Do you wear the same clothes as your 17-year-old niece? Listen to the same music (using the same technology)? Lust after the same movie stars and obsess over the same TV series? Did you just forget to grow up, or are we in the process of redefining adulthood?
Either way, it looks like the generation gap is narrowing to the point of non-existence. It used to be that a big part of growing up was rejecting the world of our parents and moving on — or at least out — in order to create our own. But now, in our 30s and 40s, we are often so similar in tastes and behaviour to kids in their teens and early 20s that there is little for them to reject.
Our parents listened to music we sneered at, wore clothes we wouldn’t be seen dead in and didn’t get our slang. They stayed in one job their whole lives, seldom travelled, and insured everything—from the contents of their (only) household to their lives. They saw themselves as adult and settled. We saw them as trapped. They saw self-sacrifice as a virtue; we see it as an affliction. They measured their status by their stability and respectability; we measure ours by our flexibility and freedom.
We are what we are because we defined ourselves by what our parents were not. But while we insist on our right to live the way we want to — with few commitments (to jobs, relationships or locations), living on credit in a way that would have horrified our parents, constantly in pursuit of what makes us as individuals happy rather than seeing ourselves as part of a cycle, or something bigger than ourselves — are we rejecting adulthood, or just redefining it?
What does it mean to be a grown-up? We’d probably all agree that it — at least — involves being economically self-sufficient, emotionally self-aware, capable of having and nurturing a long-term relationship and being able to take responsibility for another person and/or living creature. But does it also mean, as it would have in our parents’ generation, no longer studying, being of responsible and sober habits, and ‘the putting away of childish things’? Does it mean dressing differently to the younger generation, the pursuit of stability and the rejection of hedonism?
Well, maybe not.
For various reasons — including how the world of work has changed, and the fact that grown-up children no longer leave home as soon as we did — many people now in their late 30s, 40s and 50s have real friendships with people much younger (and older) than they are. We define ourselves less by our age and more by our interests, more by what we have in common than what sets us apart. If that means that we go out to listen to live music or watch stand-up comedy twice a week because that’s what interests us, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we will be bad parents, or that we will underperform at work the next day. Freelancing and working flexitime have had a significant impact on how we live our lives: it’s perfectly possible, for instance, to go out until
the early hours, get the kids off to school the following morning, go back to bed and then fire up
the laptop later that afternoon and work on into the evening until you’re done. And that’s exactly how many of us are choosing to live our lives.
It’s not just from the top down that the generation gap is disappearing, either — it’s also from the bottom up. When our children leave school, they no longer leave home. It’s too expensive. And what would be the point? Their washing gets done, their beds are made and their food is put on the table. So why would they want to go anywhere? There is no need. We socialise with their friends and listen to their music. And we all start to occupy the same blurred, ageless, undefined adulthood.
Is it a problem? Hard to say. We might need to wait and see the kind of adults our children become before we can judge our own success as parents, which is, after all, probably the only definition of what it means to be a grown-up that really counts.
— Gallo Images
‘Oops, I forgot to grow up!’
By Pippa de Bruyn
I’m not sure when I first realised that who I am no longer matched the person others see. Perhaps it was when we flew to the UK to attend my parents-in-law’s 50th wedding anniversary. Feeling out of my depth, I skulked over to my 19-year-old nieces to share a joke about how I wasn’t going to cope until the wine was flowing, and they smiled demurely and moved away from their weird middle-aged aunt from Africa. I’d merrily assumed we were on the same team, part of the ‘young ’uns’, champing at the bit to get the party started, when all they saw was a woman old enough to be their mother.
“Whateva”, as my eldest likes to say; the discombobulation that set in then is now always with me. I will bask in the flirtatious grin of a handsome young waiter, only realising that his solicitous attention is due to good upbringing (‘be kind to your elders’) when I retire to the ladies and experience the usual shock of seeing a face in the mirror that is no longer the one I think of as me. My waist keeps thickening; my arms have turned flabby; my breasts are sagging, but inside my head I am still the carefree hedonist I was in my twenties, much to the chagrin of my 13-year-old daughter. I know she would like a more grown-up mom, one who didn’t start flailing her arms about and shaking her hips to Katie Perry and Rihanna (“Please mom, not in public!”), or, after a long Sunday lunch, jump in the pool with all her clothes on, or start blubbing when Justin Bieber sings One Less Lonely Girl. Just you wait, I want to say to her; the yawning age gap you see now will diminish as the years go by. When I was 13, my mom was almost three times my age — ancient. Now that we are both over the 45 mark, the 22-year age difference seems irrelevant.
When I was little, I thought my parents had it all — power, knowledge, fun. I couldn’t wait to grow up. I was going to live in a palace, on a steady diet of sweets, consumed as and when I pleased. Even then I didn’t associate growing up with responsibility, but with the freedom to do exactly what I wanted.
School was a grim endurance contest but I finally left home, moved cities, finished a tertiary degree, got a job. Financially independent by 22, I was by most definitions now an adult. But — waking up hungover most days, in a room strewn with dirty clothes, wondering how I got home, with nothing in the fridge but a bit of old cake wrapped up in foil — certainly not a grown-up.
They say youth is squandered on the young. I wasted most of my twenties in a state of self-loathing and, with the peculiar arrogance of the insecure, thought myself well above the hoi polloi. I was a prickly little beast, and kept myself well tranquillised with prodigious quantities of alcohol and a variety of drugs. By 26, an age some see as the tipping point into adulthood, I was less responsible than I had been at 13 — the straight-A student with long plaits who was terrified of losing her school blazer was now unemployed, with a gleaming bald pate, and stomping around in steel-toed Doc Martins.
I had just buried my half-brother who had been understandably enraged by the cancer wasting away his 33-year-old body. Watching his caged fury, I promised myself that I would start looking after myself, that it was time to finally grow up and put aside my foolish predilection for fun at all costs. But this — the fear of becoming a responsible, boring adult — only spurred me deeper into decadence, and more years sped by in a blur. Pregnancy was the first period of responsibility in 12 years. And God knows it was every bit as boring as I had imagined it would be. For eight dreary months, I avoided seeing anyone. I struggled to make conversation. I realised that far from being the extroverted party animal I had always assumed I was, I was actually a shy introvert. But I didn’t want to be curled up in the corner reading, working, or waiting for sleep; I wanted to carouse, to be dazzled by lights and thumping music.
With my second pregnancy, three years later, I faced up to the fact that with motherhood, as with employment, some semblance of responsibility is required. Today, there is always food in my fridge and the dirty clothes strewn on the floor are dutifully picked up and washed. But I still wake up hungover on many mornings, having danced around the dining room table with my playful husband, and toss the occasional plate out the window in a burst of bonhomie. I
still have no pension plan, no retirement annuities, no hospital plan, and (don’t tell the kids) no life insurance. Why feed an industry that thrives on fear?
Perhaps we only truly become grown-up after we have buried our own parents and, as orphans, finally step up to the plate of adulthood. If so, perhaps I may retain my Peter Pan status, as there is every chance that my strong, vibrant mother may outlive me. In another sign of immaturity, I wonder if this will not indeed be better, for who better to wipe the drool from my mouth than the woman who first changed my diapers as a baby? As long as I have control over the morphine. A pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding child, to the very end.