Monday, December 06, 2004

Adulthood, Part II

Dan Moore has a long rejoinder on his own blog about the contours of adulthood. I'll set aside the Portman specific components and move directly toward the more interesting and relevant discussion about adulthood generally. (But one last gasp: Queen Amidala isn't an adult in Episode II? She has immense responsibility and a very demanding job as a Senator. Just because elected representatives sometimes act like babies doesn't mean they aren't adults. but onward!)
I did not intend to say that no college-aged people are adults, just that they typically do not have general characteristics of being an adult. Some who are not in college may. Some who are in college may. Though they are not children and they are something more developed than teenagers, it's hard to make an argument though that as a class of people, college-aged students are adults.
What are those students who don’t make the cut? Britney Spears notwithstanding, we don’t have a cultural category of “not a girl, not yet a woman.” We can either place people in the adult box and expect adult behavior from them, or we can refuse to do so and thus implicitly say that they don’t have to live up to much more than an adolescent level of responsibility.
I do intend to state that people without responsibilities are not adults or are mature. Perhaps the letter of the law states differently (and it must, I would hate it if a governmental agency determined whether or not I have enough responsibility to be an adult), but we can look at other aspects if we want to decide whether or not an actual person is (or behaves as) an adult.
Generally you are an adult for purposes of making contracts (incurring responsibilities) at age eighteen. There are some exceptions, such as the drinking age, but for better or worse we consider those over 17 to be adults. Judicial or prosecutorial discretion determines whether minors may be tried as adults for their crimes – they are being held responsible for their actions in the most serious of ways.

But Moore seems to be more interested in a subjective case-by-case analysis for determining adulthood than a bright-line rule. In legal circles this would be a multi-factorial balancing test, probably stemming from an O’Connor opinion. But I digress again . . .
Amber seems to lament that I can't "really tell us who is an adult, and [I] can't even tell us who isn't." Amber seems to think that there can be a statement made such as "If you have X as a quality, then you are an adult" and laments that I haven't provided this (or provided any clue as to where one can be found). I don't desire to.
I was lamenting the absence of any clear analysis whatsoever.
I reject that there may be some exclusive set of criteria that can tell us exactly whether or not someone is, morally, an adult or even that someone always is morally an adult. However, there are lightposts by which we can guide ourselves to see if someone is behaving as an adult or not. And one of these lightposts is the presence of responsibility in the person's life (both for others and for one's own actions). A job, self-sufficiency, a family. These are all characteristics that one might see in an adult (as they hint towards responsibility), but none of them is necessary or sufficient to determining adulthood.
Moore previously said that responsibility is a necessary condition to adulthood. Moore may be willing to find proof of responsibility in a variety of ways, but he’s still injecting subjectivity by reserving the right to revoke adulthood from anyone who doesn’t bear a great enough weight on their shoulders. I used “1950s markers of maturity” because it seemed that Moore’s method of defining maturity would neatly include all the moms and dads in Levittown but not those with more unconventional lives. My hypothetical single disabled man is still waiting to hear if he’s an adult or not. And is Princess Sayako only now growing up? I still think that Moore’s definition of adulthood infantilizes childless singletons, students, and those who don’t buy into an atomized idea of independence from extended family.
This is not extending adolescence. It's recognizing that we live in a world now where many are not forced to reach maturity until a much later stage.
But we don’t have the sociological categories to recognize this phenomenon. What would be better: holding those over eighteen to adult standards of maturity in behavior, or letting them think that they can continue to be “young and irresponsible” long into their twenties or even their thirties? This scheme makes it exceedingly difficult for people to develop habits of maturity, and it does not adequately distinguish between true adolescents (who lack the psychological/emotional maturity to commit themselves to certain obligations) and twentysomethings (who may not have chosen to take on the traditional markers of independence, but who have the capacity to do so).

But maybe I’m just not sure what Moore means by maturity. Serious demeanor? Being locked into certain fundamental life paths by making essentially irrevocable choices? A certain degree of personal inertia? Would Moore agree that adult opinions are taken more seriously than those of non-adults? If so, can he still argue that defining someone as a non-adult doesn’t devalue their accomplishments? If someone is over eighteen and not an adult, what is she? And how can she escape this limbo? Saying “I know it when I see it” is a deeply unsatisfactory method of determining whether or not someone is to be deemed part of the adult (and thus the ruling) class.
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