When does a girl become a woman? That may depend upon your cultural or religious persuasion. You’ll get different responses still if you ask a lawyer, an anthropologist, a biologist or Neil Diamond. (“Soon”, I believe, was his line.)
As a male not wishing to offend, I know I’m on dangerous ground here. In 1990s blockbuster movie terms, this isn’t Tom Hanks going behind enemy lines in Saving Private Ryan. This is Bruce Willis crash landing on that meteor in Armageddon. I’m on a suicide mission and I know it. So I’m going to pivot and ask a broader question. When does a young person, regardless of their gender, become an adult? I happen to be sipping coffee on my former university campus at the time of writing, killing time while waiting for a train. The students at the next table look to be in their late teens or early twenties.
By just about any of the criteria listed above (Neil Diamond excepted) these people can consider themselves of age. Yet ear-wigging on their conversation, it’s obvious that they’re not quite adults. Just listen to the way they speak. In the short time I’ve been here, they’ve discussed having the best night EVER, the most amazing croissants EVER and the evilest housemate EVER.
(Bear with me a moment, I’m going somewhere with this…)
That use of language doesn’t just reflect that age group’s inarticulateness, or propensity for hyperbole. Rather it reveals their lack of an adult frame of reference. For Rudyard Kipling, being an adult meant having the ability to meet triumph and disaster “and treat those two imposters just the same”.
Yet how can anyone do that if they haven’t previously experienced triumph or disaster? If they haven’t known better or worse nights? If they don’t know that superior and inferior croissants will almost certainly come their way in the future? And if they have not yet learned, from experience, that sharing accommodation with strangers always ends up in disaster?
Being an adult, then, isn’t just about having the legal right to buy alcohol, have sex and drive cars. Although those things are all highly recommended. Neither is it about looking pretty or being physically strong. In Hamlet, Shakespeare pays tribute to mankind thus: “In form and movement how express and admirable… In anticipation how like a god.”
It is in their ability to anticipate, to evaluate risks and rewards in advance, and act upon that information, that adults mark themselves out from children, and humankind demarcates itself from lesser species. Being an adult is about learning to make decisions for oneself, irrespective of group pressure. It’s about being financially independent and emotionally astute.
It’s about weighing the consequences of doing something more heavily than how it might feels to do that thing, even in the heat of the moment. Ultimately, being an adult is about accepting the burden of responsibility for oneself and, eventually, for others.
And if you’re a woman, it might also mean learning to appreciate that your opinions, achievements and ambitions are of infinitely greater significance than your outfit, hair style or relationship status. (Or maybe not. Maybe you’ve worked these things out long ago. Maybe you never thought them in the first place. Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. Either way, please, please, don’t hurt me!)
For the record, adults don’t arrive at this state of maturity because they are better, more selfless or more high minded than younger people. They behave this way because bitter life experience has shunted them to a place where to do otherwise would be as absurd. Like believing in Santa Claus. Or being afraid of the dark. Or quoting Neil Diamond lyrics in an article aimed at 18-35 year olds.
Oh well. For some, it’s all still ahead of us.
[Written for International Women's Day and, also, because I was broke and they asked me.]