Sometimes it feels like high school is all about counting down the days until you’re an adult. You can cook your own dinner, take care of money, go places by yourself…what’s holding you back, other than some arbitrary law that says you’re still a kid? Why aren’t you FREE?
But adulthood isn’t that clear-cut. I’m in my 20s, and every day my friends make Facebook posts like “Doing taxes while drinking chocolate milk. Is this adulthood?” It’s not like when you turn 18 you get a certificate that says: “[Your name here] is now a bona fide grownup with all the benefits and responsibilities that title implies. Congratulations, you are now FREE.” So what makes you really, and officially, finally, an ADULT? Some options:
Turning 18—the age when, in the U.S., you get to vote and enlist in the military and stop asking your parents’ permission for everything—doesn’t do much of anything, honestly. Sure, I got a nice gift or two from my family—I think that year it was a new cell phone. My birthday is in November, so I still had basically a whole year of high school to go before REAL freedom. I didn’t even take my parents off my bank account—in fact I still haven’t (I just opened up a second account when I moved out of state five years later). I was still driving my parents’ car, living in their house…the only difference was that I didn’t need their permission go home sick from school and I could buy my own Sudafed at the pharmacy. It was a non-event.
Adulthood comes in stages, really. It sneaks up on you. There are these little milestones you don’t even notice—you start doing more of your own shopping and banking, setting your own schedule, that sort of thing—and big milestones you look forward to. Like driving.
I remember the first time I rode in a car without any “adults.” My older friend had just gotten her driver’s license, and she stopped me in the school parking lot to ask, “Do you want a ride home?”
YES. Yes, I wanted a ride home. I got in the passenger’s side, casually, like I did this every day, and we drove off, just two responsible grownups out for a drive. It wasn’t until we were on the road that she told me that her blinkers were out. We drove the whole way home without signaling. Like responsible grownups do.
I survived that drive, and many more with other teenage drivers—including one backing into a ditch, one going the wrong direction on a highway, and one who rushed through traffic like she was trying to win at Mario Kart.
Getting your driver’s license is definitely a big step toward adulthood. You have freedom. Finally you don’t have to rely on your parents or friends to cart you around everywhere. You can make plans at the last minute. You can go wherever you want.
But you’ve got all these responsibilities. You’ve got to keep the car working and filled with gas, and not run into things and cause really expensive damage (and, like, not hurt anyone). Also, now you’ve got to go to the store or chauffer your siblings around, in addition to whatever you already do at home.
You’re probably also going to have to pay for that gas, which leads to our next milestone:
Getting a Job
High school is the only time when no matter what job you have, it’s cool. It’s cool to work in a store, because now all your friends can shop there and visit you. It’s cool to work at a restaurant, because all your friends can eat and visit you. And if you work someplace offbeat, like a bowling alley or a website, you’re SUPER COOL. I didn’t work for Rookie as a teen, but I did some work for my local newspaper, and I was SO PROUD of my grownup job. Even mowing grass or shoveling driveways is cool, because you’re an entrepreneur and you probably started earning real money way before all your friends.
But as soon as you get a job, you’ll see the downsides. You’ll have less free time. Your boss might suck. And while you’re showing up every day with a rosy glow because you love having a real job and being treated like an adult, you’re working beside some bad-tempered older person who HATES being there but has to feed her children somehow. And that’s when you get that first tinge of fear that adulthood might not be the nirvana you’re hoping for. Sure, working is fun now, but you can quit with little to no repercussions. You’re in school, and that’s your real job. But in a few years, this thing you’re doing on the side could be your full-time job, and it’s not going to be as much fun.
I didn’t get my first “normal” job until after graduating from college. No one was hiring because of a recession, so I ended up working as a cashier. At first, it was really exciting. I had a uniform and a nametag, and when I walked into the store I belonged there, unlike all those other people who were just there to buy things. I had POWER. And best of all, I could tell people I had a job, which felt really great after spending several months sitting in my childhood bedroom counting down the days until the student-loan people started coming for my blood.
Working was really fun and interesting at first. But after a while, it grated on me. I couldn’t imagine spending the rest of my life not knowing what my schedule would be week to week, annoying innocent customers with store credit-card offers, and basically SELLING MY SOUL TO CORPORATE AMERICA. But that’s what adulthood is to so many people. Just trying to earn money to pay the bills and feed their families. I was lucky, and I ended up getting my dream internship six months after starting work as a cashier, and now I’m working in the field I wanted to be in. But I’ll never forget what it was like to be in a job that felt so wrong for me.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t enjoy your first job. You should have fun, but you should also use it as a learning experience. Can you see yourself doing this for the rest of your life? If the answer is yes, you’re lucky. You’ve got a head start! But if not, congratulations, you have a sneak peek into adulthood at the perfect time to start making choices about your future career. Enjoy your job, but also enjoy the fact that you won’t have to be there forever.
So if it’s not turning 18, driving, or working, what makes someone an adult? Graduating high school, right?
Graduation is the end of life as you’ve known it. High school is no longer your job. Your classmates will no longer be central to your life. You’re free to move out, take a full-time job or go to college. And if you are one of those people who move out and start working right away, awesome: you probably do feel like an adult. But you’re going to freak out those of us who went the college route instead, because college is not adulthood. It’s limbo.
I could write a whole article about how college is like high school without parents, or you could just watch any fraternity/sorority movie and get the same message. When you’re in college, you slowly take on more responsibilities, but you get to ease into them. With the right circumstances, you could survive four years living in college housing, eating in the dining hall, and never working. It’s a taste of the real world without living in it. And that’s how, even as a freshly minted college grad, I still felt like I was way too young to get married or start a family and got freaked out every time one of my high school peers took those leaps. True story: A guy from my graduating class went through my line once while I was a cashier, and the girl he was with was carrying an adorable baby. When I found out they were his wife and son, I actually said, OUT LOUD, “That’s so weird!” And then I had to apologize and explain that I was socially stunted and he really did have a lovely not-weird-at-all family.
Because I still don’t feel like an adult. I feel like I’m play-acting every time I make my own doctor’s appointments or do my taxes or consider my 401K (I mean, RETIREMENT? How am I old enough for this?). To people younger than me, I am a grownup. And to people older than me, I will always be a kid. I used to laugh when my mother called 20-something people “kids.” And now I do it. Adulthood is a series of stages. It’s about learning to survive on your own, to handle your own challenges.
But it’s also about making your own rules, which is what you’re really waiting for, right? Someday you’ll be living on your own, sitting on the sofa at midnight thinking, I could really go for a pizza right now. And there will be no one to tell you that you can’t order a pizza at midnight—except for maybe the pizza place, but then this is a great moment to experiment in the kitchen with English muffins, marinara sauce, and cheese. BECAUSE YOU’RE AN ADULT, AND YOU DO WHAT YOU WANT.
Don’t worry, you’ll get there. But until then, take my grumpy grown-up advice and enjoy being a teenager. Your parents still pay for you and cook for you, which rules, and you can still sneak a midnight pizza if you’re extra quiet. ♦