What is an adult?

Thursday, April 7, 2011 -- 5:00 PM
John Perry

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.

Comments (8)


Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, April 8, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

I have argued for some time that the American Drea

I have argued for some time that the American Dream paradigm of the 1950s and beyond was merely a psychological ploy---a way of steering the populace into the sort of economic/industrial mindset and behavior which would best assure continuing progress of western civilization. Well, whether there was focused intention on these ends, it worked, didn't it? Kind of like organized religion?
There has been a rebellion, of sorts, among younger (and sometimes older)citizens. This little blip is due to our free-form information age and associated aspects of popular culture. I suspect it will undergo what economists call a 'correction', sooner than later. But, I am just another armchair anthropologist, so we shall see. Right now, though, there is a tendency for people to avoid adulthood for as long as they can. This does not mean they do not wish to make money somehow. They would just rather not be chained to an occupation. Can't say as I blame them.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, April 9, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

AGE TAXONOMY When my wife says she is ?getting

AGE TAXONOMY
When my wife says she is ?getting old,? I tell her 1. this is not a descriptive term, and 2. it is therefore an unproductive (actually, harmful) way of thinking. If you have a problem, you have that problem; connecting the problem to inevitability is counter-therapeutic. (Isn?t it great being philosophical?!)
In the same way, there is no need to use ?adult? as a taxonomic, except as required for legal or medical purposes. Legalisms must generalize in application by their very nature, because they must apply to large numbers of people.
Age is a continuum and different stages of identifiable development overlap and happen at different times, in different people. As a result, there is no need (other than legalistic) to specify when these stages ?are supposed to? happen. For example, a person becomes a good driver (or doesn?t) or a responsible drinker (or doesn?t), regardless of age. Speaking about ?adolescence? or ?adulthood? as these refer to decisions to marry, for instance, is erroneous and useless (even harmful) taxonomy.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, April 10, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

My older is 19. He is in the Alabama Army National

My older is 19. He is in the Alabama Army National Guard.
I suppose his final cause is to kill another person...as long as
he doesn't have a bud light in his hand.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, April 12, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

An adult knows when to get out of a bad situation.

An adult knows when to get out of a bad situation. He may not have the means (emotional, psychological or economic) to do so, but he at least KNOWS. An advanced adult knew when to AVOID a bad situation, and therefore, never got there in the first place. Those who wisely 'sat out' debacles such as Viet Nam, Somalia and Iraq are/were advanced adults and give us some hope for the extended phenotypes proposed by Richard Dawkins in his excellent book.
Now, things like patriotism are all well and good and have their place. But Viet Nam, Somalia and Iraq had nothing to do with patriotism. We should just get over that and decide to be advanced adults.How hard can it be?

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, April 15, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Adulthood is whenever we deem it to be expedient a

Adulthood is whenever we deem it to be expedient and in the interests of society, generally, or some parochial agenda, specifically. Par exemple, there are child soldiers fighting in countries where many of the adults have been killed off or are too old and infirm to do the dirty work of war. Ordinarily, WE frown upon such policies and would rather our soldiers be at least eighteen years of age. But, as we know from our family histories, there were exceptions in both world wars.
The matter of becoming an adult is, then, situational. We might say, sociological. When I worked in a public sector job, an associate-friend acted as hearing officer for the administrative adjudication of certain disputes. Our running in-joke went something like this:
I would ask him questions about the facts presented in a particular case and what he thought of the positions asserted by both sides. He would elaborate briefly and if I was uncertain of where he was going with his decision, I would ask: but what is the law? He would reply: whatever the hell I say it is!
And just so. What is adulthood? It is whatever we say it is, at a given time and place and under the relevant circumstances.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, April 18, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Being an adult means taking personal responsibilit

Being an adult means taking personal responsibility for one's words and actions. But this also means wearing the CONSEQUENCES for those words and actions. How many times have you heard someone say: I take full responsibility for what has happened? It sounded good, but you knew it was less-than-responsive because it meant: I messed up and/or got caught. Sorry about that.
There was no contrition---such was only implied and only to 'save face', as some in the world value. Consequences? Nil. Apology, even when falsely advanced, is a powerful thing. Powerful people 'take responsibility' everyday---and nothing of consequence happens to them. Taking responsibility, it turns out, it like trying to haul smoke in a wheel barrow.
I am amused by recent advertising by the automotive industry. There are cameras to keep us from running over objects we should not run over when backing out of our driveway. Small children just seem to get in the way and trust us to keep them safe. But we are way too busy and in far too much of a hurry. So, let's install a rear view camera to make sure Ashley or Jedediah don't get squashed. Maybe it is a good idea. Less need for personal responsibility. Let the computer do it.
And there is the other one which keeps you from falling asleep at the wheel or stops your car if you do. These technologies remind me of The Jetsons---but not in a feel good way. Come on now. We are adults, aren't we? Or is it just too much work?

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, April 27, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Response to christ myth's exhortation(s) concernin

Response to christ myth's exhortation(s) concerning Jesus Potter Harry Christ: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins is, perhaps less popularly cultural. but certainly well argued and articulately expressed. No matter how you wrap it, religion is, in its final reality, a matter of faith. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. But it still causes more trouble than it is worth. I think this is what Dawkins tries to show---successfully for this pilgrim.

 

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