It is difficult to know when you are an adult in our culture. It is easy to find people in their 20s and 30s wondering if they are a “real” adults, and what that even means. They don’t “feel” like an adult, and their archetypes of adulthood—parents, mentors, maybe bosses, celebrities—are moving targets. This was not the case for our ancient ancestors, and maybe all of our ancestors before the 20th century. There was a moment in your life after which you were an adult, by community decree. What you could expect from others and what others expected from you changed forever. It was this renegotiation of relationships that made you an adult, not how you felt and not even really what you did. I imagine this was in some ways terrifying but far less prolonged and anxiety provoking.

The downside of the old system, from a modern perspective, is the loss of freedom. Along with ka-chunk adulthood came a tightly prescribed life in terms of age and gender roles that most of us would find intolerable today. It’s very difficult to imagine moving back to that. And that’s the sticking point. An initiation is meaningful to the extent that it has permanent consequences, but permanent consequences tend to mean a loss of freedom that is difficult for an individual to choose.

Here are some thoughts about our various initiations into adulthood:

Turning 18 is pretty weak. On the plus side, everyone does it—it just happens to you—and it comes with privileges and responsibilities; in a sense it is a renegotiation of your relationship to the state. On the other hand, your life and personal relationships do not change, especially now that kids have unlimited access to pornography on the internet. The ritual itself, the birthday party, is barely worth mentioning.

Turning 21 is also barely worth mentioning except to say that the freedom to drink legally, while a renegotiation of a few relationships, is a step backwards from adulthood for some.

High school graduation is a little better. The ritual is easy and boring, but there is a major consequence: You can never go to high school again. This means a major renegotiation of lifestyle (in most cases) and expectations. On the downside, not everyone does it and no one considers you an adult because you did it.

College graduation is not as effective as high school graduation. It’s available to a much smaller subset. In some ways, your freedom increases—certain jobs may be open to you—but the major consequence is that you start having to pay off your debt, which you can always put off by going for another degree. If your family is rich enough to pay your way, you are shielded from all consequences.

Boot camp in some ways may be the best initiation into adulthood we have. Only a small subset do it, but it is a before-and-after ordeal and it carries major consequences, in the self-image of the initiate, in lifestyle, and in role shift between teenager and soldier.

My wedding was by far the most powerful initiation ritual I’ve experienced. It felt meaningful, carried strong role consequences, and involved the participation of most of the people who are really important to me. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to marriage, at least in a way that is supported by our culture. And it is badly timed for an adulthood ritual for some people. It took me decades of adult life, for example, to find a person who I wanted to marry and who wanted to marry me.

Self imposed ordeals can be valuable, but have limited effectiveness as an initiation into adulthood. Many young adults try to use solo travel or some other ordeal to induce a feeling of adulthood, but it doesn’t tend to work because the ordeal doesn’t carry cultural or relational consequences. They may have an increased sense of their own power and others may be impressed with their accomplishment, but without the buy-in of the family and culture, without a role shift as a consequence of undergoing the ordeal, the young adult is left with a sense that nothing has really changed.

In my first round of thinking about this, I thought maybe we could remedy the situation one individual at a time: Each young person could decide what adulthood would mean for them, design an ordeal or ritual, and invite everyone important to them to witness and support them in their new, adult roles and relationships.

After talking with a bunch of late-adolescents about this idea, though, I realized it won’t work. They either reported being completely uninterested in the idea, interested but not ready to do it, or (very rarely) already identifying as an adult and not interested in doing all that work. Once you are ready, it’s too late.

So it has to come from the culture, not from the individual. It has to be the individual participating in the culture. And unfortunately, that leaves us with just a few, mostly tepid initiation rituals, and a lot of young adults wondering when adulthood will come to them.

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