I recently read a lengthy (and somewhat meandering) treatise titled “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture” by the film critic A. O. Scott over in the New York Times Magazine, which sparked some thoughts, since the topic of adulthood is something that’s been on my mind.
Scott notes that Hollywood has been pushing a “juvenile vision of the world”, presumably because that’s what consumers want (this comes after he cites another piece where it was noted that a third of young-adult fiction buyers were adults 30-44).
In my main line of work as a film critic, I have watched over the past 15 years as the studios committed their vast financial and imaginative resources to the cultivation of franchises […] that advance an essentially juvenile vision of the world. Comic-book movies, family-friendly animated adventures, tales of adolescent heroism and comedies of arrested development do not only make up the commercial center of 21st-century Hollywood. They are its artistic heart.
What all of these shows grasp at, in one way or another, is that nobody knows how to be a grown-up anymore. Adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable. It isn’t only that patriarchy in the strict, old-school Don Draper sense has fallen apart. It’s that it may never really have existed in the first place, at least in the way its avatars imagined.
But he notes that this tendency to idolize adolescence isn’t anything new, and may in fact even be traced all the way back to this nation’s birth:
We Americans have never been all that comfortable with patriarchy in the strict sense of the word. The men who established our political independence — guys who, for the most part, would be considered late adolescents by today’s standards […] — did so partly in revolt against the authority of King George III, a corrupt, unreasonable and abusive father figure. It was not until more than a century later that those rebellious sons became paternal symbols in their own right. They weren’t widely referred to as Founding Fathers until Warren Harding, then a senator, used the phrase around the time of World War I.
… and early literature.
From the start, American culture was notably resistant to the claims of parental authority and the imperatives of adulthood. Surveying the canon of American literature in his magisterial “Love and Death in the American Novel,” Leslie A. Fiedler […] broadened this observation into a sweeping (and still very much relevant) diagnosis of the national personality: “The typical male protagonist of our fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat — anywhere to avoid ‘civilization,’ which is to say the confrontation of a man and woman which leads to the fall to sex, marriage and responsibility. One of the factors that determine theme and form in our great books is this strategy of evasion, this retreat to nature and childhood which makes our literature (and life!) so charmingly and infuriatingly ‘boyish.’”
And this is where I take a deep breath. “Harried into the forest… retreat to nature… infuriatingly ‘boyish'”. If my mom read that, she might be nodding in agreement. And if some women my age were reading this, they also might agree with this perception that men like me “avoid … confrontation of a man and woman which leads to the fall to sex, marriage and responsibility.”
Is that why I run off to the woods? Am I trying to run away from marriage and responsibilities?
For me, it’s a bit more complicated. I actually do want to get married. Getting married, though, requires a willing partner. And after years of dating, one thing I’ve learned is that women want men to not just have traditional features like financial stability and competence, but to also be happy (on online dating sites, a surprising number of women list “you’re happy” as a requirement for a match). For me, that’s a tricky one. Happiness has always been elusive, but what I’ve figured out so far is that to be sustainably happy: I need to be in nature, I need to have a fulfilling purpose, and I need supportive relationships. And, to be honest, I haven’t figured out how to balance those things (I’m interested in rural ecovillages because at least they combine nature with community, while living in the woods combined nature and purpose).
So, marriage requires happiness, which for me requires purpose. This is another reason I have a tendency to avoid civilization: I have a difficult time finding purpose in civilization. This might have something to do with the basic fact that I think “civilization” (which usually implies a predominantly urban society) as we know it is fundamentally flawed, and I’m more interested in investigating life outside the boundaries of what most people consider to be civilization.
To recap, I want to get married, but marriage requires happiness, happiness requires purpose and nature, both of which can be found outside civilization. And that is why I leave civilization.
Granted, my reason for being escapist is probably unique. But, to some degree, I see a similar conundrum among my peers. Whereas our parents’ generation was (apparently) content to have a stable job and stable life, my generation was raised with higher aspirations. We were raised to strive for self-actualization, to pursue our passions and fulfill our purpose, rather than aiming for mere financial stability. We’re simply not content with financial stability the way our parents apparently were.
What’s more, the economics of our times turned out to be less optimistic. In a response to Scott’s article, over on Salon, Andrew O’Hehir notes that:
We now live in a culture (using the word in its anthropological sense) of diminished expectations and permanent underemployment, where many or most young people will never be as affluent as their parents. Lifetime job security is an antediluvian delusion, and in many metropolitan areas home ownership is out of reach for all but the rich. It’s just as useless to object to those changes as it is to complain about grownups reading Harry Potter books, but certainly those things were the essential underpinnings of classic adulthood, and without them it’s no surprise to see the old order fading away.
So, we now have a generation of people who are trying to pursue their passions on the one hand, without access to stable or well-enough paying jobs to afford things like a house or even kids on the other hand. From a certain perspective, this could appear rather adolescent. Older generations might argue that home ownership and raising children was more important than self-actualization; that’s what they prioritized, after all. But that’s just not the world we live in.
Which isn’t to say that I’m defending the self-indulgent man-child of today. And here, I’m speaking less of the “poor but self-actualizing” types, and more the types who, in Scott’s words, “wallow in his own immaturity, plumbing its depths and reveling in its pleasures”. The world is too fucked up for an entire generation of men (and women) to wallow in immaturity and revel in pleasures.
The answer, in my opinion, isn’t necessarily to put on a suit and go to the cubicle farms, either (unless that’s what you want). Nor is the solution necessarily marriage and mortgage. Scott reminds us that the “adolescent” men of old, even as they rejected civilization, served a purpose:
they also, at least some of the time, had something to fight for, a moral or political impulse underlying their postures of revolt. The founding brothers in Philadelphia cut loose a king; Huck Finn exposed the dehumanizing lies of America slavery; Lenny Bruce battled censorship. When Marlon Brando’s Wild One was asked what he was rebelling against, his thrilling, nihilistic response was “Whaddaya got?” The modern equivalent would be “. . .”
Although Scott doesn’t say this, the lesson I drew was this: If you don’t want a stable job, a house, or to get married and have kids, then fine. But do something. Leaving civilization and being on the outside gives us the perspective to see what’s wrong with it, and also the ability to attack it without being caught in it. Not being a “grownup” gives us freedom. But freedom is a privilege, and with that privilege comes the responsibility to help those who are less free. At least, this is something I try to remind myself of on a regular basis.