What It Means to Be an Adult

You’re not just a kid anymore. You can’t go back in time to tell your parents you love them and that everything is going to be okay now, because it isn’t. Once upon a lifetime ago we were all children who didn’t know what life would bring us. Today, as adults with jobs and responsibilities like car payments or mortgages, there are fewer opportunities for adventure than ever before. But remember when the world was more exciting? When adventures took place on every street corner?

“What does it mean to be a grown-up?” is the question that I am asked most often. It’s not an easy question to answer, but here are some things that you’ll likely encounter as an adult. Read more in detail here: what does it mean to be a grown-up.

Men sitting in a suit illustration.

Last week, we addressed six reasons why maturity has declined in the contemporary day, and we argued that, despite the current difficulties in growing up, the world still need grownups.

In two weeks, we’ll give a case study based on Winston Churchill’s life on how to mature into a fully-fledged adult without losing your young vigor.

But, in the meanwhile, I’d like to provide a little intermission. There’s one additional impediment to maturity in the contemporary world that I contemplated include in last week’s column but opted against since it was already so lengthy and people’s attention spans are often short (for reasons we’ll discuss today!). However, I’d want to write a separate article about this notion since it’s so intriguing.

The Printing Press, Literacy, and the Establishment of an Adult Secret Society

As we discussed last time, the concept of childhood and maturity as discrete stages of life is a relatively new one. From antiquity until the Middle Ages, most civilizations did not have a notion of childhood as we know it today; children were seen as inadequate, little adults who were expected to begin working and taking their place in the adult world around the age of seven. As the two phases function as foils for each other, there was no meaningful sense of childhood without a real concept of maturity. Adults and children wore similar clothing, spoke the same language, and performed similar tasks. In an oral civilization, young and elderly had access to and comprehension of the majority of the same information. As a consequence, children in these societies resembled adults, while adults resembled children. The young and the aged were almost indistinguishable.

Childhood came to be “discovered” in the 15th and 16th centuries as a distinct period when little people need special supervision, sensitivity, and emotional investment. There are several ideas as to why this fascination with children evolved, but Neil Postman’s thesis in The Disappearance of Childhood is without a doubt the most compelling.

The printing press, according to Postman, gave birth to our present conceptions of infancy and maturity (and the chasm between them). Literacy became the dividing line between these phases of life; adults were proficient readers, whilst children were not, and they had to grasp written language in order to become adults.

Typography opened up a far wider range of information than had previously been feasible to study. Childhood in an oral culture ended at the age of seven since that was when children were able to absorb the majority of a society’s knowledge. Learning how to absorb and struggle with a huge reservoir of information required time in a literate society; a 5-year-old was not ready for the same lessons and books as a 15-year-old. As a result, although books democratized knowledge, they also created a barrier to entrance that had to be consistently overcome. The youngster was gradually introduced to the world of adults, grade after grade. By gradually “qualifying for the deeper mysteries of the written page,” boys and girls gradually learnt the “secrets” of the adult world.


What made an adult an adult was a critical awareness of the “secrets” of philosophy, religion, nature, sexuality, war, disease, and death – a “understanding of life’s mysteries, paradoxes, brutality, and tragedies” – which qualified one for participation in a type of “society of adults.” Within this fraternity, the more degrees of escalating cognitive crafts an adult learned, the more possible leadership positions he had.

Adults’ membership in the adult community gave them one of its distinguishing characteristics: authority. And it was the urge to join this brotherhood that helped toddlers acquire one of their most distinguishing characteristics: curiosity.

Children were not allowed to join the literary society until they had repeatedly knocked on its door and grasped its customs and rituals. These requirements included not just proficiency with the written word, but also the skill of self-discipline and decency. Literacy, according to Postman, not only instilled the adult capacity to think clearly and critically, but also produced the attributes required for the building of civilization:

“Almost all of the characteristics we associate with adulthood are (or were) either generated or amplified by the requirements of a fully literate culture: self-control, a tolerance for delayed gratification, a sophisticated ability to think conceptually and sequentially, a preoccupation with both historical continuity and the future, [and] a high valuation of reason and hierarchical order…

As previously said, manners or civilité did not begin to develop in refined forms among the general public until after the printing press, owing to the fact that reading required and fostered a great degree of self-control and delayed pleasure. Manners may be thought of as a social equivalent of literacy. Both need the surrender of the body to the thought. Both need a lengthy period of formative learning. Both need significant adult education. Manners produce a hierarchical social order in the same way that literacy generates a hierarchical intellectual order. Adulthood must be earned by children being educated and well-mannered.”

In other words, Postman claims that the printing press contributed to the development of a culture of self-control and politeness, both because these traits were required for excellent reading and because they were appropriate for a civilization that valued literacy. One cultivated the skills essential for self-controlled politeness by practicing one’s manners, and one honed the qualities necessary for focused study by learning. Learning the “secrets” of social connections was an important part of adult initiation, which is why etiquette books have been bestsellers for generations.

Schools were established to educate children to be “both read and well-mannered,” and this, according to Postman, is what finally resulted in different adult and child cultures. Children and adults were segregated in schools, and each developed its own language, literature (there were no “children’s novels” or “YA Lit”), dress, activities, and so on. As they were introduced into the rituals and customs of maturity, children gradually left behind the trappings of kid culture.


Is It Time to Revert to a Pre-literate Society?

Our current civilization, according to Postman, seems to have reverted to the characteristics that formerly defined pre-literate, oral societies. Adults and children are no longer as distinct as they once were; as Postman puts it, “the conduct, language, attitudes, and desires—even the physical appearance—of adults and children are becoming more identical.”

What happened to cause the lines between the various periods of life to blur?

This transition, according to Postman, is based in the abandonment of the written word in favor of a society that communicates primarily via visuals. To comprehend images, little cognitive development is required; toddlers and adults can absorb pictures and movies at about the same level. As a result, in an image-based society, everyone, regardless of age, has theoretical access to all of society’s information — all of its “secrets.” To understand them, no particular training is necessary.

The Disappearance of Childhood was released in 1982, and at the time, Postman attributed the cultural movement away from texts and toward visuals to the television. What he observed about television back then applies as well, if not more, to the Internet Age:

“We can conclude, then, that television erodes the boundary between childhood and adulthood in three ways, all of which are related to its undifferentiated accessibility: first, because it requires no instruction to grasp its form; second, because it makes no complex demands on either mind or behavior; and third, because it does not segregate its audience.” Television, with the help of other electronic, nonprint media, recreates the communication circumstances of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. We are all biologically prepared to see and comprehend pictures, as well as to hear any words that may be required to offer context for the majority of these images. The rising new media ecosystem supplies everyone with the same information at the same time. Electric media find it difficult to keep secrets under the circumstances I’ve outlined. Of course, there is no such thing as infancy without secrets.”

We would also add that without secrets, there is no such thing as maturity. For if “adulthood by definition implies riddles solved and secrets discovered,” and “children know the mysteries and secrets from the start,” how can we distinguish them different from anybody else?

The internet is a very egalitarian place, and websites aren’t usually labeled as being appropriate for certain ages. Adults and children consume similar material, visit similar websites and forums, and watch similar YouTube videos. It is an era in which “everything is for everyone,” as Postman puts it.

Is it really such a terrible thing that we’re moving toward a world where picture takes precedence over text? Perhaps it is beneficial that youngsters have instant access to all of the world’s “secrets” — that there is no barrier to knowledge other than a mouse click.


While the advantages of an open environment are undeniable, there are some drawbacks:

  • When media isn’t specifically specialized to a certain age group, it’s pitched at a seventh-grade level, if that. Everything must be simple to understand, interesting, and, most importantly, brief. People have little tolerance for in-depth study of a topic, believing that everything valuable should be able to be summed in a few phrases and that anything more is a waste of time. Of course, a seventh-grader would say something similar.
  • Turning everything into a narrative – giving everything an appealing story arc to keep childish brains engaged – is part of making media and learning attractive to the people. “Politics becomes a narrative; news becomes a story; business and religion become stories. Even science takes on a life of its own.” Of all, these difficulties seldom fit neatly into black-and-white storylines, and dividing everything into good people, evil guys, and a tension climax simplifies complexity while ignoring truths.
  • Because childlike cognition is particularly present-oriented, news and media are virtually totally focused on the present. There’s no historical background, and looking forward is tedious (unless you’re weighing up possible candidates’ personalities for a future election – now that’s a terrific tale!). Lessons from the past are unnoticed, and the responsibility of developing vital plans for the future is neglected.
  • The media delivers the news in such a way that such a judgment isn’t required. Childlike brains also have problems recognizing the various importance of different events, and the media presents the news in such a way that such a judgment isn’t essential. Every tale seems to be equally important: On the first page of a news website, tales about war appear alongside stories about celebrities’ naked photos. A somber account of a school shooting is followed by a cheery ad for cheese crackers on television. Ads are put on the same level as hard-hitting content, and all forms of media are portrayed as equally deserving of attention.
  • Because media consumers are terrified of being confronted with a wall of text, all content must be broken down into bite-sized treats to satisfy the masses’ childish desire. To make it simpler to absorb, information must be broken up into multiple headers and bullet points – exactly like these! While such technologies may make many topics more accessible (which isn’t always a bad thing), there are certain (generally essential) issues that cannot be reduced to a scannable format, and hence go unexplored and uninvestigated.
  • Finally, although children have access to all information, they do so without context and before they are equipped to comprehend it. Adults who have been exposed to the same material are also unable to provide any context. As a result, both children and adults’ knowledge bases are severely fragmented, resulting in a general inability to make connections between concepts and a landscape dominated by myopic, civilization-weakening attitudes.

The basic issue might be described as follows: in a society where “everything is for everyone,” the illusion that “everyone knows everything” arises. To put it another way, the contemporary media ecosystem makes one feel that all information exists and is freely available, and that it can and should be cheaply summarized. While the breadth of knowledge has grown (Eric Schmidt famously said that we produce as much information every two days as we did in the whole history of humanity up to 2003), the depth of knowledge has declined. Adults are no longer aware of the secret depths that lie underneath a topic that have yet to be explored.


Kids share this sentiment and do not think that adults have any “special” information to impart. As a consequence, the aura of adult authority has faded, and the concept of submitting to one’s elders seems quaint.

And, as Postman observes, the world of children has been evaporating at the same time that the society of adults has been dissolving:

“Curiosity comes naturally to the young to some degree, but its growth is dependent on a developing understanding of the potential of well-ordered inquiries to reveal secrets. Wonderment connects the worlds of the known and the unknown. However, amazement is most common in situations when the child’s world is separated from the adult world, and youngsters must seek access into the adult world via their inquiries. The mathematics of amazement shifts when media merges the two worlds and the suspense caused by mysteries to be revealed diminishes. Cynicism or, even worse, arrogance replaces curiosity. We are left with youngsters who depend on news from nowhere rather than authoritative elders. We’re left with kids who are offered answers to questions they didn’t even ask. In a nutshell, we’re without children.”

The difference between children and adults disappears in a society where “everything is for everyone” and the delusion that “everyone knows everything” reigns supreme. Except for newborns and the elderly, everyone is a “adult-child.” Parents listen to their adolescents’ music and read their children’s books while their children offer know-it-all wisecracks (see: every program on the Disney channel) (see: The Hunger Games). Grownups dress more like children, while children dress more like adults. Everyone speaks in the same language; both students and instructors are prone to use slang and vulgarity. One of the most significant consequences of the dissolution of a literate culture is the unraveling of an emphasis on manners and civility, and this collapse of distance is accelerated by one of the most significant consequences of the dissolution of a literate culture: the unraveling of an emphasis on manners and civility.

Because seeing and sharing photos and videos requires no self-control or discipline, delayed gratification and good manners are no longer suitable ancillaries to information intake as they once were in text-based civilizations. One may turn off their thoughts and let it all hang out by staring at visuals. Adult children do the same thing in their relationships with others.

In the end, these changes have resulted in the abolition of adulthood’s attractiveness. Rituals, customs, and insider information generate identity, purpose, and exclusivity, and formerly gave the hidden society of adults a mystical air. Young people awaited the day when they would be introduced into this fascinating and even glamorous world, in which individuals wore special clothing, exchanged unique information, and utilized etiquette’s hidden passwords to obtain entry to exclusive parties, dinners, and clubs.


While I find Postman’s thesis intriguing, I believe it is a little too jeremiad-y for my curmudgeonly tastes. I believe he makes the birth of literacy explain too much by attributing the complicated history of cultural change to a single element. He also dismisses the possible benefits of unrestricted access to information (even if that potential is not often utilized). However, this might be due to the fact that he lived during the Golden Age of Television, before to the internet’s development, when there was much less to be optimistic about on television.


Postman’s argument also fails to fully explain the decline of maturity, since there have always been people who were either barely or not at all literate, but who were nevertheless mature and adult-like in their view on life and conduct, especially in their manners, throughout history (and even now).

Postman’s viewpoint, on the other hand, sheds some tremendously illuminating light on one key piece of the problem. Surely, the short attention spans of all of us, the strange pride some people take in dismissing anything overly in-depth as unimportant (as evidenced by commenters on in-depth articles who use the phrase “tl;dr” – which means “too long, didn’t read” – as a dystopian badge of honor denoting their aversion to reading anything that takes more than a minute to digest), the widespread rejection of interest (and even acknowledgment) in deeper

Modern adults have a regrettable propensity to boast that, despite their age, “they have no idea what the f**k they’re doing.” They may be honest and true in this manner, and they won’t feel awful about continuing to make the same mistakes they made when they were fifteen. And that’s true: you assume you’ll have it all figured out when you grow up, only to discover that most grownups are still fighting to get their act together. However, every adult should have at least a few areas of expertise in which they can be proud of the wisdom they’ve gained through years of study and practice. Every adult should have a vault of knowledge that no Google search can ever uncover. When you’re young and puzzled, befuddled, or worried about anything, there’s nothing like being in the company of a true grownup, absorbing their soothing stability and dependable gravity, and going away with advice that provides you fresh insight into life’s major mysteries and little troubles. Not only can such encounters assist the young in their development, but they also make adulthood seem less daunting. Young people want mentors, and they require mentors who inspire them to aspire to be mentors one day.

At the same time, maybe a rebirth of adult etiquette and customs might provide more to look forward to as children grow older. We may consider old soirees and etiquette to be overly stuffy and restrictive, yet they did bring complexity to life. Many people feel unmoored and dissatisfied with life when they are just a quarter-century old because we now go from childhood to maturity in one flat, uninteresting, unvarying length of roadway.

We might slough off some of the unfortunate cynicism prevalent in both children and adults by restoring the secret society of adults, revitalizing the sense of curiosity and wonderment both camps require, imparting to the older a more satisfying way of being in the world, and lending the young a worthwhile fraternity to which to aspire.




The “adults meaning in hindi” is an individual who has reached a stage of maturity where they are able to take care of themselves and manage their own life.

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