When Do You Really Become An Adult?

Neuroscience says there’s no such thing as an adult. Alexandra Jones investigates when (and why) we start to feel grown...

04.08.2020

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It has been said so often that it feels passé to point out that the traditional markers of adulthood are now largely defunct. Buying a home, having children, a job for life - like many others in my generation (I’m 31), these seem little more than mirages in the desert of my future.

Neuroscience is equally unhelpful in defining adulthood. In the past five years, multiple studies have shown that the brain continues to develop throughout our twenties and well into our thirties - cells renew, and new connections form, our personalities shift and develop. Recently, researchers at Cambridge University found that the prefrontal cortex (responsible for personality expression and decision making) continues to develop across three decades. Without either physical or neurological borders to separate adolescent from adult, though, how do we know when we’ve finally ‘grown-up’?

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I canvass my friends, who’re mostly in their early 30s. We agree that if it had a flavour, adulthood would taste like a negroni; so bitter that it can’t be attacked at pace - an enjoyable experience, even though it makes you wince.

“It would sound like a baby crying and smell like talcum powder,” laughs a (child-free) friend. “But maybe that’s just us...” Maybe. Perhaps because it is something that almost everyone goes through, growing up is too subjective an experience to accurately define - though, the more people I ask, the more common threads I find running through the individual narratives.

“When I wrote How To Be A Grown Up,” says author Daisy Buchanan, “the subject that kept coming up was kindness - that learning to treat ourselves kindly means that we make more mature decisions that serve us better.”

I remember sitting with a friend one night (I was 27 at the time, he was five years older) and saying, half joking “I’ve made so many fuck-ups, maybe I’m just a garden variety bad person.” He cocked his head like a spaniel and said, “you need to give yourself a break.” I didn’t believe him until a year or so later (my sanity worn thin by that thought in particular), when a therapist said: “one of the biggest lessons we learn as adults is the importance of self-compassion.”

For 54-year-old, Dr David Oliver, self-compassion came in the form of sobriety. “Professionally, I felt like a grown-up at 23, when I qualified as a doctor. Personally, it still hasn’t happened - though when I eventually packed in drinking it helped,” he explains. “You don't grow up emotionally or personally, even if you are very responsible in your job, if you deal with every unwelcome emotion by drowning it until it passes.” 59-year-old Sandra Dolly agrees, “Removing the drink freed me to be the real me, not just the good-time gal my drinking friends thought I was.”

Another thread, though a less uplifting one, is grief. “I became a grown-up at 6:15 this evening,” says 27-year-old MA student Rosie. “My dad is terminally ill in a hospice; he was rushed there yesterday. The moment I rang my partner (who was at my parents’ house) to tell him things weren't good was the start. Then, in the car driving home while my mum stayed overnight, I suddenly felt I was an adult in a way I haven’t before, and it feels [like] I’ll never go back.”

A week or so after we first speak Rosie’s dad passes away. She messages me: “can confirm the weird, surreal ‘grown up’ feeling has stuck around, so I’m thinking it’s permanent.” In fact, when I tweet to canvas more opinions, grief - the blistering, transformative power of it - comes up again and again. Parents, children, siblings, lovers, friends - loss can burn away what came before and, as one person who asks to remain anonymous says, “all that’s left is you, yourself, no one else - and you either live with that, or you crumble. That’s growing-up.”

“I think I’m a grown-up now,” says my mum, 52. “Though it doesn’t feel like I expected it to.” The first inklings, she explains, came aged 26 or 27. “You got ill. I wanted to cry but I realised that if I got upset, it would make things worse for you. Having to put my own feelings aside and be strong for someone else - that was the first time I felt like a grown-up.”

Having children factors into many people’s understanding of adulthood. “[I felt like an adult at] 30 when my son was born and I was regularly too knackered to play FIFA on my Xbox,” says Farhad. His X-box is still gathering dust but perhaps beyond a sense of responsibility (and beyond sleep deprivation), having children makes someone feel more like a grown-up because it forces them to become more altruistic. In April this year, researchers at the University of Oregon published the findings of a neuro-imaginging study which showed that the older we get, the more altruistic we become.

This isn’t necessarily because older people are naturally more kind, it’s because the older we get, the more likely we are to understand ourselves as part of a bigger picture. “I felt grown-up in my 50s,” says 84 year-old Joyce Williams. “I’d achieved a lot professionally, my son was grown and I felt comfortable in my own skin - but in hindsight, I don’t really think I’d matured then, those were more material achievements. Real maturity didn’t happen until I got to about 70.” It is only the ability to look back on life and see it all in perspective, “see the cycles come and go,” says Joyce, that has conferred on her the contentment and sense of peace that she expected with adulthood.

“I went through a divorce which left me a single parent and homeless - I ended up going back to live with my parents and starting all over again. Then I remarried, and within two years my husband died of cancer.These were some really difficult times - but I survived. Now, my main advice to others would be make it to 70,” she laughs, “things become a lot clearer then.”

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