I remember when thirty seemed old. My parents were in their early-thirties then; I viewed them as aged specimens, too preoccupied with the labor of rearing two school-going children to realize their mounting years. Older friends of theirs, on the wrong side of thirty-five, were more attuned to the specter of midlife. “Forty is the new thirty,” they chanted. “Fifty is the new forty.” They wielded articles about longer life spans and second careers. Someone got a motorcycle and a divorce. Another turned to religion. At a fortieth birthday party, “uncles” donned the sequined turbans of graying belly dancers and gifted each other naughty magazines, toys, and undergarments called “garter snakes.”
I was a kid, so the fine distinction of relocating the top of the “hill” from forty to fifty was lost on me. Forty seemed like eighty. Most exuberant adult performances of youthfulness were embarrassing. Now, approaching thirty myself, and resigned to forever being decrepit in my daughter’s eyes, I’m interested in those re-nominations of old-age as a gradually receding horizon. How dated and tentative they seem, in today’s world of ever-suspended “adultescence,” in which people don’t ever grow up—half because they can’t afford to move out of their parents’ houses; the other half because they reject the imperative of having children in their penthouses.
You’ve probably read about this: parents playing video games, adult fans of Young Adult novels (the-The Fault In Our Stars phenomenon), working people in the privileged corners throwing away their weekends on hangovers and the never-ending, mimosa-soaked brunch. What started as the economic imperative of “boomerang-ing” back into your childhood home with college loans and start-up aspirations has spiraled into a society-wide rejection of the normative form of personal and professional advancement during the decade of your twenties.
The popular cultural artifacts of our time—from Chetan Bhagat’s call center workers to Lena Dunham’s Girls—document this movement. Writing in theNew York Times, A.O. Scott called it “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture:” everybody gets older, but “nobody grows up.” For Scott, growing up used to mean getting a job, getting married, having kids, “[balancing] the fulfillment of your wants with the carrying out of your duties.” That’s what my parents did, and their friends, too. If at all they rebelled against the dictates of age-appropriate behavior, they did so in ways that were expected (drinking too much at a Diwali party, buying a sports car) or invisible to the children and colleagues with whom they regularly interacted.
In retrospect, “fifty is the new forty” didn’t really mean much, other than that you were less likely to die. Or rather, that you didn’t need to expend any more energy worry about dying at fifty than you had at forty, thanks to the advent of modern medicine. It didn’t mean that you could progress through life “by means of regression,” to live forever, as Scott writes, in a state of “arrested development.” You still had to raise a family and do right by your elders. If you were an immigrant “sandwiched” between home and host country, parents and children, you lumped it. You took pleasure in life, maybe even had passions, but overall, you did your time.
The balance of duties and wants. It’s a fair description of adulthood, though obviously the “duty-want” scale is differently balanced for men and women, rich and poor, those for whom duties supersede all other form of fulfillment, and those for whom the satisfaction of wants is approached as the task of a life. As one of a minority in my socioeconomic set to have reached thirty with a toddler in tow, it’s hard not to feel a little self-righteous about the duties I exact: the trivial things like leaving a party early to put baby to bed and Skyping with great-grandparents; and the weighty ones, too, like the job applications foregone, the nights in the hospital. More and more, I struggle to relate to adult friends without kids—I enjoy them and their company, but we do not share a fundamental limit-experience—and I wish they would join our ranks.
It’s not because, as the childless often assume, we parents want everyone else to participate in our misery. Although I chafe against the routine restraints of daily life like everyone else, I think it’s possible to thrive on a scale tipped in service of duty. I try to experience obligations as opportunities, and to create space for the performance and satisfaction of my personal and professional goals within a larger matrix of familial and communal involvement. If that sounds terribly optimistic and more than a little deluded, it probably is. But I prefer the pursuit of doing it all (not “having it all,” but doing it all; the latter is more about the attempt to live one’s vision of a full life than the acquisition of a socially acceptable one), whatever the short-term sacrifices, to the disavowal of doing certain things from the get-go.
I’m not saying that other people should get married or have kids or engage in particular forms of “adult” behavior. These are what we call regulatory norms, heteronormative, age-ist, culturally defined prescriptions trafficked as universal aspirations and which many experience as violent and coercive. I am saying that the embrace of an increasingly rare form of, for lack of a better word, grown-up comportment has made “getting older” easier for me. My life at thirty will seem thirty. There’s no mismatch between the age on my license and my position relative to those around me.
Did I have to have a child to feel this way? I don’t think so. But I did have to find my way out from under the equally coercive societal mandates to “find yourself” and “follow your dreams.” I have other things to do with my time. The crucial aspirationalism of childhood has given way to a more mature apprehension of the real privilege of adulthood: the shorter the future, the greater the here and now.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.