Why Is Adulting So Freaking Hard These Days?

Being an adult was once something you evolved into. When did it become something to aspire to instead?

Adulting is hard. / Illustration by Tara Jacoby

I subscribe to and read a lot of magazines. This is because I enjoy magazines — the paper versions — and want them to continue to exist, so I buy as many as I can. There’s always a pile of them on the end table beside our sofa, waiting for me to get to them, peruse them, and either recycle them or pass them on to family and friends.

Over the course of a lifetime of magazine reading, I’ve started to notice something: Magazine readers are getting ­dumber (present company, of course, excepted). Take, for instance, this passage that appeared in the December edition of Real Simple — a magazine whose website says it reaches 10 million-plus online readers and 6.2 million page-turning readers each month — alongside a Holiday Gift Guide, “tricks for prettier, yummier piecrusts,” and a Gift Wrap Guide:

The hardest part of adulting on laundry day? Folding the fitted sheets. If you need a tutorial or a refresher, we have a great video that’ll turn you into a pro grown-up.

Where do I even start with this?

First off, it’s a fricking sheet. You’re sticking it inside a closet. Who gives a royal raving damn how you fold the thing? Slap it into a bundle! Fold it in half, then into quarters, and repeat! Roll it the hell up if you want to. There’s no right way or wrong way to fold your sheets. Wait, wait, you say — it’s complicated. There’s elastic on this sheet’s four corners! If I just check out that video tutorial …

No. No way. There’s no possibility that I’ll turn to a video to figure out something as — well, as real simple as folding up a sheet.

I don’t mean to put all the blame on Real Simple, whose raison d’être is, after all, making things simple. December’s issue of Woman’s Day provided these helpful instructions on how to “Pretty up some pinecones”:

Pour silver glitter into a bowl. Working on one tier at a time, brush the prongs of the pinecone with craft glue, then spoon glitter over the glued areas.

I have a question for the editors of Woman’s Day: How the fuck else would you get glitter onto pinecones? Which part of this decorative recipe wouldn’t be intuitive for a seven-year-old child? The glue? The glitter? Is the spoon some special innovation? What if I don’t put the glitter in a bowl first — does that mean I fail? Oh, and there’s a helpful photo, too! And look here — Good Housekeeping has online videos of festive napkin-folding, not to mention info on how to check the outdoor vent of your dryer:

Every so often, when the dryer is running, go outside and look at the vent. Make sure that the flaps are fully open and that warm moist air is coming out. If you see lint buildup, clear it with a brush or a broom. Also, remove leaves, nests or debris, especially from dryer exhausts on lower levels.

All righty, then.

My point is that the world used to assume a modicum of common sense on the part of its denizens. Now, it presumes idiocy. Olden-days cookbooks like Fannie Farmer would tell prospective cooks: Make a roux with butter and flour. Everybody knew how to make a roux. No one needed a special video to figure it out. Nobody had to be told not to let birds build nests in the dryer vent. As you moved from childhood into adolescence and teendom and adultery, you acquired skills.

One way you did that was by going to school. It’s hard to imagine, but back in the day, girls took “home economics” classes in which they learned to iron shirts, fry eggs and sew on buttons. Boys took “shop,” in which they built birdhouses and crafted metal napkin rings. (For a week or so every year, the genders switched places, which was always a thrill. And also an acknowledgement that even a guy might have a button fall off and not have easy access to a girlfriend or mom.) In addition, we took driver education classes, in which we were taught how to change a tire, use the turn signal and parallel park. If you’ve been on the Schuylkill Expressway lately, you know schools don’t do that anymore. They should. Parallel parking is a far more valuable skill, especially for city dwellers, than English grammar, and schools still teach that (sort of, if you ask me). And if you people don’t start using your turn signals, Honda and Ford will just stop putting them on cars to save us 50 bucks on the sticker price.

These sorts of down-to-earth classes vaporized in the mad rush to expand standardized testing so it occupies the entire school day except for recess and lunch, in order to meet arbitrary federal and state standards so that Republicans and Democrats, alternately, can claim they’re doing more for kids. And, of course, in our society’s loud insistence that everybody needs to go to college, which is at the heart of why you can’t find an electrician or a plumber anymore, which is why you wind up frantically searching for YouTube videos while the toilet overflows.

Granted, there are other arguments as to why schools don’t need to bother teaching the really important things in life anymore. Why learn long division when we’ve all got calculators in our pockets? Isn’t that the whole point of having a magic phone — that it frees us from mundane tasks like figuring the balance in our checking accounts?

Well, for one thing, if a button falls off your shirt and you don’t know how to sew it back on, much less own a needle and thread, you’ll foist that shirt off on Goodwill and buy another, which is why there are absolute mountains of discarded cheap clothes littering the deserts of Chile.

And for another, when you learn to do long division, you see the process, not just the result. You work through a problem from start to finish. You can’t rush it. That teaches patience and fortitude — lessons young people today could sorely use, if the reaction of my grandkids when they have to wait 20 whole seconds for Peacock to come on at our house is any indication.

Nowadays, though, nobody seems to care about process, or accomplishment, or building a body of knowledge. Our current heroes tend to be people who are famous for — well, for none of the above: celebs who aren’t competent, or bright, or even sentient. Americans adulate the Kardashians, the Trump kids, and all those peculiar Real Housewives, who aren’t good at anything at all. The exception, of course, is all the experts on TV who are rewiring ancient houses or baking pain au chocolat or crafting couture gowns out of used paper towels, whom you can enjoy watching from afar without so much as ever acquiring a hammer, threading a needle or heating up a pan.

But even those mavens had to start somewhere. Growing up is an ongoing process, or it should be. It used to be shaped like an inverted pyramid — you start out as a baby, knowing nothing, and gradually add accomplishments, like peeing in the toilet and using a spoon. You didn’t have the choice of intellectually cutting things off at 16 or 18 and saying, “That’s it. I know enough now. I’m all full,” and playing Fortnite for the rest of your days. Sure, you can nuke a cup of instant cheese-mac, but don’t you want to someday make it from scratch? Play the piano? Refinish an antique?

This is what the phones in our pockets have done: stymied our curiosity, substituted half-conscious busywork, kept us checking TikTok and Twitter and Instagram or picking at Wordle. They’ve switched out the quiet satisfaction of accomplishment for fleeting jolts of dopamine that signify nothing even as they throttle our attention spans.

Ten years ago, a woman named Kelly Williams Brown published a book called Adulting: How to Become a Grown-Up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps. A New York Times best-seller, it offered the sorts of advice that magazines now seem so filled with: how to mail a letter, make a friend, fix the handle on the john. And it jump-started a mini-genre: Similar titles now include Almost Adulting, Welcome to Adulting, Adulting 101, Adulting for Beginners, Adulting for Dummies, How to Adult: A Practical Guide. … By the time Brown’s second edition came out, in 2018, the number of lessons it contained had ratcheted up to 535. It really is getting harder, I guess, to become an adult.

Asked recently by a writer from New York magazine what, in retrospect, she would have included in the book if she were writing it now, Brown answered: “I would definitely have a chapter on resilience.” That’s an interesting addendum for an author whose most famous work purported to provide everything you needed to make your way in the world. But as she told the writer, Brown went through “a catastrophic breakdown of the self” in the wake of the book’s success. Those have a way of causing retrospection, I hear.

Reading about Brown reminded me of an interesting study that appeared in the January issue of the journal Social Science & Medicine, with the title “The Great Decline in Adolescent Risk Behaviors.” It noted a marked worldwide downturn in the years from 2009 to 2019 of drinking, premarital sex, tobacco and marijuana smoking — all the stuff, in other words, that my generation grew up longing desperately to do. This would seem, at first glance, to be a highly salutary achievement for society: Who isn’t in favor of keeping young people safer? But there in the fine print, the scientists who conducted the study pointed to a major factor in the decline: “decreasing unstructured face-to-face time with friends.”

Yet that’s what we once considered the teen years: a time for hanging out with buds and experimenting, trying on different personae, attempting — and failing at — everything from driving a car to having a boyfriend or girlfriend to seeing what might happen if you drank three beers. Sure, those behaviors were dangerous, and could have serious consequences. But as life is now showing us, so does never trying, much less failing, at all. A story in the Wall Street Journal late last year reported on a “surge of interest” among parents in hiring “dating coaches” for their adult children, who have become incapable of finding life partners despite all the on-screen options for helping them hook up. Apparently, we can no longer figure out how to find mates and reproduce.

That’s the other thing about trial-and-error. If you watch a video to learn how to change your watch battery, you may manage to fumble through the process. But you’re not going to learn much from the effort — and chances are you’ll have to watch the video all over again the next time that battery dies. Mastery — defined by ­Merriam-Webster as “skill or knowledge that makes one master of a ­subject” — is only acquired via sustained effort, which in turn requires that resilience Kelly Williams Brown now wishes she’d included in her guidebook to being an adult.

Then again, you say, why bother learning to sew on a button when you can hire somebody to do it for you? Not too long ago, a tailor opened a new shop in the suburb where we live. He put up a sign out front with his phone number on it, and the strict come-hither in all capital letters: TEXT ONLY. Clearly, he knows the market for his skills — and how much younger generations detest actually talking on their phones.

I’m astonished at the things my grown children are willing to pay to have other people do for them — shop for groceries, pick out clothing, mow their lawn, sharpen their knives. I would no more trust some snot-nosed Instacart kid to judge the ripeness of my tomatoes than I would allow him or her to perform brain surgery on me. Besides, how could you tell ahead of time if your house-sitter only learned to care for plants — or your dog — by watching TikTok videos?

Beneath all that, though, is the pervasive societal conviction — or, at least, the argument put forth by perfection peddlers like Marie Kondo and Sother Teague and Gordon Ramsay — that there is one right way of folding sheets, or making a margarita, or pricking a piecrust, like it’s some precious secret handed down from on high, a magic shibboleth. This conviction seems part and parcel of our current insistence that there’s one right way of thinking, or behaving, or being human. I’d rather we weren’t all reduced to that. The demand of the world today that we adhere to newfound rules, at the risk of ostracism, cancellation, public shaming, is the exact opposite of what growing up should be. It condemns you to hopping in place instead of spreading your wings.

So go on — get out there! Choose your own bananas, however ripe you want them! Lay floor tile in the kitchen! Go really wild and hang a picture or two! What’s the worst that could happen? What could possibly go wrong?

By the way: In the interests of due diligence, I did finally click on the Real Simple link to actually watch the magazine’s video of how to fold a fitted sheet. Here’s the message I got there:

Oops, We Can’t Find That Page.

It’s like the universe is listening. And unfolding sheets just the way that it should.


Published as “Grow the Heck Up Already” in the March 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.