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“Adulting” and the Fear of Growing Up

“Even when I was little, I knew that teenagers sparkled. I knew they knew something children didn’t know, and adults ended up forgetting.” (Yelich-O’Connor, 2016) — Lorde, “A note from the desk of a newborn adult

As I write this, I am on the cusp of turning nineteen. I am watching the clock approach midnight: tick, tick, tick. Year after year, I have had the luxury of blowing out candles without a second thought. But this year feels different. With every slow tick of the minute hand, I feel a mounting dread within me.

Nineteen — the last of all “teen”  numbers, the final bit of teenage vitality before the dreaded twenties. When nineteen ends, so does all the shimmer of teenhood. When the clock strikes twelve tonight, my slow but inevitable metamorphosis into the mythical adult will begin — goodbye freedom, hello taxes.

When we talk about “adulting”, Millennial slang meaning adult tasks like housing and taxes, is it not with a nervous, self-deprecating laugh? Perhaps, we are saying: “I have not yet lost my teenage sparkle. I have not forgotten what it’s like”, and “I am lost here; I have grown up too fast.” More and more of us find ourselves wondering how our parents did what they did at our age. Feeling too young for responsibility, we retreat. We need more time, more space to think and figure it out. We need to stop the clock somehow.

We are afraid of growing up.

And it makes sense, looking at the world around us. All the milestones of adulthood — building a career, leaving the nest, raising a family — seem far away when all we can focus on is the here and the now. How can we plan for the future, we think, when a lot of us can barely live day to day? With young adults wrestling a disastrous job market, a seemingly never-ending recession, and an ever-rising cost of living, it is no wonder so many of us are putting adulthood on hold. Gen Z’s “treat culture” seems to be another aftermath of this economic instability. Many young adults are indulging in fun “non-adult” purchases — pricey coffees, ice cream, anime figurines — to pull through the harsh reality of adulthood. Some even sacrifice their savings in the process. Having no hope that our money can invest in a brighter future, some choose to spend it on a more bearable present. Why save for a rainy day when it always feels like one? When houses, weddings, and children feel out of reach, you’d best believe we’re blowing money on Sonny Angels to feel like a kid again.

For many people my age, though, there is a more personal dimension to the fear of growing up. We are afraid of what we might lose when responsibility kicks down our door, when we are in charge of our own lives, and the future we postponed arrives in front of us. We might think crossing the threshold into adulthood catalyses the loss of some innate childlike wonder. Or maybe the arrival of adulthood feels like a loss of all that could be, a funeral for every other future we dreamt of. If we are lucky, we might be well into our education, our respective choices of diplomas and degrees… and it can feel like a choice we cannot reverse. It is even harder when you feel like your childhood was cut short by exams that affect your prospects at the ripe age of twelve. Growing up means a future that feels set in stone. It is this irrevocable loss of possibility that we mourn most.

What we forget when we grow up, perhaps, is how it feels to be a human being for the first time. To step out into the world and watch it expand into technicolour with fresh eyes, yet still be so powerless and unsure of your place within it. To know everything and nothing at all. Adolescence is experimentation, being free yet not fully unshackled, the process of figuring out what you want. The thought of adulthood, on the other hand, feels like the finish point — you need to have it all figured out.

But I do not think that is the truth. Like many things, the worst parts of growing up can be spun into the best ones. We are unsupervised, grown-up children, but we learn who we are when we are not under supervision. We have to save ourselves, but now we know how to do the saving. We are taken backstage of the magic show our parents performed when we grew up, and shown their tricks. We learn how to be alive, not in any school, but by living. The dawn of adulthood is exactly that — just another dawn, where you keep figuring life out.

It is hard for me to write this as if I believe it will all be okay. But billions of people have grown up. I likely will too. Perhaps I will find myself part of the “treat” generation, allowing parts of my younger self to endure long after childhood loses its hold over me (you can take my soul, but never my stuffies). Maybe I will stop glorifying a past I can never return to, and instead, find the magic in all stages of my life. I might accept that the future is a nebulous, ever-shifting blob that is only ever fixed when you get there. And adulthood? I can cross that bridge when I get to it.

For now, I am newly nineteen. Another cake marks the passage of a year, the shedding and renewing of the trees, and how I have shed some old things and grown new things too. It will be that way every year of my life. When the clock turns midnight next year, my only hope is that I take it for what it is: not something lost, but gained.


Yelich-O’Conner, E. M. L. (2016, November 8).

Lorde’s letter, in full: “the party is about to start. I am about to show you the new world.”

The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/nov/08/lordes-letter-in-full-the-party-is-about-to-start-i-am-about-to-show-you-the-new-world 

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