If the millennial rights movement were a thing – and not just my doomed attempt to qualify for a free McDonald’s cheeseburger a decade after the expiration of my student card – it would have just been set back a hundred years.
Last month, the confectionary multinational Kinder (meaning “children”, or “made for children”) released an advert trying to sell its Bueno bar to twentysomethings. “I’ve just paid my gas bill and later I’m gonna bleed my radiators,” sings an adult woman, about the act of being an adult woman, in the kitsch advert. She and another fully grown adult then go on to sing about watering plants, owning Tupperware, buying spice racks, changing light bulbs, setting up direct debits and using pans. “Now that’s adulting,” ends the ad.
In 2013, “adulting” officially became a word after the journalist Kelly Williams Brown wrote Adulting: How to Become a Grown-Up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps and it went on to become a New York Times bestseller. “To adult” is to carry out a task conventionally associated with responsible adults, and adulting is a neologism that helps millennials celebrate their adulthood while distancing themselves from it.
The sentence “I just made spaghetti #adulting”, for example, tells the reader that the pasta-maker is capable of behaving like an adult while undeniably, categorically, absolutely not being one. It is worrying that Kinder has now brought the concept to the mainstream.
It is an old saying that millennials were given too many participation medals as children. To translate: we can’t cope with the harsh realities of life. The popularity of the word “adulting” seemingly proves this prejudice, as young people post proud pictures of their pasta and tweet about doing laundry as though these weren’t ordinary, everyday acts.
Multiple books about “how to be an adult” have been published this year, Google searches for the word “adulting” continue to inflate, and there’s even an American TV show #Adulting about two 30-year-olds trying to grow up. If young people want to be taken seriously, why are we still using this embarrassing term?
Unfortunately, adulting won’t stop because true adulthood can’t start. In the past 20 years, the average house price in England and Wales increased by 259 per cent while earnings rose by just 68 per cent. Car insurance rises have hit 17- to 22-year-olds the hardest, while driving lessons can cost 18-year-olds as much as £3,000 overall. Getting the keys to your house or buying a new car was once the marker of a grown-up, but millennials can’t afford to do either.
A recent study by the Resolution Foundation showed that 25- to 34-year-olds spend less money on “fun” than older people. We drink less alcohol and don’t go out for dinner. These are both very adult activities. Are we eating fish fingers because we want to recapture our childhoods – or is it all we can afford? Contrary to popular belief, adulting might not stem from a desperation to remain young. Adulting might be for people who are desperate to grow up, clutching at the only markers of adulthood (washing machines! Rent! Pesto!) that they have.
Yet it is also true that the concept of adulting is inherently infantilising. Celebrating the fact that you can cook or clean can’t be divorced from the recent boom in adult ball pits, adult bouncy castles and adult colouring books. Since 2012, there has been a 65 per cent growth in adults buying children’s toys, according to the retail analysts NPD Group.
Nostalgia is a huge market, from BuzzFeed lists about things “only Nineties kids will remember” to the reunion tour of the pop group Steps. Thanks to rising house prices and stagnant salaries, adulthood is no longer for sale – but childhood and adolescence are. And now fake adulting is, too. As well as endless guidebooks, there are mugs, pillows, sticker sets (“I flossed!”; “I made a sensible choice!”) and even beach towels featuring the word. This proliferation of tat is what has exposed young adults to the judgement of their older, grouchier counterparts.
Were cynical baby boomers right all along about feeble, spoiled millennials? Or perhaps adulting and its associated infantilisation are a valuable coping mechanism – a fun way of minimising a real political problem. Instead of moaning about what we can’t accomplish, we’re celebrating what we can.
After the general election, much was made of the generational divide in British politics, with young people now delighting in mocking “centrist dads” – that is, contrarian middle-aged men who look down on the idealistic young. Politics is an adult domain that we have not been denied access to, and as such we participate with fervour. More than half of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in this year’s election, an increase of 16 percentage points from 2015. If we are overly positive about our politicians or our pasta, perhaps it is because little else gives us reasons to be optimistic.
And, yes, the word adulting is exceptionally twee. Seeing people show off about washing the dishes or paying their taxes is dull and annoying. But if adulting is a crap word, then it fits our crap situation.
When a multinational company embraces a pop culture concept or fad, it invariably signals the end of it. Yet in 2016 – way before a jaunty jingle was even a twinkle in Kinder’s eye – Starbucks and Amazon were using adulting in their advertising. It refuses to die. Despite the apparent Kinder kiss of death, the concept will endure. The term will probably only fall if and when house prices do. But the next time you roll your eyes at adulting, remember: millennials are not reluctant to grow up. It’s just that we’re unable to.
This article appears in the 04 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How the rich got richer