Do we age or do we adult? And why should we care?

By Professor Jo Brewis, University of Leicester.

My colleague Kat Riach at Essex University and I have recently borrowed the term ‘adulting’ from its origin in the natural sciences to try to characterize ageing as a project, something which we do (or try to do, or fail at, or resist) in tandem with cultural norms. Ageing, for us and many other social scientists, is not just an inevitable, biological, predictable experience. So we prefer to use adulting as a concept because we think it captures how we try to live up in our behaviours, dress, attitudes and so on in all spheres of our lives  to social expectations about what is appropriate ‘at our age’ (whatever that age is). It’s a kind of performance, if you like, but it goes deeper than that because it’s also us trying to persuade ourselves that we are acting age-appropriately, that we are behaving properly, or at least that we can get away with acting a particular way without severe social sanctions from those around us. However, adulting also captures the idea of forever trying to be an adult, rather than the accomplishment of being ‘grown up’. In a sense then we might always be trying to accomplish adulting, and we perhaps never achieve ‘being adult’ fully and completely.

Of course, adulting takes place in a western context in which traditional markers of age – for example, expectations about marriage, raising children or home owning – are arguably now more and more out of date. We might even argue that being a grown up is no longer cool, and that living agelessly – or amortally, as cultural commentator Catherine Mayer has it – is politically important because it challenges the equation of chronological old age with an inevitable decline in what we could call civil participation or even social usefulness. Think of the University of the Third Age or the rise of the concept of Grey Power as examples of what Mayer is suggesting. On the other hand, our research suggests that the traditional norms and mores are far more sedimented in how we think than suggested by Mayer, and that those who don’t live up to them might well be censured. Even more interestingly, we also assess ourselves against these norms, and berate ourselves when we fail. We only have to consider Kelly Williams Brown’s blog Adulting as evidence and in particular her revelation that “Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night, so sure that I am not an adult and never will be. “I’m a sham,” I whisper quietly in the dark. But this is the thing: everyone feels like they’re a sham. Everyone feels like all around them are people who have it together, so why don’t they?”.

In our research what we have also found is that the adulting project is not just informed by expectations about age but also about expectations around gender; and conceivably all sorts of other differences as well – race, ethnicity, (dis)ability, sexual orientation and so on. One example of this is women being ‘never the right age’, to echo Wendy Loretto and Colin Duncan’s phrase.  So women might be seen as having entered the ‘post-career’ stage or the so-called ‘mommy track’ at work as soon as they become mothers; whereas up until that point they are routinely reminded of what one of our respondents called their ‘expiry date’ in fertility terms, as if to have children at the requisite point is indeed to act one’s age. Moreover, the ‘biological window’ and the ‘promotional window’ in many organizations coincide badly for women, because it is usually in someone’s late 20s or early 30s that they are seen as having accumulated enough professional qualifications, put in enough hours and built up a strong enough network to merit a promotion. And this is also the time when a lot of women are considering falling pregnant.

In sum, our research adds to a growing body of work that identifies the various ways in which categories like gender, age, race, sexual orientation, (dis)ability and so on actually work together to produce problematic judgements and expectations. Although we welcome the advent of the Equality Act (2010) and the introduction in Section 14 of the category of combined discrimination, which moves us away to some extent from the concept of being multiply discriminated against, Kat and I would argue that these categories of difference connect, reconnect and redound back on to each other in very complex ways which still deserve further consideration. We have been able to recognize these at work in our research data but also – as a ‘child-free’  thirty-something (Kat) and forty-something (Jo) pair of single-but-partnered female academics – in our own experience.

Jo Brewis, Professor of Organisation and Consumption, teaches in the School of Management at the University of Leicester.

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