this heading.

So what happens when you turn forty? Suddenly you’re too busy running a country, or a corporation, or, at the very least, a family, to go bowling? Why the age demarcation? I’ve been told that these groups are more than fine with older people joining in, but, in that case, why label the events for “twenties and thirties”? It sends a strong message of exclusion to those who don’t fit the mold, and implies that people over thirty-nine should have moved beyond casual fun.

And then there’s the whole messy world of work. Take internships. Almost always, they’re geared towards students and recent graduates. But what if an older person decides to switch careers and needs an internship to learn? I’m sure this works out sometimes, but often the wording for those positions strongly implies “college kid,” or something of the sort. Older people are supposed to be, you know, settled. Adults.

Recently, I had the idea that I might want to spend a month or two living in Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y, since I love New York and thought I might enjoy the dorm-like atmosphere for a short-term stay, especially since that Y hosts world-class entertainment, an excellent gym and pool, and a café. But the literature specifically targets students and interns. When I called, I was told to keep in mind that most residents are in their early twenties. I could probably stay there if I wanted, but why do most residents fall into such a narrow age range? If the Y’s literature were less explicit about age, I’m guessing a much wider spectrum of people would consider it a friendly option. And of course that Y has the right to try to create a largely young community, but why do similar options that embrace older participants seem nonexistent until retirement age?

Clearly most older people are enmeshed in responsibilities and unable to take a month off to live alone in a dorm room. But maybe if there were structures in place to welcome older wanderers and adventurers, more would be willing to take that path. The typical trend of eventually marrying and/or taking on extensive community obligation as time goes on works well for some but crushes others. I am all about options: comfortable choices for the broadest range of personalities and preferences. From intimate discussions with many friends, I get the sense that a fairly large minority of people fall into standard “adult” roles because they’re afraid to be left behind… because there are few safety nets for the “older youths” — or whatever people like me might be called.

Now, I know all too well that age carries some stark realities. All things equal, the older you are, the sooner you’re likely to die, and to lose your health. But we don’t segregate, say, the twenty-three-year-old with cystic fibrosis from her peers even though she’s likely to die much sooner than they are. We don’t tell the kid whose parents both died of highly heritable diseases in their thirties that he shouldn’t take the internship because he may well not live long enough to achieve leadership in the field. Beyond odds and broad predictions lie dramatic disparities in this realm. There are athletic ninety-year-olds and weary, aging forty-year-olds. If we can elect a sixty-year-old president of a country, we can offer her an internship, in hopes that her health will hold up.

There’s much more to age than life expectancy: those around your age grew up with similar technological expectations and cultural benchmarks. But it would be deeply offensive to use that line of reasoning to sanction other forms of segregation. What if a synagogue had apple picking activities and bowling nights for “those from upper middle class suburban backgrounds,” figuring everyone who fit that description would have a common bond?

I get that age separation is often meant to minimize inappropriate flirting and related problems. But come on. Are we really so fearful and low that we’d let that one factor blow age up far beyond its actual importance? Older men flirt with me fairly often. I give them a look or walk away. The end. For that matter, there are far worse things than, say, a twenty-eight-year-old and a sixty-year-old dating. If they’re both happy, why not? Once people have reached physical and emotional maturity, I’d say they’re free to fall in with whoever feels right. Or they’re free to be like me and see everyone as a potential friend, and no one as a potential partner, because the partner thing is just not what they’re about.

In my ideal world, all different ages would mingle, chat, sing, play, talk… together. The seventy-year-old could be friends with the twenty-five-year-old. Not just as mentor/mentee, but as equal, intimate friends. The differences that arise could inspire learning and growth, similar to friendships across cultural or religious lines. And of course that happens now, sometimes, but activities, residences, jobs, and communities would encourage it. Age would imply nothing other than number of years spent on this earth — not wisdom (the fifty-year-old might be very naïve, while the twenty-year-old brims with hard-won experience). Not settledness (the eighty-year-old might still be seeking and wandering). Not potential of any kind (people blossom and find talents at all ages).

Age would recede in importance, and adulthood would become one option: a difficult path that might entice you if you crave a certain kind of challenge.

Stephanie Wellen Levine is the author of Mystics, Mavericks, And Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls: winner of Moment Magazine's 2004 Emerging Writer Book Award. Currently, Stephanie is on a spiritual quest as she completes a second book and teaches at Tufts University.

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