In a recent interview, Simon Pegg — actor (“Shaun of the Dead,” various “Star Treks,” etc.) and noted geek — said a number of things that immediately got the Internet up in arms: Comic-book movies are infantilizing us. We care too much about superheroes. We no longer frequent Gritty Adult Dramas Like They Used To Make Back In The ’70s. He has since walked it back a bit (don’t bite the feeding-hand, Simon!), but he is definitely right about the infantilized part. We are experiencing an adulthood crisis. Levels of acknowledged adulthood are at an all-time low.
I think this has happened for a couple of reasons. First, the Internet. One of the units of currency online is the admission that you have no idea what you are doing and don’t feel that you belong in the company of true adults.
Even in print, there’s this trend of books by successful youngish people insisting that we don’t know how to be adults but here is how they have managed to fake it. Adulting. Grace’s Guide: The Art of Pretending to Be a Grown-Up. This is the stuff of which careers are made.
“Adult” is now a verb, not a noun — it’s something you do for a time, an unpleasant task you are periodically required to perform. Laundry, dishes, taxes, 9-to-5s, parenting — anything that requires you to appear to know what you’re doing. Don’t worry, everyone on the Internet is always reassuring you — nobody actually knows what he or she is doing.
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The trend against adulthood certainly existed before we were all online all the time — some people would say that all the Seminal Boomer Moments were a slow-motion refusal to grow up. But the Internet fired this phenomenon up to 11. Its prime gift is the reassurance that you are not alone, and that has propelled Niche Geek Things That We Loved As Kids into the center of pop culture. You, in your rabid fandom, no longer exist in isolation. You can find others of your kind and make topics trend and generate buzz. You do not even have to wait for an annual convention.
We are all still kids underneath, and we love the same things now that we did then. The only enticement we ever saw in adulthood was the ability to eat ice cream for breakfast.
It is possible that this has always secretly been the case — that even the people in charge of things who look as though they have their acts together are just as baffled as you, that even they are as surprised by their own success at passing for grown-ups as you are. That there were never any adults here, and only now have we begun to realize it.
Or maybe something has changed.
I have the dim sense from old movies and anthropological texts that there used to be a gap between childhood and adulthoo,d. The wardrobes were different. There were rituals that took you from Boyhood to Manhood — you had to ride out into the desert and slay a wildebeest and then you were allowed to hang out at the country club and go around the golf course in a foursome and sit in smoke-filled rooms and Run Things. There was no incentive to admit that you didn’t know what you were doing. To the contrary. Being a Man or a Woman was a desirable status, and you got there by putting away childish things.
But that was a while ago.
Now you keep your action figures as long as you like, and there’s no shame in reading young adult fiction. The narrative has changed.
We have leaned in to the idea that the things we loved as kids are still valid and important things to love and to build communities around as we get older. We make a big thing about how none of us are really grown-ups, deep down. Growing up feels like losing.
We still get all the things done that adults used to do. We hold down jobs. We make art. We march for justice. We get married. We buy real estate and pay taxes. We just do it while admitting that, all things considered, we would rather be watching “The Empire Strikes Back.”
What have we lost by this? Is a society unified by Adult Interests like smoking and playing tennis or golf, then adjourning to rooms full of leather chairs and starched napkins and vague racism better than one organized along the lines we now seem to be hammering out?
Maybe there is something to be said for organizing around the things you love and for taking stories seriously. But there’s also something to be said for Growing Up. It’s just that, for the life of me, I can’t remember what it is.
Ms. Petri writes the ComPost blog at www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/compost.