In an audience consisting mostly of 20-something-year-olds, the question “why grow up?” awakens both curiosity and a deep mistrust. This mixed reaction comes as a result of wanting to know how to do it while harboring a suspicious attitude towards anyone who might try to make us do it too quickly. “Why grow up?” is the inquiry that Susan Neiman, the acclaimed moral philosopher and director of Potsdam’s Einstein Forum, delved into from behind the podium in Bard College Berlin’s lecture hall. Her book of the same name was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2015 and deals with our society’s idea of adulthood.
Neiman began by addressing the misgivings that people have expressed at her choice of subject matter. “That’s an awful subject!” was what one close friend (a self-proclaimed idolizer of Peter Pan) exclaimed after learning that her new book was to be about growing up.
Why do we shy away from investigating adulthood as a goal to be reached and would rather continue to conceive of it as a state that is forced upon us? In answer, Neiman pointed us towards compliments that we bestow on the elderly. Looking young is synonymous with looking good. Describing someone as “young at heart” is said in praise. In a society obsessed with youth, no wonder no one wants to talk about maturity – neither the young who have yet to reach it nor the elderly who are nostalgic for their own past. Our perception of adulthood begs to be associated with things like tax returns and nutritional fibers: things that we know are necessary to independent life but that we don’t really want to fully understand just yet. But how much is our glorification of youth justified?
Neiman challenged our idolization of youth and childhood by arguing that this attitude is confined to a small percentage of the world: white, educated, industrialized, and rich democracies, affectionately abbreviated to WEIRD. Our modern misgivings towards adulthood and maturity, she argued, are shaped by states that aim to keep us, their citizens, infantilized by designing societies that offer maximal distraction. In her words, we are constantly “dazzled with the latest smartphones” while real choices are being ultimately withheld from us. Keeping adults in a state of childishness makes it easier for them to be immobilized under political and societal power. Rejecting this process of infantilization means rejecting the idea of an adulthood that can be reached. Neiman put forth her response to this idea: Her view of adulthood is not of a state that is attained and then experienced as a plateau, but one that is constantly evolving and allows us to face the split between the world we want and the world we see around us.
The idea that we are stuck in a vicious cycle of societal-inflicted immaturity is an interesting one. Buzzfeed lists articles with titles like “21 Things You’ll Understand If You’re Not Yet A Real Adult”or “Which Big Adult Step Should You Take Next?” (Because obviously you should base your grown-up decisions on internet quizzes). These articles point to a society that antagonizes the maturity needed to navigate its own structure. But, thinking this question over, I began to wonder whether our attitude towards adulthood is shaped solely by this societal structure or whether there exists another layer within it. I realized that in Neiman’s lecture we never drew a distinction between childhood and youth, or between adulthood and maturity. Neiman had painted a picture of childhood and youth as social constructs that are unnecessarily glorified. But childhood is a deeply personal experience, and the loss of our childhood is forever intertwined with the loss of our own innocence.
So how much of our societal immaturity can we blame on society, and how much of it is inherent to the human nature of each person simply missing his or her own childhood? I would argue that the tinge of regret or sadness that comes with growing up isn’t something that can be explained away until it’s no longer relevant. It comes with the realization that, in gaining one perspective on the world, we’ve lost another. I agree with Neiman’s view of a constantly evolving state of adulthood, but I think that the melancholy that accompanies us on the way there is one of the things that makes us human. Being sad about “growing up” is a human trait that we should acknowledge and embrace just as much as the maturity that we eventually arrive at.
Back to our original question – “why grow up?”. At a point in my life when I was about to embark for the first time on a path of my own choosing, I remember talking with a few adults about various doubts that I had. Would I be able to structure myself? Could I lead myself without someone else pushing me forward? Most of the answers were the sort you would expect from parents and aunts and uncles and teachers, sentences with words in them like “goals” and “potential” and “experience”. Only one person’s answer stood out to me: An old family friend who looked at me blankly when I spoke and then replied, “What are you talking about? Being an adult is the most fun ever. No one will ever tell you what to do again.”