DC-based freelance writer Andrew Zaleski has written for Wired, The Washington Post Magazine, Backchannel, The Atlantic, Politico Magazine, The Guardian, and many other publications.
Inside the curious cottage industry devoted to teaching young adults how to act like grown-ups.
On the eve of my wife’s 30th birthday—a milestone I, too, will soon hit—she posed a troubling question: Are we adults yet?
We certainly feel that way: We hold our own jobs, pay our own rent, cover our own bills, drive our own cars. Our credit is in order. But we don’t yet own a house and have no children—two markers commonly associated with fully-fledged adulthood (and two markers that both our sets of parents had reached well before they turned 30). And there are other gaps in our maturity: I don’t buy napkins or know how to golf; up until last year, I didn’t know how to change the oil in my car’s engine. Thankfully, last year we managed to throw a dinner party, our first, without burning the pork roast.
A vague anxiety over these known-unknowns is something of a generational hallmark. A Monday-morning scroll through the social media feed of the average 20-something might turn up a handful of friends sharing memes of dogs—looking bewildered, exasperated, or both—unironically captioned with something like: “Don’t make me adult today.”
Yes, Millennials have killed yet another thing. In this case, it’s something so fundamental that it may have seemed unkillable, but apparently isn’t: knowing how to be an adult.
Younger people need not look far on the internet to find popular condemnation from card-carrying grown-ups about our many shortcomings. We are, we are often told, simpering, self-indulgent, immune-to-difficulty know-nothings, overgrown toddlers who commute on children’s toys and demand cucumber water in our workplaces. But in our own social circles, such constructive criticism can be harder to find. Young urbanites tend to pack themselves into specific neighborhoods, cities, and living situations that have relatively fewer older residents. In such communities, knowledge on how to Seamless a meal to the doorstep is a dime a dozen, but first-hand experience in snaking a drain, cooking a meal for four, or operating a manual transmission comes at more of a premium. (To say nothing of the fact that a third of Americans between 18 and 34 are living with their parents.)
Luckily, the rough road to adulthood can be paved with adulting classes. The Adulting Collective, a startup venture out of Portland, Maine, made a big splash about two years ago after national news outlets reported on its in-person events. In its short lifespan, the Collective has offered up lessons, either guided or via online video, in such varied life skills as bike safety, holiday gift-giving for the cash-strapped, putting together a monthly budget, opening a bottle of wine without a corkscrew, and assembling a weekly nutritional plan. Their target audience: “emerging adults,” the massive 93-million-strong demographic group composed of people in their 20s and early 30s.
There are similarly structured programs across the country. At the Brooklyn Brainery, for example, you can take classes on how to run a good meeting or what Seinfeld teaches us about love. Take an online course with the Society of Grownups, sponsored by the insurance company Mass Mutual, and topics will include budgeting and how to deal with student-loan debt.
The sheer banality of many of these courses is their salient quality. They’re teaching stuff that people neither look forward to nor seem to enjoy, but implicitly recognize as part of being a grown-up: paying bills, setting a budget, calling the car insurance company, looking after your health. The joyless, quotidian chores of post-adolescence.
“Adulting is something nobody prepares you for, but you know it when it happens. It’s the unglorified part of being on your own,” says Rebekah Fitzsimmons, assistant director of the writing and communication program at Georgia Tech who taught a class on adulting in the 21st century in 2016.
In a bygone era, the ordinariness traditionally associated with growing the hell up was something few noticed—in the first half of the 20th century, 20-somethings were too busy trying not to die of the Spanish Flu or fighting Hitler to worry too much about what life skills they were failing to develop. That has now been replaced by public displays of what it means to be a self-sufficient human being, Fitzsimmons says. At the intersection of these two competing truths is the cottage industry of adulting, one nurtured by Instagram hashtags and built around how-to classes for hapless Millennials.
Born in 1989, I am a card-carrying member of the oft-derided demographic. How hapless am I? To find out, I signed up for the two action challenges the Adulting Collective offered last fall: one on nutrition and another focused on monthly budgeting. Via email, I received instructions for each of these week-long courses, which had me tackling a new skill or task each day.
When I hit 30, I intend to complete emerging adulthood fully equipped for whatever comes next.
First lesson: Hydrate!
Never would I have thought the amount of water I consumed would be a point of instruction. But it turns out that young adults are notoriously poor judges of this particular basic biological need. The crash course in nutrition from the Adulting Collective that arrived in my inbox last fall was titled “Detox Before You Retox,” and it heavily emphasized hangover avoidance. Billed as a way to prepare yourself “before the next happy hour,” the instructions contained multiple steps broken down over five days. Step one: Get your basics in order, like eating your veggies, exercising, and drinking more water.
So one evening I stood in the harsh glow of my kitchen’s overhead fluorescent lighting—pitcher at the ready, glass on the countertop—applying myself to my first adulting lesson. On my smartphone I made a quick calculation: my weight, divided by 2.2, multiplied by my age, divided by 28.3, divided once more by eight. The answer: eight. More precisely, I needed to drink 7.56 cups of water to hit my proper daily intake.
This was only one of the big takeaways I received. I also learned that a morning drink of lemon water and cayenne pepper mixed with said water can help boost my metabolism, apparently. Like the unnecessarily complex hydration formula above, some of this material had the effect of making a heretofore uncomplicated thing more daunting. It was months later it finally dawned on me that a simple Google search could yield a far simpler answer for the number of glasses of water I ought to drink every day.
How did it come to this? Did previous generations have so much trouble mastering the basics?
“In an ideal world, we would all be followed around by this combination of our grandmother and Merlin who would lovingly teach us how to do each and every thing in the world,” says Kelly Williams Brown, author of the 2013 book Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 535 Easy(ish) Steps. “In the absence of that, it can be nice to have resources.”
Brown’s book seems to be largely responsible for the meteoric rise of the gerund form of the word (which was short-listed by Oxford Dictionaries as the word of the year in 2016). A revised edition of Adulting was published in March. The adulting industry itself is newer. Rachel Weinstein co-founded the Adulting School (now Collective) with Katie Brunelle in fall 2016. (Brunelle has since left the business.)
A professional therapist, Weinstein would sometimes encounter younger clients who spoke about the idiosyncrasies of grown-up life with a feeling of self-conscious shame. Being overwhelmed about how to manage money or clean out their kitchen pantry were things they felt they had to hide. “I just saw a lot of my clients struggle with life, trying to be competent in skills that we’re not necessarily taught. People had this sense of internal embarrassment,” she says.
To Weinstein, this seemed like a golden business opportunity. As a group, 26-year-olds are the single biggest age cohort in the U.S., followed by people who are 25, 27, and 24. Yet unlike previous generations, the young people of today are slower to reach the milestones usually associated with adulthood: living independently, forming their own households, having children, and getting married. “Today’s young people,” as the U.S. Census Bureau reported last year, “look different from prior generations in almost every regard.”
Tempting as it might be to identify the price of avocados as the culprit in this stunted generational progress, there may be other reasons to explain the shift. A research report released in the spring by Freddie Mac cited weak wage growth and the rapid rise of both housing costs and average expenditures as some of the principal reasons. “A popular meme, ‘adulting is hard,’ provides a humorous take on the challenges faced by young adults,” the authors wrote. “Like a lot of good comedy, the phrase has a tinge of cruelty.”
Geography plays a role, too: Millennials tend to choose to live in the centers of high-cost cities, and their earning power hasn’t kept pace with housing costs. Since 2000, the median home price in the U.S. has risen by a quarter, from $210,000 to $270,000, while the per capita real income for young adults has risen by only 1 percent during that same period. Throw those myriad factors together, and you have some of the explanation for why 20-somethings are renting for longer periods of time than they once did, as well as why marriage and fertility rates have dropped. Appropriately, Freddie Mac’s report was titled, “Why Is Adulting Getting Harder?”
But if you go further back, delaying the markers of adulthood does have historical precedent, says Holly Swyers, an anthropology professor at Lake Forest College. She recently completed a project examining adulthood in America from the Civil War to the present day. For much of the period Swyers studied, many Americans over 18 followed roughly the same trajectory as modern Millennials do: They spent their 20s figuring out life and establishing themselves financially. The script didn’t flip until the 1950s and 1960s, when the markers that defined crossing over into the world of adulthood came to mean marrying and having children.
“Marrying when you’re 20, having kids by 21, and being established is a little bit freakish in American history,” she says.
So if those Americans of yore managed to (eventually) attain maturity without the aid of online courses, why can’t Millennials?
Maybe we really are uniquely ignorant. That’s the thesis that GOP senator and Gen Xer Ben Sasse presents in his book The Vanishing American Adult. He writes that younger Americans have willfully embraced “perpetual adolescence.” Some of this is our fault, evidently: staring at our smartphones for hours on end has obliterated our attention spans. Yet Sasse also places blame at the feet of his own generation for its “reluctance to expose young people to the demands of real work.”
Weinstein, however, offers another explanation. She attributes the acute modern need for additional grow-up instruction to class and demographics. Her typical adulting student is probably someone whose childhood was tech-dependent and activity-rich, the sort of high-achiever kid who was repeatedly told to bring home good grades in order to get into a good college. “Whatever folks are really being pressured for college prep, they’re just not getting as much time and exposure at home hanging out with their family, learning how to unclog the kitchen sink, or hang a picture on the wall,” she says.
Lots of those over-scheduled and test-prepped teens of the aughts also missed out on erstwhile educational staples like home economics and shop classes, where high-school kids once learned how to darn a sock or hold a hammer; many schools began mothballing these mandatory courses in the 1990s. As a result, legions of American high-school graduates are being unleashed on the world without any basic skills. Some higher-education institutions, such as New Jersey’s Drew University, have stepped in to offer “Adulting 101” classes in things like beginner car care for their undergraduates.
The Adulting Collective doesn’t rely solely on Weinstein’s expertise for its courses, although it appears that designing an adulting curriculum is just as much of a challenge as growing up. Right now, the website contains some short posts and links to videos explaining a few skills, which is a deviation from the original idea to enlist instructors to offer online lessons. According to Weinstein, the new plan heading into 2019 is to build out a membership program that involves action challenges similar to the nutrition course I took part in. “One of the things I’ve learned as a therapist is a lot of times a little bit of accountability to somebody helps us achieve goals and get tasks done,” she says.
To Swyers, what’s extraordinary in Adulting Ed isn’t the curriculum itself, which is a pretty standard mix of self-improvement and personal finance tips. It’s the notion of branding such lessons under the “adulting” rubric. After all, classes geared toward grown-ups and their skills are all over the place. Visit any big-box hardware store and chances are there’s some sort of hands-on workshop taking place, for example. “If somebody is willing to be taught, for instance, basic kitchen skills—which people pay for all the time—they don’t call it an ‘adulting collective.’ They call it a cooking class,” Swyers says.
The difference, says Weinstein, is that the way younger adults are expected to grow older and assume our place in the world has dramatically changed: “I don’t think it’s a ‘hapless Millennial’ kind of thing at all. I just think there are things that are harder about the world today.”
Case in point: The spiraling costs of higher education. Those emerging adults are entering the workforce with massive student loans to pay off; no wonder some days all they can manage to do is Instagram bewildered-dog memes. “I have clients graduating from school with over $100,000 dollars worth of debt,” she says. “When you’re paying a mortgage’s worth of school debt every month, you’re probably going to need a little help stashing some money away in an emergency fund.”
Indeed, the most useful takeaways from my own brush with the adulting industry involved money management. Last fall’s challenge on budgeting included a chart for itemizing monthly breakdowns of expenses: so many dollars toward utilities, housing, food, clothing, and so on. After six months of following the chart I completed during the challenge, I managed to save up a sizable emergency fund of eight months’ worth of expenses—not bad for a freelance writer who graduated college with $250 to his name, and well worth the $5 I paid for the course itself.
The class was theirs. But the experience was all mine. And with my savings in order, I was freed up to stash excess cash in an additional account my wife and I hold to save for a future home down payment. With a house on the horizon, we’ve recently turned our attention to the prospect of having children sooner rather than later.
“Not at this point,” she told me recently. “I’m not ready to be off work. Or to give up wine.”
Perhaps my primer on uncorking wine in unconventional ways will come in handy.