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In 2016, the Oxford Dictionary shortlisted the noun-turned-verb-turned-gerund “adulting” for its Word of the Year designation. Oxford defined adulting as “the practice of behaving in a way characteristic of a responsible adult, especially the accomplishment of mundane but necessary tasks.” The designation capped off a banner year for the term, with no less than the Washington Post launching a weekly “How to Adult” segment, and major news media covering the opening of an “Adulting School” in Maine.  Adulting, whether in its verb form (“I just bought my own car for the first time! I’m adulting so hard right now!”) or gerund form (“I have to go to the DMV today. Adulting is the worst!”), has clearly catapulted from the world of internet memes into the mainstream linguistic repertoire. What might its ubiquity tell us about American cultural life in the twenty-first century, and in particular, the state of social adulthood in the United States?I approach this topic as an anthropologist who studies underemployment among recent college graduates in the Midwest. Many of my informants are early career journalists, academics, lawyers, and other white-collar hopefuls who generate the majority of their income in the restaurant industry.  Among this cohort, adulting was a word used more-or-less in everyday parlance, whether in an ironic Instagram hashtag or during face-to-face conversation. While my informants are early adopters of the adulting term rather than its inventors, I found that this linguistic innovation strikingly mirrored the precarity of their adulthood experience. For the children of the middle classes, how does one become an adult without the pay and prestige that has defined middle stratum adulthood for a generation? What the noun “adult” renders as an essential part of oneself—a robust status or stage that one reaches and holds onto—the verb expresses as situated, contingent, and always in-progress. It is a word apt for the state of social adulthood in the US, where a long-eroding set of markers from the twentieth century are collapsing into a disordered adulthood, fertile with possibility and risk.

In the field, my informants inextricably tied up their notions of social maturity with work and career. During interviews, one of the first questions I asked was simply, “Are you an adult?” This question was reliably met with a long-winded answer that boiled down to some version of “yes and no.” Yes, in regards to biological adulthood (generally understood as being over age 18). No, in regards to social adulthood (meaning being a legitimate, fully mature member of a society). This was also the point in the conversation when my informants usually first referenced the term adulting, as when a bartender with a degree in business said: “Yah, I guess I’m adulting pretty hard…saving up and stuff.” When asked what exactly it would take to become an adult in their view, I heard a plethora of answers that usually amounted to “respectable” work and especially money. As one English adjunct-professor-turned-barista put it: “Marriage, family, house, car…all that stuff takes money. It takes money to even go on a date. I honestly cannot go on a date because I just don’t have the money to buy a girl a drink.” The only informants who seemed to have no qualms about their own social adulthood were the few who had children. Ultimately, parenthood was the feature that could trump money in the hierarchy of maturity.

In Minneapolis-St. Paul, where the white collar “office job” silently but robustly dominated what it meant to be a successful adult, my informants were left with little choice but to devise ways to “adult” in spite of perceived deficits in career and cash. As Silva (2013) has observed among the Rust Belt working class, some of the underemployed turned to New Age-tinged theories of psycho-social self-actualization to assert their adulthood claims. The phrase, “I know myself,” is perhaps most evocative of this view. Others rejected a money-centered concept in favor of altruistic criteria steeped in the language of philanthropy or “giving back.”  I found, however, that strikingly traditional, material-driven markers were difficult to ignore for many. Aesthetic labors in the households held a particular potency. “Just got my first bed! #adulting,” an informant’s acquaintance posted on Instagram as he left IKEA with a bed frame that would finally lift his mattress off the floor. These tactics, however, co-existed with practices that surely would raise eyebrows by twentieth century professional class standards. Household arrangements in which multiple adults in non-monogamous relationships lived together, pooled money, and engaged in what one of my informants described as an “intentional, polyamorous community” were relatively common. “This is our intentional family,” one of my informants remarked as we sat in the living room she shared with another polyamorous couple, “the people that we choose to sit down and have dinner with every day.”

For these downwardly mobile college graduates, reaching adulthood was anything but a linear journey with a guaranteed arrival time. Rather, my informants dealt practically with the problem of becoming adults, picking up various cultural detritus along the way—the IKEA headboard, the Fordist family dinner table, the 1960s commune, the Instagram filter. Emerging from the meme-driven world of social media, the word adulting captures the partial, tactical quality of their labors. It is not simply another self-referential millennial tic. Nor is it just one more entry in a long series of noun-turned-verbs in the English language. Adulting reflects the fundamental incoherence that greets young people as they make sense of how to reach social maturity in today’s world. To “adult” is not to authoritatively inhabit a life stage or status. It is—however incompletely, however poorly—to behave like an adult in spite of the disorder.

Susan Hill is a graduate student at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

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Cite as: Hill, Susan. 2018. “#Adulting and the Disordered State of American Adulthood.” Anthropology News website, April 2, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.814