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Old School

The bold new franchise of adulting

Anatomist Louis Bolk once called humans sexually mature primate fetuses. (And yes, it sounds suitably disturbing in the original German: einen zur Geschlechtsreife gelangten Primatenfetus.) As Bolk patiently explained, our evolutionary history is something of an arms race between the pelvic size of mothers and the skull size of offspring, which means, in turn, that we’re born half-made and unfinished.

This holds true, alas, even after we reach sexual maturity. Dogs and apes have set life stages that determine their behavior. Humans, by embarrassing contrast, have midlife crises, go back to school, run away, settle down, and lurch blindly into the each new cycle of their own distinctive, character-shifting revolution. Lather, rinse, repeat—until your energy gives out and you drop dead. We might reach sexual maturity, but we live most of our lives in a sort of permanent adolescence. Knowing all this, how do we answer the question of what an “adult” is?

For most of the American twentieth century, we took it as given that adulthood was the crowning category of psychological development. Centuries-old communal rites of passage succumbed quickly to secularized theories of human development, which found the self to be protean at its core, and infinitely revisable. At the turn of the twentieth century, Freud still had a foot in both worlds, advancing bold new theories of how the modern personality maintained itself (and, more than occasionally, broke down) while also crediting older ceremonial efforts to map out the human life cycle as a crucial means of channeling and restraining antisocial aggression. But as Christopher Lasch explains in his mordant history of the American family, Haven in a Heartless World, Freud’s American acolytes completely disregarded a key element of his thought: the constant and irreconcilable antagonism between instinct and culture—between the parts of us that are impossible to change and the parts that we have to change in order to live together.

Soon enough, the tellingly schematic goal of “adjustment” became the watchword of psychological maturity, American-style. Theorists like Harvard’s Talcott Parsons in the 1950s advocated for the near-complete socialization of instinct itself. His was a characteristically American—which is to say, brashly optimistic—view of human nature, which confused the murky and complex process of socialization with a light, cheery curriculum of “conscious learning and the acquisition of habits,” as Lasch archly notes.

The sociological reverie of the total malleability of personhood for the sake of the greater social good is, among other things, pretty convenient for business. As American psychological consensus moved away from Freudian psychoanalysis and toward a focus on the vague—and altogether malleable—goal of “mental health”—the broader culture soon spawned a whole host industries based on the production of personality, from the “human potential” movement that took root in the seventies heyday of stagflation and cultural malaise to the mindfulness cult of self-maintenance that now reigns over today’s gig-centered business world. A clear line can be drawn from Freud and his faithless progeny, through Parsons, Dr. Spock, and codependency guru John Bradshaw, to the Oprah-blessed homilies of Rhonda “The Secret” Byrne, directly to adult coloring books, adult sleepaway camps, and “adulting” classes.

Adulting classes and adulting schools seem, on the face of things, a logical endpoint to the psychology of personality adjustment: a confession that all the duly appointed cultural signposts meant to smooth the passage into official grown-upness, from old-fashioned virtues of thrift and self-starting enterprise to college matriculation and online networking in the LinkedIn vein, are something of a collective bust. And what better way to remedy this failure than to institute yet another round of pricey educational fixes, offering what amounts to post-graduate work in emotional maturity?

Do you #adultlikeaboss? Apparently I don’t.

The first confirmed mention of an adulting school, as near as I can tell, concerned a group known as Society of Grownups, which opened an actual brick-and-mortar facility to house its enterprising student population in Brookline, Massachusetts in 2014. The idea, as Financial Advisor magazine solemnly reported, was to “give young adults a place to have open and balanced discussions about money.” And after a flurry of predictably puzzled-to-outraged media reports on the adulting fad in outlets ranging from the New York Magazine to Fox News, the unthinkable happened late last year: the forces of adulting set up shop virtually on my doorstep, in downtown Portland, Maine.

The new pedagogical outlet was to be called the Adulting School in Maine (yes, this latest American gloss on officially sanctioned maturity seems to mandate the adoption of the twee-est names imaginable). In short order, the Maine franchise became modestly controversial—definitely more so than its Boston forerunner.

I’d like to claim this critical reception was a function of good old Yankee skepticism, or the rugged DYI ethos of northern New England. In reality, though, the Adulting School simply came across at first as another opportunistic boondoggle of the sort pioneered by the predatory moguls of for-profit higher ed: it appeared to be taking a commonly available social good and surrounding it with the trappings of a market monopoly. On its website, the facility advertises itself as a clearinghouse of “expert information” in things like Health and Wellness, Relationships and Community, Financial Basics, and “Make it + Fix it Skills.” But the specialists are, you know, laid-back slacker types, and the knowledge they offer is strictly of the news-you-can-use, just-in-time variety. “We have succinct, usable, accessible information in our workshops, summits, webinars and blogs,” the school’s homepage coos. “We’ve gathered quality, down-to-earth experts as part of our community to answer your questions and get you moving with the adulting fundamentals you need.” And sure enough, the experts are right there in a video on the site’s right rail, advertising their down-to-earthness in casual hipster attire, brightly dyed hair, and tattoos. They appear, naturally enough, under the homespun greeting “Nice to Meetcha.”

But in the great tradition of adjustment psychology, the surface pleasantries here mask a far more demanding regime of obsessive self-scrutiny. The website’s introductory text hints at the inner distress that gnaws away at the heart of the adulting project—albeit in more breezy, quasi-profane millennialspeak: “We know you’re sick of feeling like you’re pretending to be a grown-up and that someone’s going to realize you don’t know the sh%#t you’re supposed to know.” This, indeed, seems like the bedrock secret appeal of these classes: they prey on a pervasive, generation-wide imposter syndrome.

It nearly worked on me. The Adulting School website offers a quiz that tells you your “Adulting IQ.” Do you #adultlikeaboss? Apparently I don’t. After I took the quiz, the screen reported “You’re Calling Your Parents a Little Too Often: Let us be your GO-TO for the adulting skills you’re missing!” But I’m a thirty-something veteran, a homeowner, a relatively healthy non-smoker in a warm and joyful marriage who is nearly as professionally successful as he wants to be. I can even fix the dishwasher. Am I not truly an adult? What was I missing?

I resolved to find out firsthand. Driving into Portland on a typically brisk New England fall day in November (the day after my thirty-third birthday, actually) to attend the Adulting School’s first “summit,” I rolled the word adulting around in my mind like a worry stone. It’s an ugly word, of course, but there’s more to hate about it than the all-too common subliterate practice of verbing nouns. The word sounds twee, and ironically childish, since it’s meant to describe maturity. Selective pomposity is part of the problem here—one doesn’t speak of childing or senioring, after all—but something more fundamentally seems wrong with it.

The word adulting has only been around since 2008, but it feels much longer than that, given its rapid ascent into cultural earworm status. In their weird, intrusive dash to fake a connection with consumers, marketers often resort to awkward linguistic inventions to affect an oddly off-key and overly familiar tone. Christine Friar neatly captured the logic behind such ploys when she wrote in The Awl about the kindred malaprop term gifting:

“I don’t usually hear people saying, ‘I gifted Janelle new earrings’ out loud, but I do see brands tweeting, ‘13 things under $50 to gift a coworker.’ In other words: instead of parroting trendy slang I’m familiar with back to me, advertisers are trying to shoehorn arbitrarily playful language into their sales pitch to seem fun, and for some reason this particular word is sticking.”

This all goes double, it seems, for adulting: it’s manipulative marketing language that cynically taunts millennials with the popular myth of their own delayed development in order to profit from it. What’s more, it works: at the end of all my ruminations on the weird valences of adulting, I promptly delivered myself into just the sort of small adulting crisis that the Portland school was setting itself up to troubleshoot. As I pulled up outside the Portland seminar site I paid for parking before discovering that there was ample free public parking nearby. I couldn’t help but wonder to myself if this was a case of bad adulting.

I was, in any event, at the right place to find out. The Adulting School summit convened at One Longfellow Square, a hip, semi-crunchy music and events space where I’d seen Justin Townes Earle and Gill Landry perform the year prior. It’s one of many cool, member-run places in Portland, a city that prides itself on punching above its weight culturally. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I chose to move there from Brooklyn in 2014. Pitching Portland to friends, I’d describe it as a cool Brooklyn neighborhood plopped down in Maine. Which isn’t entirely true—there’s definitely more of a DIY vibe to Portland. You’ll find more cultural cachet in Portland hand-making children’s books than developing an app.

The adulting industry’s comically misguided mission is to treat the body politic’s debilitating cancer with band-aids and aspirin.

Still, Portland and Brooklyn do share one key trend in common—namely, gentrification. In the past few years people like me have been moving to the city to escape the ruinously high cost of living in traditional bohemian perches like Brooklyn and Boston. This influx of comparatively wealthy residents has had catastrophic effects. In 2015 Portland’s median rent rose 17.4 percent over twelve months—the second highest growth rate in the country. There’s a massive housing shortage and vacancy rates are near zero. Salon listed the city among its “5 surprising cities where gentrification is displacing the poor.” The Portland Press Herald ran a devastating digital multimedia piece called “No Vacancy” which showed that city is becoming more educated—residents with a bachelor’s degree rose 39 percent between 2000 and 2014—as the poor and middle class are forced out of the city en masse. Portland’s émigré population of former Brooklynites and Bostonians are, in short, recreating the economic segregation of the places they came from, forcing out any remaining semblance of a middle class and rendering the city a sort of playground for the young, wealthy, and educated—with a residual smattering of the truly poor, chiefly serving as props in the odd urban renewal vanity project.

If adulting began in elite Boston suburb of Brookline—which enjoys the joint distinction of the JFK’s official birthplace and the U.S. city with the most PhD’s—it seems fair to say that these classes are geared toward a certain high-achieving millennial demographic, prone to self-questioning and the constant solicitation of approval from peer networks. You won’t find adulting seminars in Brownsville, Texas, or Newark, New Jersey, after all. At first glance, the nearly full house at the cozy two-hundred-seat auditorium at One Longfellow Square appeared to be gratifyingly diverse. There were more women than men—but there were men. It was mostly white, but so is Maine. The crowd seemed like a representative segment of the city. Except for one thing: they all “presented” culturally upper middle class. Cool clothes. Tattoos. Vintage eyeglasses. As I took in my aspirational adulting peer group, a line from an old Silver Jews song rang through my head: “What’s with all these handsome grandsons in the rock band magazines? / What have they done with the fat ones? The bald and the goateed?” I pocketed my coupon for one free donut at a local artisanal donut spot and waited for the first class: “Time-Management for the Chronically Over-Busy.”

And here was another surprise: the classes were great. There were practical tips on budgeting and time-management. A useful primer on meditation. A thing on relationships that began with a clip from Aziz Ansari’s Netflix cult hit, Master of None. It was like a really fun and relaxed high school home economics class packed into a single day. I found my notes veering from a cool, composed remove to quickly scribbled listicles intended to prioritize my goals and phrases like “What value do you attach to being busy?”

It’s a good question, aimed right at the heart of what might be laughably termed my personal brand strategy. And like that echoing, beseeching refrain, the Adulting School classes all seemed tailor-made for me, a youngish freelance writer anxiously trying to balance the demands of what amounts to a self-run business with a nascent family life. I was falling for the many self-improvement tips on offer at One Longfellow Square because I’m working through the same economic doldrums that mobilized many of the millennial foot soldiers of the Bernie Sanders uprising, not all that far from here: a group of overcredentialed young strivers desperately trying to rescue something akin to a viable bourgeois life out of the junkyard remains of the postwar American dream. Everyone in the auditorium, to judge by their appearance and the questions they asked, belonged to this same tribal micro-class: educated, young, schooled largely against their will in the demeaning routines of our gig economy—but without a trust fund to fall back on. These were, in short, crash-course offerings for people trying to life-hack their way into the professional-managerial class. But does the customized folk wisdom of the adulting industry actually address this plight in any meaningful way?

In “The Professional Ideology of Social Pathologists,” C. Wright Mills described a certain professional class that conceives of social change in the narrowest terms—as an individual adaptation to the larger system, as opposed to a collective bid to alter the delivery of social goods through the system. Put another way, instead of changing the basic structure of society to meet the needs of people, the members of the professional-managerial caste elect to fine-tune their own personalities in accord with the passing social fashions of the day. Mills argued that these lost souls were afflicted with a sort of cultural lag, always one step behind social change. While they’re busy emulating the personality traits of someone who might succeed in the current system, the real power brokers had long since moved on to the next thing. And as I listened to adulting blogger David Welliver deliver very sensible advice on how to use income from a side gig to pay down student debt, it gradually dawned on me that he was extolling another misguided brand of adjustment psychology, transposed into the sphere of economics. The rentiers who’d initially bid up the price of higher education into the stratosphere were now sponsoring shiny new ways to monetize the precarity of debt-burdened college graduates.

And this reflection, in turn, spurred another realization. The main problem with the adulting worldview isn’t its easily mocked developmental precepts and hipster-capitalist modes of self-presentation. No, the real difficulty is that in our terminally adolescent consumer society, instruction in adult coping strategies must always come too late—after the six-figure student debt’s been accrued, or after the point when your gig at the hot new startup leaves you high and dry and less-than-marketable. As they’d put it in one superannuated Western Civ class or another: Minerva’s owl always flies at dusk.

Seen in this light, the exasperating linguistic sin known as adulting finally makes its own twisted sort of sense.

The classes also felt anachronistic in a stricter zeitgeist sense of things. Portland’s adulting summit took place the first weekend after the presidential election. Like most feverishly gentrifying communities, Portland is a deep blue city, and Trump’s ascendency cast a distinct pall over the event. One speaker on something called “chronic busyness” delivered an aside from the podium about why free time was “important, especially NOW.” She promptly caught herself, covered her mouth, and casually apologized to someone offstage for bringing the election up. I assumed that all the speakers on hand been told not to mention it. This was probably a smart move, since all these classes were steeped in a neoliberal sensibility that seemed to have reached its cultural sell-by date on November 9. All at once, the stakes of political conflict seemed much too high for resume-plumping business as usual. Paying off student debt? What about abolishing it? Strategizing to achieve work-life balance? What about guaranteed universal basic income and paid time off? For all of the pseudo-practical wisdom the classes had to offer, the election had made it painfully clear that adjustment psychology had innovated itself into a cul-de-sac. Altering your personality to suit the changed circumstances of the world was no longer a self-evident prescription for self-improvement. If anything, the tacit mission of the adulting industry had abruptly become a comically misguided effort to treat the body politic’s debilitating cancer with band-aids and aspirin.

I snuck out of the summit before its “speaker evaluation” phase and drove home. In the moment, I’d savored the ingenious elements of my adulting curriculum, but I was still confused about what more efficient cooking and enhanced time management skills had to do with being an adult. In a sense, though, my confusion was the lesson: the subtext of every class, and the energy driving the entire event, was an unadulterated anxiety about the proper direction of one’s life—the very sort of recursive self-inspection that our intentionally unstable economy cultivates in lushly baroque fashion. In a real-world parable that underscores the limited utility of adjustment psychology for its own sake, the Brookline Society of Grownups suffered a round of layoffs and was forced to mothball its brick-and-mortar expansion plans after the project’s major funder, MassMutual, slashed its funding last fall. If the society’s expert pedagogues had been any good at preparing themselves to exist in this economy they should have seen it coming. We’re all grownups here.

An economy locked into the ceaselessly shifting eddies and flows of creative destruction demands as a coping strategy that we make ourselves into blank slates—or in the parlance of the Silicon Valley ruling class, that we be constantly rewriting our basic operating codes. It’s Freud without the instinct once again, a vision of human animals as completely malleable social beings. But achieving and sustaining this market-friendly plasticity gets more and more difficult as you get older and accrue experiences, believe in things, and cultivate depth. The dour German Marxist Max Horkheimer wrote that “the child, not the father, stands for reality.” He didn’t mean that children have any kind of real power, of course—only that modern capitalism has canonized the hedonistic consumption habits of the young, together with the image of unformed adolescents as model personalities.

Seen in this light, the exasperating linguistic sin known as adulting finally makes its own twisted sort of sense. Of course it’s something you do, not a person that you become. To adult is to learn whatever skill of the month the economy requires you to master. To actually become an adult, on the other hand, entails a declaration of fixed values and identity. In other words, it means to declare yourself bound for obsolescence.