Recently, I moved in with my girlfriend. We share a studio apartment near Ala Moana. The space is small, the rent expensive, but it’s a step toward building a life together.
Of course, this step has come later than was expected from previous generations. At 28-years-old, I’m young, but no child.
Our life has a simple rhythm. We eat breakfast together, go our separate ways for work, and reconnect for dinner. Some nights, we go out for live music or to dance. By 10 p.m., we’ve settled in for bed. On weekends, we shop for groceries and clean our apartment.
When I describe my new domestic life to friends, some respond that I’m “adulting so hard.”
The Ala Moana apartment that the columnist recently moved into with his girlfriend.
Adulting is “the practice of behaving in a way characteristic of a responsible adult, especially the accomplishment of mundane but necessary tasks.”
When I shop for groceries, do the laundry, or contribute to my Roth IRA, I’m adulting. So too when I consolidate Netflix accounts, set a monthly budget, and comparison shop for Tupperware with my girlfriend.
The term is used to celebrate otherwise dull and ordinary moments, often with a self-deprecating tone. Frankly, I don’t care for it.
What is an adult?
The celebration of the mundane is not repulsive in itself. Life is miraculous, and each second merits wonder and appreciation.
But being an adult is not merely a sequence of mechanical action. It’s a way of relating to others. It’s the acceptance of responsibility for the direction and outcomes in one’s life. In this way, adulting is far more demanding than paying bills on time or keeping a fully stocked pantry.
Much has been written about the slow maturation of millennials. They tend to marry later and are more likely to live at home than previous generations. But broad-brush generalizations about this generation mask diversity within. With more than 70 million millennials in the United States, it would be unlikely for any stereotype to hold true.
Similarly, the differences between generations are often exaggerated. Human nature remains unchanged, and in the aggregate, millennials appear similar to their predecessors. Even the supposed differences point to continuity rather than change.
Millennials are often marked off as the first generation of digital natives. They’re derided as hopelessly addicted to computer and phone screens. They’re dismissed as lazy and self-centered.
It’s true, millennials are more likely to use smartphones than previous generations, just as baby boomers were more likely to grow up watching television than the silent generation. Just like Generation X was more likely to grow up listening to personal cassette players than their parents.
To say that millennials spend more time with their phones is to recognize the fact that each generation makes use of available technology.
Detractors have their points. Digital communication rewards a shallow form of engagement, and social media probably encourages narcissism. But these are not new phenomena. Narcissism, after all, is named for a figure in ancient Greek mythology.
In his book, “The Culture of Narcissism,” social critic Christopher Lasch wrote that “People today hunger not for personal salvation, let alone the restoration of an earlier golden age, but for the feeling, the momentary illusion, of personal well-being, health, and psychic security.”
In their selfish hunger, people turn inward and live for themselves, not for their predecessors or posterity. Lasch worried that “We are fast losing the sense of historical continuity, the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating in the past and stretching into the future.”
Though published in 1979, this passage could describe the present day, or any time since the Second World War.
Thus, the charge of narcissism leveled at millennials seems equally valid for baby boomers and Gen X. The generations exempted from this charge will soon be extinct. Perhaps they never existed.
For anyone who didn’t experience the Great Depression, using reductive labels like “millennial” sounds like self-indictment.
“Adulting” is how Higa’s friends describe his new domestic life.
When baby boomers use “millennial” as pejorative, I hear them projecting their own insecurities about the role they played in perpetuating a culture of narcissism. After all, this is the generation that dodged the draft and dropped acid in the free-wheeling 70s. But then again, it’s silly to define a cohort by its excesses, and unfair to hold all members accountable for the actions of a few.
Perhaps it’s the fate of each generation to weather early charges of narcissism, then grow ornery with age, as they grasp their own historical irrelevance. In old age, they slander the youth, and the cycle repeats.
It’s certain that, as millennials age, some will criticize the next cohort. Already, I hear millennials deriding the fashion and behavior of Generation Z. How indulgent! How strange!
My university students live within the bounds of Gen Z. Some are independent and hard-working; others are barely capable of dressing themselves. Like every other generation, Z contains multitudes.
Already, efforts are underway to pigeonhole this generation.
Most stereotypes aren’t flattering. They’re millennials, but more so: screen addicted, social media dwellers who prefer instant gratification to the hard work that defined earlier generations.
I choose instead to see Gen Z for what it is: another link in the chain of humanity, little different than the rest.
If we have to stereotype Gen Z, I hope that we give them a strong reputation to live up to. Let this generation be the most intelligent, hardest-working ever!
Otherwise, we might set the bar too low. Remember – adulting is only an accomplishment because older generations expected a permanent adolescence from millennials.
Ultimately, culture reproduces itself. If an entire generation grows up narcissistic, self-absorbed, and without direction, we shouldn’t act surprised. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
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Sterling was raised in Nuuanu. He graduated from Roosevelt High School and later earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard University. Sterling now works as a debate coach and lecturer at Hawaii Pacific University. By candlelight, he is finishing his Ph.D. in education at the University of Hawaii Manoa. The author's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Civil Beat.