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Why Grow Up

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Growing up is something we all do. It is harder than you think. The forces that shape our world have as much interest in real grown ups as they did 200 years ago when Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant first wrote about the subject. Now, as in his day, children make more compliant subjects and consumers.

In pointing this out Kant was careful to list the ways in which we collude in our own immaturity. Thinking for yourself is less comfortable than letting someone do it for you. 

Kant was writing two century’s ago in a different world than ours. Yet the structure of problem was already apparent. What has changed is the means of keeping us in states of immaturity. They are more subtle than they were in his day.

 

Mixed Messages

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We’re besieged by mixed messages. Half of them urge us to get serious, stop dreaming and accept the world as it is. They promote a picture of adulthood as giving in to the status quo. Of accepting the way the world is. 

The other half blasts us with products and suggestions that act to keep us young. What we rarely receive is a picture of adulthood that represents it as the ideal it should be.

Those whose interests lie in the world remaining no better than it is now may not plan this dismal vision of maturity. But it serves those interests well. What better way to keep people longing for childhood than to paint a picture of adulthood no right minded soul could ever want?

Few people under thirty want to hear they look younger than their years. They want nothing more than the perception of being older. That is, mature, competent, self-determined, powerful. 

Those over thirty, if told the same thing have a different reaction. They usually feel a tinge of something between pride and relief. Wanting to look older is only something young people do. Being forever youthful is what we now want.

All this suggests we can only be attractive when we appear to be something other than what we are. The result is shame in aging and a profusion of jokes about senior moments. That we are over the hill. That it is all downhill from now on. 

 

Evidence?

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One would think this is a view backed up with evidence, however, it is not. Research shows that people are happier as they get older. Across the world and across cultures and regardless of social economic standing. And that’s despite the fact that aging brings loss, most painfully the loss of other people.

Cynics can take this as a result of diminished expectations. We become happier because we become happier with less. There may be elements of this, but the results suggest otherwise.

One study concluded older people learn to manage emotion better. Another argued that older people have reduced memory for negative images. These reports on aging also report a good deal of growth. Seventy five year olds who retort that they’ve only grown better – and happier  – as they’ve aged. At eighty they’re just as engaged in becoming the person they want to be. Life was full of new meaning that wasn’t known before.

 

No best

No best

Growing up means realising that no time of one’s life is best. It is about resolving to savour every second of joy each season contains. You know each will pass and you no longer experience that as betrayal.

Those between eighteen and thirty are told that they are living the best years of their lives, though it’s often the time that is the hardest. And it is getting harder as life structures and economic stability dissolve. But rather than being encouraged to react to the complex doubt and struggle of those years by determining to grow out of them, the young only hear that no grown up state will be better.

‘Enjoy the best years of your lives’ sounds cheery, but it contains an ominous message: everything else will be worse.

A web of interests supports this picture of growing up as inevitable decline. All operate against our coming of age. The tragedy is the way we collude in it. The way we seek confirmation for this view even where it cannot be found.  

The best years of your life were not when you were young. Hopeful they are ahead of you.

Why Grow up

This Essay draws on work by the philosopher Susan Neiman, particularly her book Why Grow Up: Subversive thoughts for an infantile age. If you’re interested in learning more click here.

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