In the Middle Ages, people married, had children, went off to war and took on all the traditional trappings of adulthood by their early teens.
What is an adult?
Suppose I say an adult is someone who's 18 years or older, unless the issue is drinking legally, in which case an adult is someone 21 years or older. That’s a start. But we’re not so much interested in legal definitions, as changing conceptions, of what an adult is. You could argue that unless we know what an adult is, we don’t really know what a person is or what a human being is.
Aristotle said that to know what a thing is, one needed to know what its final cause is. For example, I could show you a corkscrew, a piece of wood with a spiraling wire descending from it. I would explain that it's for removing corks from wine bottles. That’s what it was designed and created for. That, for Aristotle, was its final cause.
The Final Cause of a living organism is the function that organism normally performs when it reaches maturity. The form or structure it develops through childhood should help it to perform these functions well when it reaches maturity. To understand what humans are, we need to understand what it is we expect fully developed, adult humans to be like. Which for Aristotle meant creating and raising the next generation, contributing to the economy, safety, and governance of the community and, if you were fortunate, doing philosophy.
This raises the question, who gets to say what an adult is supposed to be like? God? Whose God? Reason? Economists? Philosophers? The Liberal Media? Rush Limbaugh? Aristotle?
Even if we can’t answer that question, if we want to understand what a given society thinks humans are all about, then a good place to start is what that society thinks being an adult is all about. Hence our topic: what is an adult. That is, what is our society’s conception of an adult, and how is it changing?
Well in that case, it seems our society must ha an evolving conception of human nature, because our concept of adulthood sure is changing. I was raised to think you got a job, fell in love, got married, and had children, became part of a community, and started paying taxes big time, all in your early twenties, and roughly in that order. That’s what adults do, with exceptions here and there, of course. But people in their twenties don’t do that so much anymore. They bind together in urban tribes, like on Seinfeld, or Friends.
Are people becoming adults later? Or have we changed what counts as being an adult? Have we forgotten what human life is all about? Or have we just changed the rules for making it happen? Have we discovered new patterns of growing up, or forgotten what it is to grow up?
Today’s guest, Ethan Waters, has written a lot about these topics, including a book called Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family, and Commitment.