I remember my years in the south. I have many fond memories of my little town in Alabama. Half my family still lives there, along with several of my good friends.
With one of these good friends, I have recently had multiple conversations about adulthood. We are both in our thirties. No one could possibly doubt our adultness, now. If it were in any doubt, my friend is also married with children. Nothing could make you more of an adult than marriage and children, especially in the eyes of most southerners.
Unfortunately, my friend is only now recognized as a member of the adult club. It took marriage and kids to usher her into this elite group. Now that she is happily situated as a real adult, she is suddenly bombarded with the “I can’t believe you’re so grown up” from the most well-meaning of southerners.
She’s in her thirties, and people are having trouble processing how grown up she is.
In the olden days, most people married in their early twenties. In the south, this is still a common practice (but becoming less common). Today, most people marry in their late twenties and early thirties. When we lived in the former world, where children followed shortly thereafter, it made perfect sense why marriage and children were seen as synonymous with adulthood. It also makes perfect sense why thirty is being hailed as the new twenty. With one season of life comes another.
But this leaves us unmarrieds in a bit of a pickle. We believe, by now, that we should actually be real adults. But we doubt ourselves.
Recently, I was reading Bossypants by Tina Fey. In the book she describes an experience where she is asked about the moment she realized she was a grown woman.
I panicked a little, realizing I have yet to have this moment.
This pickle doesn’t just stump the unmarrieds. It extends to the rest of the world, too. Without the marker of marriage and family to distinguish who is an adult and who is not, people don’t quite know what to do with us adults-yet-not-adults.
How do we categorize you? Where do you fit in? Can we expect you to do grown-up things like bring a casserole to a potluck or buy a gift for a wedding? Can we expect you to be mature about the decisions you make? Be it jobs, dating partners, or financial choices?
This issue extends to the current millennial culture and beyond. Millennials are affectionately known for certain behaviors that, to the older generations, are simply considered irresponsible. The world is unkind to those who are used to being spoon-fed—like children. But we don’t know how to make these children-but-not-children act like adults.
So the default tendency in both cases is to isolate these unmarried, not-quite-adults into invisible sectors until they have the good fortune to magically become adults once they are married.
And then this vicious cycle occurs. When millenials know they are not seen as real adults, often they lose the motivation to act like adults. I was in my late twenties when I moved away from the south, but I remember the angst of knowing my status as adult was in question due to my unmarried status. I know a large part of my neglect to embrace other adult behaviors, ones not associated with marriage or children, was because I innately knew I wasn’t expected to embrace those behaviors.
I wasn’t expected to embrace those behaviors, only because I knew the award of adulthood status wouldn’t follow even if I were acting like an adult in other ways.
The wonderful thing about marriage and kids is this: once you have them, your status is no longer in question. It’s amazing the maturity that comes after these life seasons and it is almost always credited to the actual season.
However, I would like to venture a theory. The theory is, once a person has entered the season where their status of adulthood his no longer in question, it is much easier to behave like the mature adults they now are. Because, no matter what they do, no one will question their standing. No one will relegate them to the status of not-quite-adult. They are safeguarded by marriage and family. Therefore, the ease at which they embrace this new status isn’t due (wholly) to the actual marriage or raising of a child. (We will not take the time here to address the married adults who still behave like children).
Take the gospel as an example. Our status as children of the King—our identity in Christ—is not put on trial after we’ve experienced salvation. We may behave in childish, sinful ways, but the body of Christ calls us to be the princes and princesses that we already are. It doesn’t withhold the benefits of salvations, simply because we often fail to behave as if we are truly saved.
In light of this, our role as members of the body of Christ, in relation to the millennial culture, in relation to the unmarried culture, is to call one another into adulthood—that is, calling one another to maturity in Christ. It’s expecting behavior because of the status we already have, rather than withholding status because we have yet to earn it.
When I worked in youth ministry, I was often saddened by the way the church treated teens and preteens. I felt the church did these young adults a disservice by not expecting them to be mature, by not treating them as the full and complete members of the body of Christ that they were. I was not surprised when, after a couple years of calling these young adults into their real abilities, by giving them ownership, by expecting great things, that eventually they rose to the occasion.
My friend, who is in her thirties with a husband and children is (encouragingly for me) irritated at the surprise and sudden recognition of her adult standing. Her irritation stems from the reality that she wasn’t recognized as an adult before she was married and the reality that her friends who are still unmarried—though they are around her same age—are still not recognized as adults.
In conclusion, if you are looking for ways to encourage your millennial acquaintances into the season of #adulting, than affording them the honor of adult status, whether you believe they have earned it or not, is a hard and fast way to do it. Do them the favor of expecting maturity and saving them a seat at the table with the grownups. They are grownups, whether they behave like it or not.
Do this because of their status, the same way you’d honor the status of a president or the status of a queen. It’s their status you’re honoring, not their behavior.
You might find you’ve made a new grownup friend whom you can learn from, while at the same time giving them an opportunity to learn from you.