gerunds and the journey of growing up
My year of “adulting” began when I moved into my off-campus apartment in June, and I realized I needed wifi. When I signed the lease, I was thinking about affordability, proximity to campus, and whether or not the rooms had natural light—not so much about how I would check my email, access Canvas, or stream Netflix. When I texted a previous tenant to ask him about the wifi, he sheepishly responded that he had been logged into the downstairs apartment’s network all year. I called up the landlord, wondering what tenants normally did in my situation. “Tenants figure it out themselves,” he said and hung up the phone.
My parents were in China, my roommate was somewhere else, and no one was going to bail me out. I didn’t even really know what wifi was, but I refreshed Brown Buying and Selling (on my mobile network) and purchased a router from some graduating seniors. I called Verizon and they put me on hold. I gave my account number to an electronic voice and talked to a customer service representative who had a heavy Southern accent. It took several hours of navigating a complicated phone tree, being asked again and again if I wanted the premium package with cable and landline and wifi and me insisting over and over again that, please, I really just need a wireless network, please, can you come install it soon?
The top description of “adulting” on Urban Dictionary includes the phrase: “to carry out one or more of the duties and responsibilities expected of fully developed individuals.” I figured that being on hold with Verizon definitely counted. Another definition says the word is used exclusively by “immature 20-somethings who are proud of themselves for paying a bill.” My favorite describes “adulting” as “[post] adolescence when the light in your eyes fade[s] away and dies.”
Urban Dictionary suggests many millennials share the privilege of being sheltered from responsibilities as children. Our parents take care of us, and then if we are lucky, the university takes over. At Brown, my full-time job is to be a student and to learn as much as I can.
In fact, I found out that my difficulties were rather widespread. Many articles point out that privileged millennials go through so-called “life stages” later than the previous generations. One Medium blog post about “adulting” cited the statistic that more than 32 percent of millennials live at home. Researchers report that the average age for grown-up activities, like purchasing a house, getting married, or experiencing financial independence, is trending higher; and cultural, social, and financial developments are often pointed to as the cause of these changes. To give one example, young people increasingly value educational success above, say, starting a family—a cultural shift that has numerous implications.
The Urban Dictionary page also reveals the politics of the word “adulting.” Its definitions mock millenials for thinking of normal responsibilities as major milestones. If you search the word online, you’ll come across a number of articles that echo these sentiments. One WordPress blog by mom Lisa Sugarmen suggests, “The very nature of the word ‘adulting’ implies pretty heavily that growing up is a conscious choice rather than just a natural evolution.” Her comment reflects the inherent privileges of those who, like me, have been able to not partake in “adulting” up until this point in my life. “Adulting,” it seems, is not everyone’s favorite concept.
Those who participate in “adulting” often find themselves frustrated. (I don’t get irritated that easily, but the Verizon phone tree definitely tested the limits of my patience.) And Haruki Murakami, one of my favorite writers, points out in his memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, “When I was younger, it wasn’t as if I had as much free time as I wanted, but I didn’t have as many miscellaneous chores as I do now. I don’t know why, but the older you get, the busier you become.” When I first read this passage, it didn’t make much sense to me. Now, I find I can relate more easily.
Critics of the word “adulting” argue that the gerund-ification (adding -ing to a verb to make a noun) of the term adult makes growing up seem like a hobby. Only the very privileged, some argue, could have survived more than 20 years having never done anything without help. Even those who use the noun are shamed by the media. I’m tempted to shame them too; when I see articles entitled “Why ‘Adulting’ Is Hard And Millennial Burnout is Actually a Thing,” I feel like rolling my eyes.
But despite the critique (that I occasionally participate in), I actually like “adulting” as a term. I appreciate the way it reveals politics and privilege. It suggests that daunting responsibilities can be faced with good humor. At least in my experience, phone trees and travel delays become less frustrating when I make fun of Delta airlines for never leaving the airport. As gainful employment and independence materialize, I try to keep on laughing.
The “adulting” continued for the rest of the summer. My job required that I wear business casual, so I played dress-up in ballet flats and a pencil skirt. My apartment presented all kinds of problems that needed to be sorted out, and I had a subletter to deal with and a landlord to call. In doing so, “adulting” grew more and more complicated. I wondered, is “adulting” going to the bank and picking up quarters for laundry? Is it writing budgets and packing lunches? Washing sheets, scrubbing bathrooms, and vacuuming once a week? Going to the dry cleaners and using a drying rack for clothing because the $1.75-per-load dryer doesn’t work very well?
Little by little, I realized that I was growing from my experiences, even in small ways. At the end of August, I went on a trip to Burlington, Vermont, with a close friend from school. An old classmate of hers kindly let us stay at their apartment for a night, and I slept on the floor between a rug and some blankets. After a lousy night of sleep, I felt like I might be getting too old to crash on a friend of a friend’s floor. In high school or my early years of college, I would not have blinked at the opportunity to save a few dollars, even at the cost of discomfort. Now that I’ve held my first jobs, choices that were once easy have led me to experience more mixed feelings.
Taking on these normal responsibilities have been the markers of my transition out of college. After all, I’m graduating in a few months; I will need employment, a place to live, access to transportation, and appointments with local doctors and dentists. When I think about managing an adult life, I’m forced to admit that my parents and Brown have sheltered me. Even though I like to take pride in my ability to cook well-balanced meals, my parents still handle my taxes and insurance. They deal with my cell phone company. They are in charge of my healthcare.
With only one semester left at Brown and the future looming over me, I have spent hours and days putting together applications with lists of references and writing samples and cover letters and resumes (my parents still edit every draft). I cold-email the employees of interesting companies that I have no connection to, and I chat on the phone with family friends and Brown alums who generously agree to talk to me about their career paths. I put together search queries with cities I might like to live in and job titles that sound good. I check listings on Glassdoor, Handshake and Indeed. I write sentences like “Thank you for your consideration.” I narrate the experiences in which I was an effective problem solver. I sigh when I come upon positions that seem perfect, but require fluency in Spanish or three to five years of relevant work experience.
When I’m in my more optimistic moods, I tell myself how qualified and accomplished I am. After all, I am about to receive a degree from the one and only Brown University. I can do these jobs, I think, as I scroll through my spreadsheet of employment opportunities and application deadlines. Other days, I’m amazed that anyone writes me back. What am I qualified to do? Think critically? Promote diversity and inclusion? Write lengthy papers about the liberal arts?
When I think of “adulting,” what I really think of is figuring things out without help. My friends at Brown have become a second family. Together, we get groceries, call insurance companies, and “adult.” With graduation on the horizon, I secretly worry for the day when we scatter all over the world to follow the exciting opportunities that we are all finding now. Will some of us end up in the same place, or will I build a new community in a city by myself? When things go wrong, as they always do, who will be there to help me? Are these fears a kind of “adulting,” or are they childish? Am I ever going to grow up?