My life reached a whole new level of weird recently. I signed up to a fortnightly subscription for deodorant delivery.
My husband and I, as busy, professional DINKs1 (sort of – I’m on a PhD scholarship, but still, there are two of us) outsource a lot of our adulting responsibilities – we’ve been taking advantage of the proliferation of subscription services for years. Grocery shopping sucks, am I right? It takes forever, especially if you’re like me and can’t make up your mind between the diced tomatoes with reduced salt or the diced tomatoes with reduced sugar (why can’t they ever be both??). Instead, why not get your food delivered in the exact proportions you’re going to use to cook a meal, with the ingredients conveniently packaged up in an eco-friendly-looking brown paper bag (reminiscent of school lunches, but for grownups), complete with appropriate recipe, ready to be sliced, diced, cooked and served? We also have our cat food, our wine and our coffee all set up for automated delivery. Perhaps toiletries were the logical next step?
And I know we’re not alone – our eclectic collection of friends, who are of a wide variety of adult-sounding ages, have subscriptions for tea, toilet paper, vitamins, juice, make-up, and even baby products, in addition to most of them, like us, having their weekly meals delivered in a box to their doorstep. Why is this happening?
“Adulting” is a relatively new term, having peaked last year when the Oxford Dictionary shortlisted it as one of the words that had significantly affected 2016. The term originated on social media (often as a hashtag – i.e. #adulting) but has leaked into spoken usage, both as a verb (to adult) and a gerund (adulting). It’s basically used by people who don’t always feel very adult-like, to refer to doings tasks that are normally reserved for ‘real’ adults (some real-life examples from my own social media pages include: “Wild Saturday night of wine and laundry! Woo! #adulting”. Or, if used ironically, “Four flavours of gelato for dinner. Oops. #adulting”)
Anthropologists might refer to the #adulting trend, and the feelings of ambivalence associated with the term, as a manifestation of liminality, a concept used to describe a state that is ‘in between’ other states, but is neither one nor the other (the term was popularized by anthropologist Victor Turner in the ‘60s). In the eyes of previous generations, the demographic who are using the term ‘adulting’ are simply ‘adults’. But today’s youth (of which I include myself, at 35, because I’m delusional…) seem to feel a deep ambivalence towards the notion of themselves as ‘true’ adults, and this is worth further exploration. Why has this term become so common? Is #adulting and all the baggage that comes with it a symptom of a broader phenomenon?
Adulting – a Euphemism for Mediocrity?
Despite its increasing popularity in the common vernacular, the term ‘adulting’ does not get a lot of love online. Some writers decry it as the ultimate in millennial self-indulgence – a form of self-congratulatory chest-thumping over the ‘successful’ management of the very basics of adult existence; a plaudit that allows everyone to get a trophy.
Others think that it’s a gender issue. Apparently, a scan of Twitter or Instagram will, on any given day, find more women than men using #adulting – I tried it today and it was about 2:1 women to men, so take from that what you will, as there’s no hard data to confirm this. But why would this be so? One article claims that young(ish – still old enough to be adults though) women use this term to hold onto their youth in a world that tells them their youth is their only value. Another posits that it’s a way for women to downplay their genuine achievements and avoid the derision that often occurs when women self-promote.
A recent Times article put the popularity of the term down to the increasing age that young people begin to do ‘adult’ things like moving out of their parents’ homes, getting married or having children. It claimed that use of the term adulting is a form of self-referential irony demonstrating a hyperawareness that the (perhaps undesired and unasked for) extension of a person’s adolescence has made them less capable than their parents were at the same age. I have a different theory.
Adulting Has Always Been Hard… But Now We Have Options
First of all, it’s not only my millennial friends who use this term. I certainly use it often enough, and at 35, I’m not a millennial (I think…recent research by an Australian professor reckons I’m an Xennial – but that’s a whole other post…). Nor is it only millennials who outsource their adulting responsibilities. A 50-year-old friend told me recently about the joy she gets from “playing two competing meal delivery services off against each other”, sitting in her dressing gown at midnight, choosing, online, what combination of Marley Spoon and Hello Fresh she will have delivered the following week (“It’s the little things…”).
She is a single mother to two teens and multiple pets; has a very grownup, full-time job; has part-time caring responsibilities for her elderly mother; and also maintains, heaven forbid, an active social life. We were questioning why subscription services have become so popular, and I suggested that in previous generations, it was more likely that a family could afford to live on a single income, so mothers were more likely to (choose to, or feel forced to) stay home and do the kinds of things that adults today outsource. She disagreed.
“My mum always worked when we were kids. She had a full-time job, and she did all the grocery shopping and cleaning and cooking and helping with homework. She got it all done within the 24 hours allocated to her each day. The thing she gave up was sleep. Something’s always got to give, right? But why give up sleep, when instead you can give up grocery shopping, and cleaning, and even cooking if you want to? That wasn’t an option for my mother, but it is for me, and I know which one I’d prefer to be doing.”
Adulting as Feminism: the Patriarchy Oppresses us All
So maybe it is a gender issue. What if the #adultingishard and corresponding #adultinglifewin trends are really just responses to that difficult, liminal phase Western society tumbled into, when women were first told they could ‘have it all’, but this mostly resulted in them having to DO it all? Australian GenXers (born between 1965 and 1980), when they were kids, were known as the latchkey generation, the first generation that had to let themselves in after school because both parents were still at work. Their mums were the women who had little choice but to suffer through that liminal phase, where they worked, they did the majority of the caring work for their own families and possibly also their aging parents, BUT society and technology hadn’t caught up to the additional work they were going to be doing. Solutions (I prefer to call them ‘lifesavers’) like weekly meal subscriptions, direct debits for bills, and (importantly) automated wine delivery hadn’t yet been invented. Perhaps even more critically, child care and afterschool care services were, in most places, still a mere twinkle in someone’s eye.
Understandably, that resulted in a lot of really tired, burned out mums. No doubt it resulted in some really tired, burned out dads too, and as domestic duties are coming to be seen more and more as a shared responsibility, this is likely to keep increasing, as societal expectations put more pressure on men to share in the household ‘adulting’ than ever before.
Adulting Through the Generations
According to research on work-life balance across generations, Gen X and the Millennials (and us Xennials in our little micro-generation, maybe) are more likely to value work-life balance, having grown up in looser family structures that were also often characterized by broken homes. We’ve watched our parents do it tough at the expense of either their own wellbeing or the wellbeing of our family unity. Is it really so surprising that we wouldn’t be buying into that, holus bolus? That we would be suspicious of the tasks that we observed our parents’ marriages break down over, or the unending adulting work that caused our mothers’ mental health to suffer? Particularly when there’s an alternative that arrives on the front porch in a neat cardboard box every Tuesday at dawn.
As my friend pointed out, something’s always got to give. Adulting is hard, always has been, probably always will be because as many of the abovementioned articles point out, adulting is a synonym for ‘living’. As we endeavor to show on The Familiar Strange, life is messy, and complicated, and it feels like it’s getting more so every day – why not outsource some of that adulting work (like ensuring that you have deodorant and thus won’t stink out your officemates – #adultingforthewin there Jodie), and spend more time with family and friends and pets and passion projects (preferably otherwise known as your day job!) and doing the things that mean the most to you? Perhaps this is even a way to move more gracefully through that liminal phase of ambivalence towards adulthood, and correspondingly, for Western society to move out of that liminal phase we’ve fallen into as we strive towards gender equality.
What do you think – am I just justifying my disinterest in domesticity? And this post doesn’t even touch on socio-economic factors – has anything changed for millennials suffering through financial crises, who can’t afford to outsource their adulting responsibilities the way I’ve described here? Perhaps this post is just the deluded musings of privilege? I’m totally open to all of those possibilities – as always, feel free to hit us up in the comments and tell us what you think.
1 DINK stands for Double Income No Kids
[Image sourced from a search of Google images]