Time Lines; and other social constructs that have nothing to do with you.
The human brain does not complete development until the age of 25. Yet, the term “adult” is ascribed to those 18 and older. Insurance companies have agreed to allow kids to stay on their parents’ insurance until the age of 25, the same age applies to renting a vehicle. Alcohol consumption is not “legal” until the age of 21, but voting is legal at the age of 18 – the same age people are eligible to enlist in the military. The inconsistencies are baffling. When does one actually become an adult?
When does one move away from the stance of “looking for the adult in the room” to taking matters into their own hands? It’s a question I find many people in my office grappling with; they are adhering to the cultural timelines designed to symbolize adulthood, however struggle with an internal sense of being an adult child. Arguably, the transition into adulthood is the most significant as the decisions made during this period of time have the propensity to shape the trajectory of one’s life for many years. That is not to say that other developmental periods are not significant, but perhaps they leave more room for error.
It is during the transition into adulthood that some of life’s finite decisions, perceivably, are made. Such as choosing a career path, a geographical location, a mate; not to mention some of the heavy debt that becomes accumulated as big purchases like cars, homes, and weddings are acquired. At the edge of a cliff that appears to be the height of Hells Gate, many young adults are finding themselves paralyzed to take the leap of faith that they will not sink, they will swim happily to shore.
And the paralyzation doesn’t stop with financial burdens and mating rituals, there is the ever-lingering question of one’s identity to reconcile. The American culture has a way of providing a map with fundamental checkpoints and an abundance of external validation. For example, academic achievement and accolades provide reinforcement that academic performance is tied to intelligence, ability, perhaps self-worth. Do well in college and you’re awarded with a good job, do well at work and your performance review will reflect. External reinforcers signaling what is expected from the outside world, and what one should expect of themselves. Between exam scores, college admittance, and professional goals, there is little room left for identity formation. Little room to discover one’s own voice, instincts, and resiliency, the essential traits of an adult.
It is in our failure, our adventurous endeavors, life’s precious ambiguity, that people grow into themselves. It is the ability to endure large challenges and persevere through wins and losses. These are the type of experiences that build self-trust, that make room for an internal voice to be created and the strength to silence the chatter of others’. These are traits that perhaps do not play well in a culture of “yes ma’am” and instant gratification. Being unhappy, however is as much a right (and perhaps necessity) as the pursuit of happiness, both build character and strength. Both allow for an individual to grow outside of a map that was created by well-intentioned societal norms.
When does the adult emerge? Perhaps when one begins to trust their own voice, their own experience, and their own path. The adult-self has learned to seek internal validation and no longer looks to outside sources for reassurance that “they are doing it right” or are “good enough”. The adult-self is able to recognize strengths and weakness and embraces those as platforms to build upon. There is not actual age that this happens, and perhaps it doesn’t happen all at once but in incremental periods. Chunks of time where the voice in one’s head is their own, and that voice feels the most trust worthy.
It would be simpler if transitioning into adulthood was linear and defined by a timeline or set of accomplishments. However, it is, seemingly, more equivocal to the changing of the seasons; a constant shedding and rebirth, a constant growing.