Maybe adult responsibilities are what we all fear

Adult responsibilities

Adult responsibilities are a whole goddamn thing. I’m not even going to define what they are or how the concept looks. I think you got that on your own. But by way of quick personal example, my dog woke me up at 4:52am this morning. I took him out because it seemed he needed to go. (He did.) What happened then? I try to fall back asleep and do so until about 6:15am. Now I’m awake and I’m thinking of various stuff I gotta do today (Mondays are no one’s favorite day, save for some married guy in Des Moines who only gets to have sex with his wife on Mondays) and all I can think is “Man, I just want to go back to sleep.”

I don’t think I’m a normal person, but … I think that attitude to Mondays and adult responsibilities is pretty normative. And there’s a couple of reasons we need to talk about here.

Adult responsibilities: Why do make it a joke? (No. 1)

Why do we even have the term “adulting?”

If you think about it, “adulting” is just designed to make fun of the process of adult responsibilities. Right?

And why do we create words to make fun of concepts?

Usually because we fear them in some way and making light of it is easier. Humor is often used in this regard. Emojis now too!

So that’s Tier 1.

Tier 2: Adult responsibilities and work

This is what we tend to do with workplaces: choke them in process to the point that priority flies out the window. Then, allow a bunch of bellowing managers to demand headcount, use a completely-unscientific hiring process to “find the A-Players,” and ultimately bring in people with unclear job roles. (Further muddying priority.) Then we force them to collaborate with incentive structures that only benefit the top and constantly talk about the need for “innovation.” Over time, as we forget that work is mostly a quest for relevance for many, we allow people to constantly discuss how much work they have (quantity) as opposed to how well they did it (quality). This creates “The Temple Of Busy.”

The whole system at most companies is designed to make sure you never really have to make a true decision, but can still consistently re-affirm how important you are. Don’t believe me? Look at these stats on bureaucracy’s growth in enterprise companies.

So by and large, most of white-collar work systems are designed to make you think you have adult responsibilities, but in reality it’s perfectly fine to hide from them and just focus on how “insanely busy” you are.

Tier 3: You can’t skip the middle act in life

Read this.

Point is: we all go through this. We all become adults and leave the safety net. We all assume the adult responsibilities boulder (or feather, if you think you’re out there killing it). What’s different about the last generation and the next few coming up is that the traditional life path is changing a lot, whether that’s the result of disruption, automation, the Gig Economy, or whatever else. Adult responsibilities are taking on a much different context than they did even 30 years ago. Now you might have 12 jobs at once while raising a family, or an Etsy store may provide for you the way GE once did for people. Point being: it’s different.

Adults and the concept of “play”

By and large if you try to “play” after about the age of 15 in most societies, you are deemed “immature” or told you “need to grow up.” Past 22, this is even more true. Problem: adults still want to play, and we should let them embrace it.


People hear this argument and immediately say either “There is no place” or “Weekends/sexuality.” The first answer is lame. There is a place. The second answer is better, but we all know that doesn’t necessarily happen. Adult responsibilities (“Maybe Bed Bath and Beyond… not sure there’s enough time…”) overwhelm weekends and, yes, sex. We spend a lot of time at work. If you try to “play” there, what happens? HR is called. And then once a year there’s some retreat where someone does a zip-line with you. That’s supposed to be your quota for the year of play and not “Heads down hit those targets!”

See how this is a little misguided? At some level, we’re all five year-olds on the inside. We may “manage a $4B P&L” but that little boy inside still wants to come out sometimes. Maybe the process of making money is his “play” and that’s cool — some evidence for that, actually — but you could draw a straight line between “some of the problems with greed in America” and “how we force adults to behave.”

So we are inherently lazy?

Probably not. Also, that’s a much deeper question for some philosopher or someone. I’m just a halfway-not-decent blogger.

But I do think if you look at the composition of white-collar American society (at least), it feels as if we set up a lot of dialogues and structures because we’re terrified of true adult responsibilities. So we seem to find ways to acknowledge them in the least-painful ways possible.

You got any takes on adult responsibilities and how we broadly approach them?

Ted Bauer


  1. There are a lot of valuable jumping-off points for conversations here about what’s broken in the popular, conventional way many look at adulthood. I have to go kick some KPIs in the crotch this morning, so I’ll leave it at this—seems there are a lot of people for whom the maxim “live and let live” isn’t satisfactory. Within this mindset, it isn’t enough to “cultivate your own garden” as Voltaire said (if I’m remembering my freshman-year literature readings correctly), all other ways of looking at the world and living are invalid, and all must be “brought to Jesus” (I apologize for leaning heavily on the cliches, 2 hours of sleep kills original thought) to the One True Way.

    This ideology has long existed in religious circles, but I don’t think it’s limited to organized institutions of faith; prostheletyzation is an unfortunate flaw of the human condition. Speaks to your point, I think, about how we have trouble letting go of a linear, static view of adult life: rather than let people do their own thing if it helps lead them to succeed in their goals, we’re always trying to tell them how and why they’re wrong (this particularly applies to those who have positions of power raining down their “wisdom” on us lowly line-staff-peons). It’s irritating enough to be told we’re wrong about everything from religious leaders, it’s even more grating to hear it from “thought leaders” who stand to profit from making people feel like shit (I swear, if I have to see one more “5 ASSHOLE CEOS TELL YOU WHY YOU ARE A STUPID STUPID USELESS WORTHLESS PIECE OF POOP WHEN YOU INTERVIEW FOR JOBS” piece on Forbes, I actually don’t know what I’ll do, but goodness gracious those are garbage pieces of copy masquerading as business journalism).

    Cheers and have a great week, man.

  2. Wanted to add—not sure if you’re a Scharpling & Wurster fan—they’re a comedy duo that used to have a show on WFMU in New Jersey and now do an independent online radio show—anyway, they put out an album called “Rock, Rot, and Rule” about 20 years ago that made fun of list-based music journalism. Part of the joke was that it was a “definitive guide to music” when the character who created it admitted to only talking to a handful of people in his hometown about their feelings on popular music.

    In addition to being a laugh riot, I think the premise of the bit easily applies to the way most business “journalism” functions—a CEO of ONE company in ONE geographic location in ONE particular industry has ONE way of looking at things that’s inflated as gospel by some desperate hack getting paid .05 cents a word (I write that as a hack myself, but I wish some of these folks would exercise some discernment in the clients they choose to write for).

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