Why Grow Up?, the latest book by American philosopher and essayist Susan Neiman, begins with a slyly subversive statement: ‘Being grown up is itself an ideal.’ In Britain today, this couldn’t seem further from the truth. Today, we’re told, is the worst time to be reaching adulthood. With economic strife, rising house prices, tuition fees and widespread youth unemployment weighing on Generation Y’s pasty back, coming of age merely means coming to the realisation that debt, destitution and living with mum and dad into your thirties is your inevitable inheritance. And that’s hardly an adulthood worth having.
The question this book seeks to answer is why growing up seems such a grim prospect today. From the off, Neiman dispenses with the sort of neuroscientific apologism that we’ve become accustomed to in recent years. Within the current, fatalistic climate, adulthood has been defined down. The Science now says that adolescence stretches into your mid-twenties. But, as Neiman observes in her introduction, there’s nothing scientific about growing up. The lines between childhood, adolescence and adulthood are mutable, and have changed over time. Less than a century ago, childhood, as a time of pampered play and dependence, lasted barely a few years for the vast majority of the population. And when most young people were out of school and married by the end of their teens, adolescence – the rebellious grace period between Tonka trucks and 2.4 children – didn’t even exist.
Instead, Neiman presents adulthood as a process of coming to terms with the circumstances you find yourself in and then committing to changing them – reconciling the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’. She situates this in the history of Enlightenment thought, in which the doomy realism of Hume clashed with the rugged idealism of Rousseau. ‘It would take Kant’, Neiman writes, ‘to appreciate the fact that we must take both seriously – if we are ever to arrive at an adulthood we need not merely acquiesce in but actively claim as [our] own’.
Kant’s concept of ‘the Unconditioned’, a point at which the world makes perfect sense, is central here. In order to develop into intellectual and moral maturity we must never lose sight of the idea of perfectible society – even as we come to recognise that the world is far from perfect. This rests, Neiman argues, on a refusal to rest in teeny cynicism, to be like Trasymachus – the indignant yoof of Plato’s Republic who rejects Socrates’ concept of justice as a prop for the powerful. ‘He is convinced that he’s seen through everything. It takes a grown up to know that this doesn’t mean he’s seen it’, she writes.
There’s plenty of Trasymachuses about today. Cynicism seems to have all but displaced politics for young people, as seen in everything from dwindling voter turnout (‘they’re all just liars’) to the pseudo progressives who argue, like the young Greek, that high-minded concepts – from freedom of speech to progress itself – merely uphold existing power relations. Being political, a grown-up in that sense, is now all about pompously intoning that you know the world is shit.