Jackson Doughart
articles   |   poetry   |   music   |   officiating   |   c.v.
Forever twenty-two
The case for growing up

Prince Arthur Herald, 02 December 2013

At 22, my life is going by most standards pretty smoothly. I’m formally educated, able to minimally support myself for the most part, have lots of people around to help when needed, and – most importantly – I have few real responsibilities. Literally no one’s livelihood depends on me, and my contribution to society is so minimal that if I were to disappear tomorrow, nothing would change. I am, in other words, a taker in what at the moment seems like a vast sea of giving. Unsurprisingly, I hear on a regular basis from people – ranging from fractionally older, to much older, or to somewhere in between – that they envy my current position.

What worries me is how seriously our nostalgia for young-adulthood has become. These people who envy my being 22 are a bit more than joking – we’ve really come to see the 22-year-old, with his ability to live quasi-independently, yet without much expectation for contribution, as the apogee of the good life.

Even in its benign form, I personally find excitement with youth to be very strange, but perhaps that’s because I’m not especially talented at being my age. Most of my friends appear determined to do the early-twenties thing to the fullest because, once it’s over, the time to fall into the great chasm of proper adulthood – with its responsibility for self-reliance and providing for others – will arrive. Much to the contrary, I’ve always looked forward to getting older; I figure that at 60 or 70 I’ll inevitably have read a lot more books, seen more places and events, and learned more languages, thus being far more interesting to converse with, which is really all that matters to me. The coming-of-age bit, with having to pay the bills and give something back along the way, is just par for the course.

It’s a shift in the narrative of life that has changed the cult of youth from a benign nostalgia to a strongly-influential fetish. It’s come to the point where many people hope that the real tide of adulthood can be deferred for longer and longer, and that the apex moment of post-adolescent, untethered freedom can be in some way reinvented and reproduced for all. “Coming-of-age” no longer refers to the arrival at proper adult life – the way that films have, for most of the history of popular cinema, been expected to end. Jack and Jill are lost in life but, through a series of adventurous and ultimately fortuitous circumstances, find each other and, most importantly, settle down for good.

We no longer appreciate settling down for good, which is manifested in a change in the popular coming-of-age moment. In our time, to come of age means to discover one’s “identity” after the minutia of adolescence, to learn to shotgun beer and toke up, and to assimilate oneself into the early-twenties posture of blanket non-judgmentalism. Life’s great because it’s all wins and no losses, adversity is someone-else’s problem, and our comfort requires no effort on our own part.

One manifestation of this change is the phenomenon of living alone, the subject of a recent CBC documentary called Flying Solo. It was very interesting, but what occurred to me throughout was the sense in which the “solos” featured seemed to be very much influenced by the ideal of the early-twenties life, hoping that a change in living arrangements can permanently actualize this ideal. The premise of the newly-released film Last Vegas, where four men in their sixties have a stag-party shindig with all the Vegas trimmings – the booze, the girls, the gambling – also represents what I’m talking about. Basically, it celebrates the possibility that the old guys can have one last kick at the early-twenties grail.

There are three reasons why this change should be viewed negatively. First is the chronic detachment of the individual from any sense of the general welfare. We’ve lost appreciation for the idea that by simply growing up, putting others before ourselves, and aspiring to live austerely, honourably, and honestly, we are inherently contributing to the continuation of a culture that is more important than our own interests and pleasures as individuals. In the end, someone has to take up the job of providing direction and stability in society – that’s obvious. What is less obvious is why the mass deferral of adult responsibility from the collective common person to the maternal state, who will look after us materially “from cradle to grave”, is a good thing.

Second, the fetishization of the worry-free, liberated twenty-something bastardizes what is truly valuable about young adulthood. When we send our children to colleges away from home, endow them with scholarships, and send them on trips to other countries, we understand that the environment will inevitably lead to the discovery of their independence. With that independence comes the licence to be social with one’s peers. This is not itself a bad thing; what’s problematic is that the licence is now seen as the end in itself, when it should be seen as one small piece in the development of a well-rounded and virtuous person: a citizen, whose opportunities in youth helped to positively shape the person he would become.

Third, the removal of proper adulthood contributes to mass trivialization in society. Young people are not expected to fully appreciate the difficult elements of life because so many of those elements arise from the challenges of real responsibility. Reaching that stage qualifies one’s perspective, allowing one to actually experience what is beautiful and sacred. When we dismiss adulthood, we don’t just trade in one mode of material survival for another; we also sacrifice those beautiful and sacred things that brighten the slog of belly-to-earth life.

What we’re experiencing is the backward metamorphosis of the self-reliant adult into the immature adolescent. This, perhaps more than anything else, accounts for the path toward dependence that our culture is taking. Our opinion-makers should condemn this disturbing trend, which ought to be exposed and, ultimately, reversed.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com