Tuesday, June 16, 2015

What is an "adult"?

I'm currently having a conversation with some friends in my spiritual community about what it means to be an adult. Here's the context. I was in a group that the church structures for people up to age 35. I connect strongly with my friends in that group, and the life issues they're going through. Problem is, I just turned 36.

There is an idea behind this age division. The under-35 group is designed for individuals who are still coming into their adulthood. By 35, it's assumed you've hit certain life markers: you're in a stable, traditional career with a 401K, and you have a single committed spouse/life partner with whom you're raising the children you're assumed to have. Once you've gotten that all figured out, congratulations! You get to leave the "practice adulthood" group, and join the real grown-ups. (Okay, none if that is explicitly stated anywhere, and it's a snarky overstatement. But in discussing this division with people, these seem to be the underlying assumptions people are working with.)

But here's the issue. I consider myself a "full-on adult", and have for the past several years. Meaning, I've gotten a pretty good handle on the big life questions (who am I? How do I go about this whole life thing?). But I've continued to associate with the 35-and-under group. Part of the reason is because I wasn't seeing a big age gap between myself and other people attending. If the age had been shifting down toward 19- and 20-year-olds, yes, I'd feel awkward being part of the group, and wouldn't continue. But I kept seeing faces of friends that, while a few years younger than myself, were experiencing similar life issues. I have friends older than myself who are still living the way I am, but almost none are in my congregation. While I see myself as an adult, in communicating with other older adults in the church, I often feel a disconnect.

A big part of that is, the way I'm an adult isn't typical for a lot of older church members. I'm never going to have kids. The way I make a living continues to change, and I may never have a "traditional" career. While I'm married, my relationships continue to have fluidity in them. I probably won't have the same concrete markers I see in older members of the congregation, and that's okay.

The thing is, I notice this about other people around my age range. A lot of us are maintaining a fluidity to our lives that isn't associated with past expectations for adulthood. I'm a grown-up. I'm just not "doing grown-up" the same way as members of the congregation who seem to be considered "more adult".

There are ways to address this. One might be introducing new generation-focused groups. There are many spiritual groups for Baby Boomers, helping them move through their advancing life stages. Perhaps our spiritual community could introduce a group for Gen X/Y/Millennials. Rather than imposing past expectations for adulthood on the current generation that's hitting its early to late thirties, recognize that we are adults. Our adulthood just might look a little different, and that's okay. By forcing sharp cutoffs, there could be an unintended assumption on the part of older church members that we're somehow "doing adulthood wrong".

I love my spiritual community, and will continue to be an active member of it. As other members of the under-35 group "age out", I'm interested to see the new face our church will take on.

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