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A Philosopher Explains Why Growing Up Is So Hard

For Susan Neiman, growing up is "about thinking for ourselves, and this is something that we're actually too lazy and too scared to do as often as we should."

During my senior year of college, a few friends who had graduated the year before came back to campus for homecoming. As we chugged beers and watched the football game (something we didn't care about but felt like we should do for tradition's sake), a few alumni turned to me. "Don't let a single day go to waste here," they told me, "because once you graduate, it all goes to shit."

This was not the first time, nor the last time, that someone told me college would be the "best four years of my life." That everything would get worse after graduation. That adulthood was awful, and that I should cling to my last threads of youth before being pushed into the cruel "real world." In the weeks leading up to my college graduation, I was paralyzed with the horror that if these were the best years of my life, then I had surely wasted them feeling stressed and confused and hopelessly trying to figure out what I wanted out of life. If these were the best years of my life, what the fuck was my life going to be like going forward?

As it turns out, not bad at all—better, even. This was crystalized with the help of moral philosopher Susan Neiman, whose latest book, Why Grow Up? Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age, could make any would-be Peter Pan reconsider the meaning of adulthood. I knew I loved Neiman from the second page, where she refers to Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, which I had been forced to read as an undergraduate, as the "worst-written book in the history of modern philosophy."

To her credit, Neiman makes Kantian philosophy accessible throughout the book, as she uses his writings as a launching point for her own thoughts on growing up. Her book arrives at a surprising conclusion: Growing up can be the most subversive act of all.

We like to think of "growing up" as a modern phenomenon—the growing pains of first love and teenage angst and having no idea what to major in seem unique to our time—but really, the concept started in the 18th century. "Growing up became a problem in the middle of the 18th century, which was the first time people actually had the choice to become something other than what their parents were," Neiman told me over the phone. Kant and Rousseau—philosophers whom Neiman leans on heavily throughout the book—grappled with these issues intimately. "For all their differences, both Kant and Rousseau came from what we would now call 'working class' families, where it was something of a miracle that they got an education," Neiman explains. So "growing up," for them, took on a special meaning. "Really growing up is about thinking for ourselves, and this is something that we're actually too lazy and too scared to do as often as we should."

During the Enlightenment, when subversive thoughts were in themselves dangerous, thinking for yourself—and, by extension, growing up—was a dangerous, frightening thing. (Neiman noted a parallel between present-day Saudia Arabia or China, where there are similar societal restraints.) Plus, as Kant argued, governments don't want people to grow up either. "It's much harder to deal with adult mature citizens who think for themselves than it is to deal with complacent 'cows,' as he calls them, who are simply doing whatever is expected of them, and who are consuming and not asking any questions," said Neiman. "So what we have to overcome in growing up is a double problem: The one comes from the inside, and that's our own complacency, and the other comes from the outside, which is that no society that I know of really acts to encourage adulthood."

Couple this with the information-saturated world we live in—one where it's frighteningly easy to kick back and watch an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians rather than try to figure out, let alone express, our unique beliefs—and you've got a society of totally infantile adults. Which maybe explains why millennials are constantly accused of the stunted growth called "delayed adulthood."

It's true that millennials are taking longer to achieve the milestones that we associate with adulthood. We are waiting longer to get married, if we're even getting married at all. We are waiting longer to have children (though not as long as we're waiting to get married, curiously). We are more dependent on our parents, less likely to be financially independent, and seem to have "lost the map" on the road to adulthood. There has been much ink spilled about the subject, including an entire book ruminating on why young adults seem "stuck."

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In Neiman's framework, though, these milestones have nothing to do with growing up. "Growing up is not about when you get a driver's license or when you can legally drink or even when you get married or have your first child—or even when your parents die," Neiman said to me. "There are these sets of markers that people traditionally associate with adulthood, and yet, none of those are proof of 'growing up' in the sense I'm talking about, which is really being self-determined and being able to do this quite difficult balancing act between the 'is' and 'ought.'"

The "is" and the "ought" are Neiman's way of reconciling our childish idealism (how the world ought to be) and our adult pragmatism (how the world really is). If childhood is a time when we see everything as it ought to be, and teenagehood is a time when we want to rebel against and reconstruct everything we see, then adulthood—in Neiman's sense—is the ability to balance the two.

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Neiman's version of growing up isn't something that can be thrust upon you. You have to really want to grow up. One becomes an adult through experiences like education and travel, reading and learning, challenging your own beliefs. Neiman also suggests taking breaks from the internet, since for all its informational value, it's often a distraction in really growing up ("If you spend your time in cyberspace watching something besides porn and Korean rap videos, you can gain a great deal," she writes in the book, though in a later chapter, she talks about the benefits from going a whole week without the internet).

When you talk about growing up in this sense, no one is ever really "grown up"—it's a constant balancing act, a perpetual state of growing.

At the end of the book, she reflects on a conversation with a colleague, who is appalled that she is writing on the topic of growing up. "How awful," she remembers him saying. "My hero was always Peter Pan."

The mistake here is confusing "growing up" with "giving in"—one who has resigned to living a dull, complacent life, going through the conventional steps, accepting the conventional thoughts, never growing, never changing. "But in fact," Neiman tells me over the phone, "it would be much more powerful if all decided, 'We're working on growing up. We want to be self-determined adults, not children who are closing our eyes.'"

There's nothing particularly seductive about the idea of adulthood as society presents it, but in Neiman's version, growing up becomes a subversive act. Our generation's growing pains are not so different from Kant's, or Rousseau's—and like them, we too can grow up.

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