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The Death Of Adulthood Isn’t All Bad

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Halloween is just around the corner, which means we can expect to see think pieces lamenting (or defending) the proliferation of “naughty” costumes popping up. (This is the yearly warm-up for the annual “war on Christmas” columns.)

At the micro level, I generally applaud the naughty nurse trend, which has become so ubiquitous as to invite parody (see the “Slutty Pumpkin” episode of How I Met Your Mother.) But when one thinks about the long-term implications on the larger society — as conservatives are wont to do — this has many implications, including the fact that Halloween has become mostly about adults. (Note: Unfortunately, some of these trends have trickled down to kids’ costumes.)

Truth be told, I can’t imagine my parents wearing Halloween costumes, much less slutty ones; the day was for kids. Today, that’s out the window. In fact, it could be that Halloween is now really for adults. And, it occurs to me, this is merely one more piece of evidence buttressing the many, many recent pieces written about “The Death of Adulthood” in places like the New York Times, Washington Post, Salon, Vulture, and, most recently, Acculturated.

Conservatives have long lamented the shirking of adult responsibility. Newt Gingrich, for example, has argued we should end the concept of adolescence, altogether. I am somewhat sympathetic to the argument that adults need to act like adults — that we must take responsibility for our actions. And I do think there are probably more people than ever who need to put away childish things. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The old days weren’t always so great. How many unhappy marriages existed because people felt they had to get married and be responsible too young? How many men accepted and held jobs they despised — for decades — because that was what was expected of them (and dreaming of anything fulfilling or purpose driven seemed silly or childish)? How many people turned to self-destructive behavior like alcoholism — as a means of repressing any emotions that might conflict with the image they were an upstanding adult?

To be sure, a functioning society needs men and women to step up and accept their roles as adults. We need mature leaders to run our nation, raise our (their) children, keep us safe from our enemies — you name it.

But conservatives should also concede that some of the most innovative and creative Americans eschewed the soul-crushing process that frequently accompanies “growing up.” Consider this about Steve Jobs:

“While Jobs abhorred going to school and almost got his curiosity ‘beaten’ out of him, he never stopped playing be it during his tenure at Apple or his stint at Pixar. Extraordinary innovators never stop playing. ‘Work hard, play hard,’ as the Wiz Khalifa tune goes. For his entire life, Jobs, unlike most human beings, was able to ‘retain a sizable portion of … [his] childhood spirit despite the pressures and demands of adulthood’ — a characteristic called psychological neoteny. Jobs never lost that childhood-like sense of wonder and burst of imagination. In his new book, Mastery, Robert Greene argues that as we mature into adulthood, ‘we no longer look at things as they are, noticing their details, or wonder why they exist. Our minds gradually lighten up.’ Childhood has become an endangered species.” [Forbes]

By tapping into his childlike qualities, Jobs preserved his creativity, and changed the world. This isn’t just for eccentric avante garde artists. We need tech entrepreneurs, innovators, and creative types in this nation; stifling them is counterproductive for all of us.

Of course, Jobs wasn’t a great person; there’s a reason we say someone is acting “childish.” So his is really an argument for balance.

We don’t want a nation of naughty nurses who postpone marriage and children — or (possibly worse) who simply prioritize partying over their kids. Nor do we need a nation of twenty-something men living in their parents’ basements playing video games. But we also shouldn’t want to prematurely force young men and women into the sterile world of “adulthood” — and everything negative that can entail.

Instead, what we should be striving for is winsomeness — the preservation of childlike charm and innocence. We must all struggle to retain this quality, even as we act like mature men and women capable of handling responsibility.