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“I just made spaghetti!” Why brands are selling millennials a twee vision of “adulting”

Unfortunately, adulting won’t stop because true adulthood can’t start. 

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. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How the rich got richer

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”