On the social contract of entrance into adulthood

The popular ideological notion of “growing up,” as an account of the transition from youth to adulthood, is the reverse of the truth. We say that the young person is naïve and silly, and that the process of growing into adulthood entails setting aside the immature unboundedness of youth and generally “settling down” morally (into the sturdiness of lifelong conviction), politically (into the conservation of order), socially (into the duties of family life), and economically (into a stable and respectable occupation and work ethic). Of course, this is understood as progression, from an uneducated and unrealistic dreamworld to a strong, noble reckoning with the facts of life.

But, in reality, the movement from the energetic and yearning dreamworld of youth to the bitter settledness of adulthood is certainly regression. Literally: organic decay. “Settling down” implies not only the complacency of taking a rest, of giving up one’s youthful ideals, but a “settling” of one’s debt with the universe. The energy that sustains one through youth, an energy borrowed from the universe in the form of food, drink, societal support, etc., must be paid back at some point; one could take it all and run with it but this is strictly discouraged by elders through a variety of means.

In fact, most of the privileges accorded to a proper “adulthood” are only accorded to those older children who will once and for all commit to abandoning the truths of their youth. In this sense, the “social contract” is not as abstract and mythical as we often imagine: it is “signed” by the youth who commits to what society calls adulthood.

Because the planet is naturally dominated by those who are closer to death than birth, a great deal of ideological resources are funneled into squelching youthful vitality at the earliest possible stage. Our notion of growing up, which reverses the true nature of the movement from youth to death, is only one small but stunning example of how conservatives (conservators, really) tame revolutionary forces of creative energy.

We must maintain the energy, playfulness, and incredulity of youth all the way into our adulthood, where, betraying our contract with a wretched civilization, we will combine the innocent destructiveness of incredulous energy with the properly adult maturity of autonomous self-discipline. In other words, we must learn how to craft lives which can, in their course, follow through on the truths of youth. All of the advanced knowledge-powers, all of the tacit and acquired skills of “serious” social role-playing, and much of the esteem and respect accorded by adults to adults, are typically granted only to those who sign the social contract by abandoning the zealous incredulity of youth. But our social relations today are so flimsy and shallow—composed primarily of job interviews, bank loan applications, and internet memes—that this implicit contract is easily cheated. Indeed, the future will belong to these cheaters of the status quo, we noble cheaters.

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Murphy, Justin. 2012. "On the social contract of entrance into adulthood," https://jmrphy.net/blog/2012/08/04/becoming-adult/ (December 14, 2018).