What does it mean to be an adult?
Walking back from lunch yesterday, one of my coworkers was pondering what it means to be an adult. Is it marriage? Having kids? Paying rent? Buying a house? Having a full time job? Native American societies supposedly had their rights of passage where young men would go out in to the woods as a boy and come back as a man, and the Amish have Rumspringa where they decide if they want to join the Amish community as an adult. But in modern American society, there is not such a hard line. Many of us graduate high school and go to college, which is often a weird combination of adult responsibilities and parental assistance. Even after that, in a society where everyone wears jeans and hoodies, where kids can remain on their parent's insurance policies until 26, what is adulthood?
At some point after college, I found myself realizing that I was voluntarily doing things that I remember rebelling about doing when forced to do so by my parents - things like making dentist appointments, serving a vegetable with dinner, or putting on a hat and gloves when it was cold. It occurred to me that, in a way, this was adulthood - doing the things you are supposed to do without being told to do it, and in fact not actually having to do it.
But that's a pretty clunky definition. So I think it can be summed up a little more clearly as: adulthood is when you routinely delay, or give up, gratification in pursuit of long term goals. Childhood, after all, is all about living in the moment - you tend to want candy and toys and to play. You tend not to be so good at long-term planning. Adulthood, on the other hand, is the opposite. It is the acceptance that you need to do things that are unpleasant in the short term to achieve things in the long term. Adulthood is, in a way, eating your vegetables because you know it's good for you, or going to the dentist because you know your long-term dental health outweighs the short-term pain (or in my case, because you figure the women you are hoping to meet online probably don't dig coffee stains).
The thing about adulthood is that you totally can make bad choices - but you generally don't. There is nothing to stop me from eating an entire cake for dinner tonight, or drinking an entire 30 pack of Natty Ice, or going out and buying a Porsche or a flat screen TV so big I can't fit it through my front door. But I won't, because I realize that despite the short term pleasure, it's not what I want long-term.
Most of the traditional marks of adulthood also fit this definition pretty well. Buying a house typically means deferred gratification to afford buying it, to make the mortgage payments, and to fix the toilet when it stops flushing. Marriage and having children, from what I'm told, often involves a significant amount of giving up immediate gratification for the sake of your spouse or children.
Of course, few of us are probably adults all the time - right now I'm sitting in a comfy chair typing this blog post, when I should be raking leaves or writing eBay descriptions. Sometimes we do choose the lesser thing, but adulthood is choosing the better/longer-term one most of the time. Getting up in the morning to go to work when you would rather be sleeping, getting a few more months out of your current vehicle, taking the kids to the doctor or the cat for her yearly checkup, going to the gym - those are all part of being an adult.