On millennial adulthood

A group of adul millennial men laughing in front of a computer.

We would like to talk about a discomfort that persists in us: a feeling of being far away from the authority, confidence, and seriousness that our parents projected when they were in their 30s, and more so in their 40s. Even though each of us has formed a family with our respective partners, that for years we have paid our expenses with the product of our work, and that some of us have children (and more than one), we find ourselves experiencing the world with the same uncertainty and doubt we have been suffering since we were teenagers.

So, we ask ourselves why we feel that way, what is the meaning of that difference and how we can judge it. Could it be that, despite our age, work or marriage, the problem is precisely that we are nothing more than teenagers? Are boomers right when they accuse us of being too sensitive and emotionally immature? Is it true that this is all because we grew up overprotected?

Our answer is no.

Our conjecture is that our existential self-doubt is the logical and authentic expression of a fundamental difference with our parents: that they have confidence in the principles with which they governed their lives, while we do not.

We’ll attempt to lay out our reasons.

We can grant that we do not share our parent’s sense of certainty. But why is that associated with failing to become an adult? Let’s take a careful look at the transit from childhood to adulthood, considering milestones that define the journey.

For ourselves, having salaries, paying bills, or starting families has not led us to complete the expected journey to adulthood, so we should consider a sphere beyond the domestic. In that sense, that transit may be related to our role in the community.

In fact, what historically marked the rituals of transition from childhood to adulthood was a transit in the public domain. These rituals did not end with a man married with children. The ritual of family formation in all cultures is distinct from the ritual of the passage from childhood to adulthood. Traditionally, you first became a man in the community and then went on to form families. And that order made reasonable sense, since it was the public position of the man that gave him the standing and potential to be a worthy head of a family.

The rituals of passage condense the meaning about the most comprehensive aspects of life. When one goes through them one experiences those meanings and, consequently, one is transformed; our conception of the basic things of our life is transformed. When the rite of passage to adulthood is effectively completed, the man becomes an adult because the ritual has made him experience himself as one. Therefore, briefly analyzing what happens in these rituals can help us clarify the meaning of our discomfort and build our argument.

Joseph Campbell, the famous mythologist, had a more or less clear notion about the meaning of adulthood, based on his reading of an enormous number of ritualized myths. For him, the adult man was one who experienced himself as the authority of his community and his order. But before becoming an adult, this adult was a child, which means that he experienced being under the authority of adults. The world order was maintained and regulated by the adults, and the child was in it, regulated by them. He did not, at that point, experience the order of things as his responsibility.

For Campbell, the rite of initiation is the mechanism available to the community to turn children into adults. That mechanism is necessary because transformation is more, much more, than a verbal statement. Transformation must be psychological and spiritual.

What is the nature of this transformation? The common theme in these rituals is that the child faces an adverse situation, capable of arousing the greatest of fears, even panic and pain. The situation must be this way because, in order to face it, the child has no choice but to find the courage, effort and character to face it. The child must find that courage and character within himself, and in that, he comes to own them. Through this process the child ceases to experience himself as a weak person, who needs adults to live, and who must be at their mercy.

A community of natives in New Guinea had the ritual of presenting the child with a particular kind of adverse situation: he entered an arena to fight against masked adult men. The masks were terrifying, and the fight was always very difficult. When the child managed to win, one of the adults would take off his mask and put it on now the child.   With that gesture, the child was shown that he was now part of the adult "team" he had previously overcome, effectively telling him: "now you are part of the authority and order the community for which we adults are responsible".

That gesture has the same meaning as the more contemporary one of wearing a gown and a cap when graduating college. First, young people had to go through the effort of learning the skills, let's say of the engineer, and then they get to dress like their teachers; they become part of the same community with them. Now, graduates become responsible for that community.

The child must go through the adverse situation to discover the character within himself, because that character is needed to be a responsible authority for the community.

And that character, it seems to us, is the one projected by our parents, and the one we feel we lack.

Now, the boomer interpretation is that we lack it because we have been too spoiled, to such an extent that we haven’t faced the necessary adversities that would force us to develop it. What this criticism omits is that in order to be an authority in the community one must have a clear view of the principles on which its order rests.  For our parents, the principles were clear, either to sustain the tradition, or to confront it.

For them, the man who was able to support a family with his work and climb the social ladder could feel confident in himself. It didn’t matter too much what was done to achieve it, the important thing was that it was enough to support a family. If it was legal, it was enough; it was taken for granted it contributed to the community. And how were they sure of what was useful? Because they earned money and provided stability for their family.

Our parents grew up in a solidly established world and believed, and still do, in its principles; we, on the other hand, do not know what the world is; we are suspicious of all the principles on which they were founded: the notions of masculinity, the notion of technological progress, revolutionary expectations (hippies, nationalists or anarchist capitalists), the legitimacy of nation states and the democratic political system, capitalism, the legitimacy of science as an objective access to truth,  the belief in journalism as an honest source of information, to name just a few, have all been completely questioned. Our parents had solid certainty in such principles; we feel that these principles have collapsed, even if many don’t realize it.

Therefore, we feel uncertain and without authority.

In consequence, our adulthood is marked by doubt, or maybe it is just not adulthood at all. How can one comfortably wield authority in a world where it is not clear what its legitimate principles are?

Someone could say that what we have described are simply conservative parents. But the issue is the same with our liberal parents. They were rebels against a solid and instituted world, and their rebellion, like the Apple commercial 1984, consisted in most cases, in contributing to fragment the system, to free us from it.

We, on the other hand, are children of times when nothing feels solid, stable, but everything is experienced adrift, and not for the better: times of a pandemic with enormous social inequality, of control and digital espionage, of lack of democracy, of climate change, of increased violence, of labor burnout, of financial instability, of privileged people evading the justice system and minorities who are treated unfairly by it; times that lack a vital sense, without heroism, and filled with superficial consumerism.

Then, we begin to see ourselves as principle-seekers. The tentative findings of this search we express in t-shirts.

We become seekers because we perceive that human life without a certain order is unviable, and because we suspect that it is very likely that an even more unjust order than the one our parents criticized will rise.

 

Author Jorge Carrasquel
Explorer at Normalem
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash   


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