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122. There are no adults (anymore?)

My mother just turned 67. I love her dearly. One of the reasons for that is that she sometimes says something profound – and often without realising it. This was one of those times.

We were discussing life, and she explained (with a smile and a rueful laugh) that she’d once thought that there’d be a point when she’d feel like a grownup. That moment just never came.

I know exactly how she feels, and so do many others.

The truth of the matter is that there are no adults.

Just people with more experience.

It’s not that people don’t age. They obviously do. I’m 38, and while I don’t think of that as a lot, my body isn’t 25 anymore. Neither is my mind, and while I may lament the former when I get up and pee in the middle of the night, I rejoice in the latter.

Society tells me that I am. I most definitely disagree.

I think that once, there might have been adults. I’m not sure, though, but maybe. Back when your life was pretty similar to the life of your grandparents, I guess adults could have existed. As I said, I’m not sure, but I’m not discounting the possibility.

Now, though? I call a reverse Emperor’s New Clothes on adulthood.

But what do I mean by that, exactly?

We all learn with age.

Most of us grow wiser as well.

We get better at handling life, and at handling ourselves. Take someone who’s 18 and someone who’s twice that, and compare life experience. Granted, there are exceptional 18 year olds, but in general the 36 year old will be vastly more experienced and skilled in general.

The 18 year old will often win on physique, energy and ability to soak up new stuff. But on knowledge, proven ability to handle life and self-understanding? It’s rarely a contest.

The 18 year old is just entering adulthood, while the 36 year old has enjoyed it for half of her life. But does that make her feel like an adult? My claim is that the answer is a big, fat “No.”

The world is changing at a rapid pace and has been doing so for as long as anyone alive can remember. My (late) grandmother was born in 1917. My mother was born in 1950. The difference between being 18 in 1935 and in 1968 was pretty damn big in most of the world. I’m from 1979, and got to 18 in 1997. My young cousin was born that year. He turned 18 in 2015.

My grandmother turned 18 in a life where Hitler was in power in Nazi Germany, Danish encyclopedias claimed that black people were musical but of low morals, and not everyone had a telephone.

My mother mother’s 18 coincided with the legalisation of porn in Denmark. The moon landing was one year later, and the Soviets crushed a revolt in Prague. Many households had TVs, and the Beatles ruled.

When I turned 18, the fall of the Berlin wall was not even that recent a memory. We had gotten internet at home and I owned not only my own colour TV, but also my own desktop computer. Until I was 10, there was one Danish TV channel.

My cousin could invite friends to his 18th birthday on his smartphone. He has never known a world without internet, globalization or cell phones. He didn’t get to experience the Cold War at all, but grew up in a post-9/11 world.

Almost lives the lives of their parents any more. In some countries the generation gap is huge, while in others it’s less so. But it’s definitely there. The 18s are just so far apart, and I think that makes the whole idea of internalised adulthood impossible.

We bumble along through life, doing our best to do our best. We may feel old from time to time, and we most certainly feel our age. But this magical transition from youth to adult? I don’t buy it. Neither do my friends. Neither does my mother, and from she’s told me, neither do her friends.

It’s not that others don’t see us as adults. When a good friend of mine died suddenly, his girlfriend called me. She didn’t know what to do (who would?). She told me later that she’d called me because I was the most adult person I knew. It was both flattering and strange.

I’ve dealt with some hard things – both in my own life and those of others. I’ve taken responsibility by the bucket and I’ve built a skillset that I in no way had at age 18. I look like an adult from the outside, and I do things that adults do. I’ve had “dad talks” for years, though I don’t have kids.

Yet on the inside, I don’t feel like an adult. I can still be just as silly and whimsical as when I was 18. I can make just as big mistakes and look at the world with exactly the same wonder.

It’s not that the twenty years that have passed have meant nothing. They’ve meant the world to me, and I’m sure I’ve changed more than I think I have. But since I’ve been through all those years, I haven’t felt the transition. I didn’t suddenly wake up one day and feel like an adult.

And I am pretty sure I never will.

In a way it’s like what people say about kids. Nobody’s ever ready, and yet most manage to get it to work somehow. The difference is that adulthood doesn’t cry during the night or grow into an angsty teenager whether you want it to or not. You get to feel it and define it – or the lack of it.

I find that I constantly do things that I didn’t think “adults” did. Maybe not in public, but definitely in private. My ideas of what constitutes an adult get challenged more and more as I grow more and more “adult” myself. Even as I write this, I’m tempted to stop myself because this is a blog post that should be written by an adult, not a youngster like me.

To quote a very special grandmother (not mine, though) in her 90's, just to show that we’re all just young inside our own heads:

“I wasn’t looking at his ass. That's not an ass. That’s a lethal weapon.”

That’s not the commenr of an adult. It’s the comment of a person. And yet, I remember when people who were 25 seemed very adult to me. I remember my stepfather’s 40th birthday, and all the adults that were there to celebrate him. I’m now quite sure that I was wrong. There were no adults there. Just people who were older than me.

We see each other as adults all the time. We may even pretend to be adults to make each other happy. But I am getting more and more convinced that there are no actual adults. No one who feels they’ve got it all figured out, and who isn’t just making it up as they go along.

There are no adults. Just people doing their best to deal with life.

And if you give them half a chance, they’ll turn out to be much younger on the inside that you could ever imagine. Which is perhaps the greatest gift you can give someone older than you – remembering to treat them like a person and not a generation.

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Written by

Director, The College of Extraordinary Experiences & Coach at McKinsey

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