Signs of Adulthood: The Second Puberty That Is Your 20s

The Millennial Generation are redefining what it means to be an adult; this is not wholly intentional. Rather, it is largely the culmination of social and economic factors working against Millennial independence. In young adulthood, we are the best-educated generation, but student debt makes the few households we head less likely to thrive. Perhaps as a consequence of this, Millennials are less likely to marry, or are—to rephrase—more likely to delay marriage; according to one Pew study, “marriage today is more prevalent among those with higher incomes and more education.” Because we marry later or not at all, Millennial women are more likely to give birth out of wedlock, although we generally do so at later ages than women from previous generations. Denied and eschewing the milestones that defined growing up in previous decades, the Millennial Generation have been forced to develop new trends and signs of adulthood, which follow or run tandem to the experience of a second puberty in their twenties.

This second puberty in our twenties is not physical, but spiritual. It is a crucial part of Millennials’ growing-up process. During this period, we must reconcile and recognize that our signs of adulthood are not those that were present in the Gen X and Boomer crowds.

The Millennial Generation have more than intergenerational differences working against them, however. Retailers no longer focus on selling young adults officewear. Instead, fashions for the twentysomething set hearken back to early-1990s’ television and movies, to the extent that images of cartoon characters are sported by recent college graduates just as much as by elementary school students. Not only are Millennials facing socioeconomic challenges unlike any seen by previous generations, but they are largely ignorant victims of an emotionally manipulative consumer culture.

When a Millennial publicly broadcasts a childlike persona—whether in the interest of fandom or irony—she only further perpetuates the myth that she and her cohort are teenagers with voting rights. Wanting to express one’s interests and connect with those who share them is universal, but the act of doing so wreaks havoc on the Millennial Generation. Being caught between the things of one’s childhood—now conveniently resized for use by grown-ups—and the desire to embrace adulthood is one of the most common conflicts pubescent teenagers experience. Although most of them believe they have left these adolescent problems far behind, the Millennial must continue to reconcile conflicts such as these as she undergoes a second puberty in her twenties.

“I’m a thirty-year-old boy.” Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

Because the older generations’ definition of adult as an independent, mature, and self-supporting individual is not one that we may fit easily, we stall out and feel stunted. The depression that results from leaving this conflict unresolved is not foreign to any Millennials I know. It is difficult to imagine a 25-year-old having a different response to being underemployed and at the mercy of her parents’ generosity. We begin to self-identify as overgrown children; after all, how may we—who live at home and work for minimum wage or nothing because of our collective lack of experience—call ourselves adults?

Resolving this conflict need not be an impossible task, although it can be a difficult one, especially for those of us whose personal circumstances are direr. As I said before, the Millennial Generation has created its own signs of adulthood. We are not—as is commonly believed—wholly adrift, directionless, or unmotivated. Because our path to success is fundamentally different from the one followed by Generation X and the Baby Boomers, so must our process of growing-up be different as well.

The following are but a few of the signs of adulthood present in Millennials undergoing a second puberty in their twenties. The purpose here is to offer hope to those of my peers who are struggling to reconcile the generational conflict, and to educate properly those members of older generations who look down on Millennials as a lazy, entitled, and childish cohort.

Valuing Efficiency over Aesthetics

This is one of the first signs of adulthood many Millennials experience. Although it is a mantra expressed often by older generations, valuing efficiency over aesthetics is not a trait whose presence is commonly recognized in young adults. While pride in one’s belongings and appearance is not to be unappreciated, wasting precious finances or accruing debt in order to keep up the façade of wealth is a sign of reckless irresponsibility, not adulthood.

To value efficiency over aesthetics means to maintain your vehicle so that it runs smoothly in getting you from point A to point B, regardless of whether its paint is fading or its bumper is badly dented. It means wearing what you can afford, even if it is unfashionable or wearing thin. When you buy furniture that serves your purposes, regardless of whether it matches other items in your home, you’re doing this one right.

Unfortunately, this trait is often read as a lack of propriety. Western society holds in high regard status symbols: the new Mercedes, the Coach handbag, the Michael Amini bedroom suite. But if your financial situation dictates that you buy a 1985 Honda Civic from a Craigslist posting instead, then you shouldn’t waste your time in interviews for loans you can’t afford, and for which you would not be approved. Carrying a purse from Target in order to pay your bills evidences an adult’s sense of responsibility. Happily assembling IKEA furniture—or pushing your newly purchased futon down the backdoor ramp at Goodwill to load it onto a friend’s truck—is better than breeding bitterness by making a carved four-poster bed your standard.

Identifying Your Talents and Skillsets

If you haven’t done this yet, don’t worry; there are many older adults in the United States who have never found anything at which they truly excel. As a Millennial pursuing a career in today’s job market, however, you will find it incredibly difficult to rest on laurels received from a degree or part-time job. Employers in the United States want new hires to have documented evidence of their talents and experience; these are the assets you bring to an employer, and the passive fact of having assets at all is one sign of adulthood. We’ll talk a bit later about ways for Millennials to gain experience. For now, let’s focus on how you can go about identifying your talents and skillsets.

Many, if not most, university students identify very closely with their degree programs. You hear “I’m a Psychology major” much more often than “I’m studying Psychology.” The latter would be a more accurate statement, because your degree does not define you. It will help you identify many areas of expertise, but you will often need to dig a little deeper to find your real assets.

The best way to identify your talents and skillsets is to brainstorm. If you have been to college, write down your degree, focus, and cognate or minor. If you have work experience, include your job duties, not titles, and be sure to note how much experience you have in each area. Now, think about what exactly you had to do for each of the points you have listed.

How much did these experiences require you to work with Microsoft Office? How fast can you type? Did you ever train anyone? Tutor anyone? Learn to meet deadlines? Compile or file items in some sort of order? Write down any positive answers to these questions, then expand those answers into a bullet-point for your professional résumé. You can group the data you have collected on yourself in any logical way, and you may be able to split one item up into multiple points.

Look at the list when you think you are finished, and brainstorm for more talents. After every relevant life event, pull your résumé out and see if you can add new skills to it. The process of growing up is ongoing, and the second puberty of your twenties might not be your last, so be sure you’re making the most of new learning experiences.

Embracing Changes and New Information

I’m an English major, and “My name is Legion, for we are many.” Seriously, there are far too many of us to count. English majors are the kids in high school who loved books and writing. Most of us enter university with aspirations of becoming creative writers and teachers. Oftentimes, we leave with more questions than answers. Can I be a reporter without a journalism degree? Do I need to go to grad school? What does a copywriter do? Thankfully, the Internet Gods have had mercy on us in recent years; Dear English Major, and websites like it, now exist to help us visualize our career possibilities and potential. Although these resources are available to us, the fact remains the same: at some point during our time in university, our trajectories have changed.

There is something to be said for keeping your dreams close and reaching for the stars, but there is something more to be said for facing and dealing proactively with the realities of today’s job market. One of the signs of adulthood is to be able to react positively when you feel the need to make new plans and set new goals. Rather than subsisting in denial, adults do all they can to stay competitive. Most of the strategies for doing this are simple, although some may be time-consuming. Reading trade publications takes up very little time and keeps you well-versed in all the new ideas and theories circulating in your field. Learning a new language takes more time, but being bilingual—or trilingual, or a polyglot—looks fantastic on your résumé.

The best part is that if you have already identified your talents and skillsets, it doesn’t take much to discover where your weaknesses lie. Once you have identified the gaps in your education and work histories, it is not difficult at all to take proactive steps toward rounding out your skillsets and securing more and better job offers.

Working for Experience Instead of Pay

If you are going through the process of identifying your strengths and weaknesses in today’s job market, you may find that you have years of experience in some areas—working with particular software suites, for instance—but cannot include it on a résumé because you have not used it in a professional or volunteer setting. Just saying “I have X years of experience working with Y” is not enough for potential employers, who need documented evidence. Yes, it is unfair to require that you pursue training for an field in which you are already qualified to work. But one of the signs of adulthood is knowing that life is systematically unfair, and that you need to play by its rules in order to succeed.

Entry level positions are hard to come by. With the US economy still in recovery, many workers have found themselves stuck in the same positions for years. For the few spots that do open up, your competition from other, similarly-qualified candidates will be fierce. In order to stay ahead of the game, you’ll realize, you need to add experience to your résumé through any available means. Although compensated employment is a great way to tack on those important bullet-points, employers are much more likely to take a chance on you as a dark horse if they don’t have to pay you for your work.

Applying for an unpaid internship—especially if she has already completed her degree—can present one of the most difficult conflicts for a Millennial to reconcile when she undergoes the second puberty that is her twenties; for those whose circumstances make accepting an unpaid position impossible, similar situations arise when they must choose between working at minimum wage or not at all. In both instances, the job seekers are overqualified and underexperienced. If anyone tries to make you feel foolish for accepting an internship or minimum wage job, you can and should argue that your willingness to take such a position, one which offers you more value in earned experience than monetary compensation, is a sign of adulthood. While working for little or no pay is often thankless, remember that the refusal to stoop to that level is a symptom of immature self-importance.

Applying Lessons to Varied Situations

Part of the process of growing up is learning strategies to cope with life’s challenges. Failing to adapt to new situations causes us to fall behind and delay achieving our goals. Being able to take charge and confront problems head-on is one of the signs of adulthood. While it is unreasonable to expect that you will handle every heavy blow in life with absolute grace, you can master new trials by remembering your old ones. What do I mean by this? I could write an entire post unpacking just this one point, but I’ll be brief in my explanation here.

If you figure out that you need two cups of coffee to help you make it through a three-hour lab course that begins at eight in the morning, would you only drink one cup before starting your nine-hour shift at the same time of day? Of course not, because you’ve learned how your mind and body operate early in the day. The situations are different, but the rules remain the same. Although the strategy is fairly clear-cut in the college vs. work scenario above, by applying previously-learned lessons to varied—even unconnected—situations, you can shorten the time you spend dealing with new problems as they arise. And if you can deal with challenges more swiftly and sanely, your stress levels will lower, while your periods of free time grow longer.

Getting a leg-up on your competition is an added bonus to quick and proactive reactions to stressors. If you can navigate and balance a heavy workload and other life events with ease, you can complete good work faster than your peers. This presents you as a more reliable candidate for job opportunities and promotions, any of which can lead directly to an escape from the second puberty of your twenties.

Controlling What You Can, Letting Go of What You Can’t

Knowing your capabilities and limitations is one of the primary signs of adulthood, recognized across all generations. A child believes that he or she can fly; an adult buys a plane ticket. Although much of the control it vs. let it go dichotomy seems self-explanatory, it is important to remember that humans are natural control-freaks; there have been entire tomes dedicated to the subject of our desire to control the environments in which we live.

Let me use one of the aforementioned obvious examples. I can control the maintenance of my automobile, to a point. I fuel up, get regular fluid changes, and put air in the tires. But if my car needs a new fuel pump, I cannot handle the problem myself. I hire someone else to do the job, since it is much easier for me to make an appointment with a mechanic than to learn how to perform an automotive organ transplant. I would waste time and energy trying to take full mechanical responsibility for my vehicle.

In the same way, accepting and subsequently failing at a job whose duties I am unable to perform is worse than admitting my limitations to a prospective employer. Although identifying and attempting to compensate for our weaknesses is part of the process of growing up, refusing to acknowledge them is unhealthy. You absolutely should advertise your best assets to potential employers, but it is unwise to pretend that you are a superhero. Being man or woman enough to say no to things that are beyond your power to do is one of the most important signs of adulthood.

The second puberty many Millennials experience in their twenties can bring about just as many self-esteem issues as adolescence. Having a poor self-image may cause you to actively ignore evidence of your own adulthood, because it catches you up in a vicious downward spiral that denies you any positive feelings toward yourself. Whether or not any of us truly feel like actual adults, by working to cultivate these signs of adulthood in our lives, we can fake it ’til we make it.

Are you a Millennial searching for signs of adulthood in your life? What is your take on the second puberty of your twenties? Let me know about your personal process of growing up in the comments!