We learned in college that the "teenager" is an invention of the early 20th century -- the Hallmark holiday of social development, if you will.
Considering teenhood is something we take for granted and chock off to biology, wrapping my mind around its artifice is an amazing mental leap. And yet in the the last handful of years, we actually got to witness the process by which marketers do, in fact, create, label and adorn a proud new developmental segment: the tween (formerly known as the pre-teen).
The other night I was having this moody quarterlife funk and it occurred to me that "adulthood" is probably as much a construction as teen and tweenhood.
It's more opaque, granted, because you can't really give it a beginning and end (13-19 or 8-12). And because of that, I have this abiding worry that unless we realize there's no placeholder for "adulthood" because there is no adulthood, most of us are going to be groping blindly for it for a very long time.
That's too bad, because so many of us need adulthood to exist so badly: Once you've taken all the prescribed steps -- pre-school, gradeschool, puberty, college -- and are launched out into that wide, wide world, onto what safe ground can you measure your next move?
We fall back on marketing, media and pop culture, which generously distributes guidelines grafted onto us in part by our institutions.
College taught us how to watch the news, question religion, suspect authority figures and have existential conversation. But jobs teach you that's kid shit. Life's about being jaded.
With time, and in the exact same way you and your ilk learned how to smoke pot, date and fuck, you will learn how to hate your inevitable office life, that you'll eventually lose count of your sexual partners (and it will be okay!), that you'll get cheated on or will cheat. You'll get married, have kids, suffer from a midlife crisis and buy too many cars. You'll divorce and go on some tortured quest for your high school sweetheart.
Maybe you'll find religion again. Or better yet, go to grad school.
Bills are inevitable, friends are few, and to unwind, everybody goes drinking on Friday. You'll make cliched statements: I've never felt this way in my life. I want to have your baby. Please love me.
And amidst all of this, every once in awhile, that question without an answer will surface in your mind: Is this adulthood?
Sometimes it'll come out as a statement: Behave like an adult!
Inanely: I'm a grown-ass man.
Or in a more childlike way, amid defeat: Grown-ups don't do this to each other.
On a quest for secure ground where there really isn't any, my generation has found a convenient shelf, courtesy of your local marketer: We're Quarterlifers. And we're having a crisis. Our debts are high, we're going home to mom and dad, no job is good enough for us, and we've been victimized by the murky indefiniteness of "adulthood."
According to the associated data, we'll be here from age 21 to age 29 -- after which we can coast safely into mid-life, a world we understand because, like teenhood, it has been so lovingly documented for us.
How hard would it be to say fuck all of this?
It is surprisingly much harder to leave a world safely accorded us by pop culture than any of us is willing to believe. And that's too bad. Maybe if we admitted we're addicted to a constellation of spoonfed -- occasionally bleak or beautiful -- images, we could learn to pick and choose which ones we actually want to live out and which ones to relegate to the heap.
And amidst all that personal sifting, perhaps then we could do the truly impossible -- indeed, that very antithesis of early adulthood: locate what makes us happy, and do it bravely, and do it now instead of seeking a prescribed "next step" that will earn nods of approval all around. (Granted, playing the martyr is also something we've learned along the way.)
But oh, many of us won't allow ourselves to shake all this off until after the long struggle toward retirement. Sagacity is part of the blueprint, but only near the end.