“Adulting” is not a very attractive word, and the millennial hang-up around it has made this generation the butt of a lot of jokes. By the end of the 2010s, millennials had started to embrace the mundane joys of grown-up life and clap back at Boomers for launching such an unfair critique after passing down a hostile economy. But then, millennials found themselves roasted yet again by the kids coming up behind them, as Gen-Z mercilessly took their elders to task for talking about adulting all the time, whether to complain or brag about their latest grown-up pseudo-milestone. Here’s our Take on how the millennial conversations about Adulting have shed much-needed light on that transition, and helped change how our culture views the purpose of our twenties and thirties. (In other words, you’re welcome, Gen-Z.)
Lane: “This adult stuff is hard, isn’t it?” - Gilmore Girls: A Year in the life, 1x03
Adulting is not a very attractive word, and the millennial hang-up around it has made this generation the butt of a lot of jokes. But it’s true that learning to become a mature and effective grown-up in today’s rapidly changing world is a daunting challenge.
As millennials entered the workforce and began their adult lives in the 2000s and 2010s, older people (i.e, their parents) derided this generation for their seeming inability to grow up and accomplish basic adult goals.
Thomas-John’s Mother: “You certainly have lived a lot.”
Jessa: “I guess so. I guess so.”
Thomas-John’s Mother: “Oh but it’s very impressive. Especially since I haven’t heard a word about…work.” - Girls, 2x04
By the end of the 2010s, millennials had started to embrace the mundane joys of grown-up life and clap back at Boomers for launching such an unfair critique after passing down a hostile economy. But then, millennials found themselves roasted yet again by the kids coming up behind them, as Gen-Z mercilessly took their elders to task for talking about adulting all the time, whether to complain or brag about their latest grown-up pseudo-milestone.
In fact, “Adulting” is more than a cutesy meme; it’s a complicated set of skills that most people do need to learn, and always have. Making a slow and considered transition into adulthood — i.e., slow-adulting — is actually a healthy, positive process.
Here’s our take on how the millennial conversations about adulting have shed much-needed light on that transition, and helped change how our culture views the purpose of our twenties and thirties. In other words, you’re welcome, Gen-Z.
Why Adulting is Important
No one would argue that coming of age (usually portrayed as the transition from childhood into young adulthood) doesn’t deserve its centrality in pop culture — reflections on such a formative time in all our lives make for highly universal, broadly insightful storytelling. Yet in its own way, adulting is at least as important a stage in our lives, and its narratives can be just as eye-opening and valuable as models. Here are some major reasons why slow-adulting, and not just immediately entering adulthood, is a significant and essential part of our development.
It keeps people from making big mistakes early in life. One major milestone of adulthood is entering into mature, grown-up relationships, some of which lead to marriage. Right now, the average age of a first marriage in the US is around 30. When a lot of Gen-Xers were getting married in the late ‘90s, the average age was closer to 25. So clearly, plenty of millennials are waiting longer to get married,
Ilana: “Lincoln I’m only 27 — what am I, a child bride?” - Broad City, 5x05
which also tends to lead to people becoming parents later, too. According to census data, divorce rates are also on the decline. So it seems likely that delaying marriage until you know you’re definitely ready can decrease the possibility of marrying for the wrong reasons — like social expectations. In an article for The Knot, psychologist Dr. Lara Friedrich notes that “We’re realizing that the brain doesn’t fully develop until people are around 25 […] By the time people are getting married, they have a better sense of who they really are, meaning they’re more secure in their career and their sense of self the older they get. And that helps them make good decisions with their life partner.”
The lesson that it pays to wait to jump into marriage is highly visible in popular culture: Friends, a show about a group of Gen-Xers, begins with the characters seeming much more outwardly “adult” than many of the characters on later shows like Girls or New Girl. They have jobs, relationships, even marriages. But as the show goes on, it becomes clear that many of the characters aren’t prepared for the adulting that they’ve been doing. Thus, they suffer negative consequences for rushing in— like Ross confronting the fact that he’s had three marriages that didn’t last,
Ross: “I just don’t want my tombstone to read: ‘Ross Geller: Three Divorces.’” - Friends, 6x02
or Rachel needing to start over as a twentysomething after nearly marrying the wrong guy.
Meanwhile, on a millennial show like Girls, Hannah makes a lot of mistakes, but because her culture isn’t really expecting her to be a fully formed adult at 25, the consequences of these mistakes more quickly fade into the background. Her culture has built in more time for her to learn and grow. It’s also notable that the characters on Girls who do consider themselves more grown-up and get married before they’re through adulting, Marnie and Jessa, both wind up divorced and having to make bigger pivots in their personal lives.
Marnie: “I knew I shouldn’t have married you.” - Girls, 5x06
New Girl also ultimately extols the virtues of taking time to figure out a relationship. Though Nick and Jess might have initially seemed like a typical sitcom will-they-or-won’t-they, their drawn-out courtship isn’t just a pointlessly frustrating back-and-forth to prolong soap operatic drama. After they get together and break up, they remain actual friends, offering each other relatively drama-free, genuine support. The central obstacle to their relationship actually centers on adulting: Jess is a lot more together than Nick, who seems to have no plans to ever adult.
Jess: “I wanted him to have a plan for his life and not keep his money in a box in his closet. And… he wanted me to not care about those things.’ - New Girl, 5x22
But while Nick finally does mature into his long-term priorities as the two become a happy couple, Jess also realizes that finding someone who does these mundane grown-up things isn’t as important to her as she thought.
Slow-Adulting challenges the status quo. For decades, it was normal to start a career, get married, and have children by your mid-twenties. But why do we assume there’s inherent value in growing up faster?
People in their twenties want to be mature enough to live on their own and make big decisions about the course of their future, but mastering how to do this successfully and make the right decisions can be a long process, with a number of wrong turns and false starts. The crux of the argument against millennials making a big deal out of adulting is that they’re obsessing over a common process that most people go through with very little fuss. But just because people have been growing up fast for generations, doesn’t mean that they’ve been growing up well.
A lot of traditional values surrounding how adults are supposed to act are rooted in regressive assumptions that it’s a male’s job to man up, do what’s expected of him, and repress feelings of doubt or weakness. Countless books have been written about how certain ideals of the American Dream led to an oppressive culture of conformity for both women and men in the 1950s and 1960s.
In movies like the 1950s-set Revolutionary Road, growing up means letting dreams slip away, and descending into suburban misery
April: “Look at us. We’ve bought into the same ridiculous delusion. This idea that you have to resign from life.” - Revolutionary Road
Even by 1985’s The Breakfast Club, young-adult rebellion is about rejecting the joylessness of their parents’ lives.
Andrew: “Are we gonna be like our parents?”
Claire: “Not me. Ever.” - The Breakfast Club
Not only is the idea that you should be ready for full-grown adulthood at 22 outdated, but it’s also the product of vastly different economic circumstances, where upward mobility was expected and generational wealth wasn’t yet being hoarded by baby boomers. There’s something cruel about creating conditions that make it difficult to achieve financial and emotional independence and then chastising younger people for not somehow doing it anyway.
Gilmore Girls revival A Year in the Life revealed that even Rory Gilmore — once TV’s Yale-bound golden child who seemed destined for success — had become a struggling millennial.
Rory: “I have no job, I have no credit, I have no underwear.” - Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, 1x03
If even someone with Rory’s advantages and life plan is basically at square zero in her early thirties, the problem isn’t an individual one; it’s the global situation we’re all in.
When young people aren’t being offered any real incentive to finish up their adulting as quickly as possible, why wouldn’t they take their time and learn to better know themselves?
Slow-Adulting counters imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome refers to the feeling that you don’t actually deserve or belong in the role you’re filling whether it’s in a job, a relationship, or some other aspect of your life, and that you’ll soon be exposed as a fraud.
Deep down, a lot of people feel like they’re faking it when it comes to acting like a grown-up.
Prof. Peter Hoberg: “Nobody feels like an adult.” - Liberal Arts
Affirming that adulting is something that needs to be actively cultivated, explained, practiced and 一 yes 一 complained about allows people to address their feelings of alienation and inadequacy, rather than just continuing to worry they’re a fraud.
Moreover, slow-adulting grounds us with the truth that external markers of adulthood aren’t the same as maturity. At the end of Girls, Hannah is a mom and has a respectable job, but that doesn’t mean that emotionally she’s figured everything out. Hitting external career and family milestones 一 at whatever age 一 doesn’t necessarily signify anything concrete about how emotionally developed or content a person really is
Hannah: “You didn’t say it was gonna be this hard.”
Hannah’s mom: “Oh, have I made this look easy to you?” - Girls, 6x10
It’s also important to keep in mind that: Everyone has always gone through the “adulting” learning process. Baby boomers weren’t born with knowledge of how to balance a checkbook or take care of a child (and in fact, their parents had a lot to say about them being a mess. For decades, popular culture has chronicled the process of graduating college, or passing other momentous milestones in a young person’s life, and being faced with the question of now what? It’s mainly the means of communicating this anxiety and confusion that’s changed — previous generations didn’t get to publicly vent on social media.
Slow-Adulting reminds you it’s not too late. When Insecure opens, Issa has a job at a non-profit that she doesn’t hate, but also doesn’t love.
Kid: “Is this what you always wanted to do?”
Issa: “Uh…No. But I got this job after college, and it fit my interests at the time.” - Insecure, 1x01
Whereas an old conception of adulting would dictate that she should live with her choices because starting over at this stage wouldn’t be smart, Issa does eventually unlock professional passion by starting her own thing. In today’s rapidly evolving job market, it’s the norm anyway that people make many more career shifts than they used to, at all ages.
Search Party presents a cautionary tale of how lost you can get if you don’t prioritize finding authentic purpose. Dory’s lack of direction leads her down a surreal, dark path of murder, notoriety and abduction. She and her friends make progress only when they confront just how much they’re struggling to find meaning in their lives.
Dory: “What do you guys live for?”
Dory: “What gets you up… in the morning?” - Search Party, 4x09
Slow-Adulting lets you hold onto your passions 一 and we’re seeing this in how it’s also transforming media and culture. Today’s mass popular culture is driven by adults who are interested in superheroes comic books, toy collecting, and other cultural artifacts of their youth that previous generations typically left behind at a much earlier age. Though it can be strange to watch 35-year-olds perform unboxing videos, another upside of gradual adulting is that entering adulthood sure of your individual identity allows you to retain your true interests and not give up what you love to conform to traditional signs of maturity. The days of dads depicted as (or feeling they have to be) interested only in grills, golf, and books about World War II may be coming to an end.
So if adulting is just a recent iteration of a process that’s long existed in some form or another, why did this specific term explode? TIME Magazine traces back to a 2008 tweet, where the author referred to having “adulted in New York City” for 10 years, simply referring to living in the city as an adult. But according to search data, the use of the term as a verb really gained momentum around 2014, and has exploded in the years since.
In the 2010s, as the oldest millennials were 30-something while the youngest millennials were close to finishing college, there were a lot of people learning how to adult in a fast-changing job environment — and they were also sharing their progress on social media in a way that wasn’t possible back in 1995. It was really this sharing that became the object of disdain from both older people and younger members of Gen Z, making fun of the public cutesiness of “adulting” as a meme — even making it a sign of “basic”-ness.
But this overlooked the fact that — first of all — much of the conversation around “adulting” has been ironic and humorous. It’s not that people complaining about how hard adulting is really don’t think they can do laundry or manage a bank account. In fact, there’s a joyfulness to much of the rhetoric around finally getting to do those mundane adult things past generations might have found boring. And that’s because the reality is that adulthood has looked very different for this generation than it did for those who came before. Millennials were only able to start careers, get married, become parents, or own houses much later than their Boomer parents — if they were able to do those things at all. Many millennials will never make as much money as their Boomer parents did — so when they actually started to get small tastes of feeling self-sufficient they got kind of giddy off it.
These social shifts are signaled in the ways that pop culture reflects norms of various eras. On sitcoms like The Dick Van Dyke Show or The Mary Tyler Moore Show, adults in their 20s and 30s have started families, are well into their chosen career, or both. They’re a far cry from the “figuring things out” stage that more contemporary characters are depicted in around their 30s.
Even in later, less domesticated shows of the ‘90s and ‘00’s like Seinfeld or Sex and the City, the lead characters live seemingly impossible fantasy lives in Manhattan, with jobs they like and a parade of attractive love interests.
Carrie: “There are two million single men in this city. I have dated…about a million of them.” - Sex and the City, 3x16
By the time we get to more millennial-focused shows like Girls, New Girl, Broad City, Insecure, and Search Party, the characters are less certain in their careers, which are often dead-end; less certain in their love lives, which tend to be tumultuous rather than amusing or aspirational; and less certain about their overall purposes in life. Basically, they’re all a lot closer to George Costanza or Kramer, rather than Jerry or Elaine,
George: “My name is George…I’m unemployed and I live with my parents.” - Seinfeld, 5x22
and worlds away from Rob Petrie or Mary Richards. Movies have followed suit, with more coming-of-age-style stories taking place when characters are in their 20s or 30s, rather than their teen years. Half the scenes in 2007’s Knocked Up could be hashtagged “adulting” — while the later Judd Apatow film This is 40 in 2012 resonated because it showed even Gen X-ers entering middle age still didn’t really feel they had it together.
Some of these cultural touchstones frame the adulting process satirically and portray millennials as comically unprepared for the challenges of real life. And it’s not always an unfair charge. Moreover, poking fun at those struggling with adulting often goes hand in hand with calling out entitlement.
Hannah’s Mom: “We can’t keep bankrolling your groovy lifestyle.”
Hannah: “My ‘groovy’ lifestyle?”
Hannah’s Mom: “The bills add up. We’re covering your rent, your insurance, your cell phone.” - Girls, 1x01
The freedom to even talk about adulting, let alone take your time with it, is an expression of privilege.
But even given the privileges associated with adulting, it’s a little bit strange that this idea has become an object of such disdain. Even movies with man-child or woman-child characters at their center tend to be about encouraging those characters to get on with their lives and take on the adult responsibilities they’ve been avoiding. Maybe boomers felt the string of unmet expectations, because all of the privileges they tried to pass off to their children didn’t turn out quite the way they had pictured in their heads. Maybe some boomer parents even recognize, deep down, the ways they’ve made the world more difficult for their children,
“Crashed the economy, three whole times… and when it comes to the vax, we the first in line!” - SNL, 46x15
after years of assuming they were making it better, and have turned that disappointment toward their children, rather than themselves.
Essentially, it feels like the “adulting” firestorm was an expression of our collective anxiety about how much the world had changed between millennial childhoods and them entering an adult life they hadn’t been prepared for.
A Post-Adulting World
So even if we’re not fans of the word, can we start to more broadly accept the slow-adulting process as something that’s standard healthy, and part of a long tradition of socialization? In reality, the “adulting” challenges that daunted millennials are only more intense for Gen-Z, who will graduate from college more in debt than any previous generation. The concept of “adulting” encompasses all kinds of ways that we grow, change, and learn more about the world, and ourselves. It’s not an instant transformation, but a lifelong process. So even if posts about adulting can sound a little cringe-y, there’s something to be said for normalizing and actually talking about this process, rather than pretending that we all suddenly become grown-ups at a certain magic age. What could be more adult than that?
Ilana: “I’m gonna be a grown-ass woman and do my taxes for once. Without my mommy and daddy.” - Broad City, 1x02
Anderson, Lydia, and Zachary Scherer. “U.S. Marriage and Divorce Rates Declined in Last 10 Years.” The United States Census Bureau, 7 Dec. 2020, https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2020/12/united-states-marriage-and-divorce-rates-declined-last-10-years.html.
Lee, Esther. “This Is the Average Age of Marriage In the U.S.” The Knot, 2 Feb. 2021, https://www.theknot.com/content/average-age-of-marriage.
Steinmetz, Katy. “Here Is What ‘Adulting’ Means.” Time, 8 June 2016, https://time.com/4361866/adulting-definition-meaning/.
Stritof, Sheri. “Median Age of First Marriages From 1890 to 2018.” The Spruce, 1 Dec. 2019, https://www.thespruce.com/estimated-median-age-marriage-2303878.