In defense of “adulting”

The backlash against the term “adulting” has been swift and not entirely unreasonable. It’s a cloying term, and if it doesn’t actively encourage complacent self-congratulation about mundane shit, it definitely makes it easier. This Cosmo article lays out the argument against it: it’s immature and shirks responsibility and tries to make the bare minimum into something optional and impressive.

The thing is, though, paying your rent on time isn’t the bare minimum; breathing is. Cooking intermediate-to-advanced meals with solid nutritional profiles isn’t a prerequisite for being a person the way turning food into energy is. If you don’t go to the doctor even when that rash starts to ooze, you’re still technically real so long as you have mass. “’Adulting,’ also known as ‘Existing,’” the Cosmo article reads, but humans existing has only very briefly looked like adulting. As the word is used, adulting doesn’t mean “being an adult” but “being an adult in a pretty specific slice of global capitalism.” With all the specialized skills that takes, it’s disingenuous and unhelpful to treat adulting like something so foundational it’s not even worth mentioning.

If you’re a Western millennial living in an urban area, then yeah, being an adult is going to look like buying groceries and balancing budgets. But if you’re in a rural area, or you’re transient, or you don’t live in a hub of American capitalism, your responsibilities are going to look a lot different. If you’re a young professional with a permanent residence but you’re in England and it’s 1251, you won’t be adulting the way I’m adulting. And if you’ve got a chronic illness — physical or mental — or an aversion to numbers or grocery stores or driving or public transit or one of the many other skills and environments that are necessary to use and face if you want to be an independent adult in 2016 America, then adulting won’t be the same challenge as everyone else has.

This isn’t to say having responsibilities is bad, or that the sorts of things adulting entails aren’t important, but treating them as a neutral baseline by which we can all be fairly measured against is, at least, the cousin of the meritocratic bullshit that erases a distinction between “failing at making money” and “failing at life.” Like, if you’re someone who’s just stupendously good at Starcraft, that not’s a valueless skill, but it’s also obviously ludicrous to mock someone else for not being stupendously good at Starcraft. That is way too specific a thing to insist everyone be able to competently do! But when we start treating specific things as the bare minimum, we can be real assholes about it.

And not being an asshole should be treated as the default. You really shouldn’t get rewarded for not being racist, or not punching people on the subway, or not shrugging off your commitments because you know there will be someone else to take up the slack. But when we gripe about adulting, it’s typically not those things that we’re mad people are proud of. It’s stuff that affects no one but the adulter. The Cosmo article derides adulting as treating your responsibilities like a hobby, but aren’t they basically a mandatory hobby to begin with? And if someone does their hobby differently than we do, who are we to give them grief?

Paying your bills on time is, for most of us, not a major accomplishment. But it’s also not nothing. And having a term for the tiny, not-nothing victories that come with being part of a really particular lifestyle that’s unfortunately become the invisible center isn’t nothing either. It’s an acknowledgement of specificity: your talents, your weaknesses, your situation. And if you need to pat yourself on the back for keeping your apartment even marginally clean, who gives a shit? Responsibilities are important, and it’s for exactly that reason we shouldn’t pretend like they don’t even exist.

Like what you read? Give Stewart Finnegan a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.