When are you really an adult?

Mintz writes that adulthood has been devalued in culture in some ways. “Adults, we are repeatedly told, lead anxious lives of quiet desperation,” he writes. “The classic post-World War II novels of adulthood by Saul Bellow, Mary McCarthy, Philip Roth, and John Updike, among others, are tales of shattered dreams, unfulfilled ambitions, broken marriages, workplace alienation, and family estrangement.” He compares those to 19th-century bildungsromans, coming-of-age novels, in which people wanted to become adults. Maybe an ambivalence over whether someone feels like an adult is partially an ambivalence over whether they even want to be an adult.

Williams Brown breaks down the lessons she’s learned about adulthood into three categories: “taking care of people, taking care of things, and taking care of yourself.” There’s an exhausting element to that: “If I do not buy toilet paper, then I will not have toilet paper,” she says. “If I am unhappy with my life, my job, my relationship, nobody is going to come fix that for me.”

“We live in a youth culture that believes life goes downhill after 26 or so,” Mintz says. But he sees inspiration, and possibility, in old Hollywood visions of adulthood, in Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. “When I argue that we need to reclaim adulthood, I don’t mean a 1950s version of early marriage and early entry into a career,” he says. “What I do mean is it’s better to be knowing than unknowing. It’s better to be experienced than inexperienced. It’s better to be sophisticated than callow.”