Culture At Large

I don't wanna grow up! Thoughts on "grown-up children"

Andy Rau

There's a piece in the New York Magazine this month about the growing trend of adults who don't want to "grow up". The article labels them "grups" (a contraction of "grown-ups," taken from a Star Trek episode) and describes the breakdown of the "generation gap," that vast gulf that separates, in our society's view, adolescents from adults:

This is an obituary for the generation gap. It is a story about 40-year-old men and women who look, talk, act, and dress like people who are 22 years old. It’s not about a fad but about a phenomenon that looks to be permanent. It’s about the hedge-fund guy in Park Slope with the chunky square glasses, brown rock T-shirt, slight paunch, expensive jeans, Puma sneakers, and shoulder-slung messenger bag, with two kids squirming over his lap like itchy chimps at the Tea Lounge on Sunday morning. It’s about the mom in the low-slung Sevens and ankle boots and vaguely Berlin-art-scene blouse with the $800 stroller and the TV-screen-size Olsen-twins sunglasses perched on her head walking through Bryant Park listening to Death Cab for Cutie on her Nano.

The "grups" described here are adults who have chosen not to abandon the "childish things" of their youth as they age; they hold on to the music, fashions, lifestyles, and work ethics that one is generally expected to jettision with age in favor of more mature, "adult" values.

What to make of this trend? The article is describing an artsy and seemingly wealthy New York subculture, so it's difficult to know exactly how widespread the trend is. Yet I don't think it's hard to discern that many of the attitudes and lifestyles associated with youth are sticking with us longer and longer into adulthood. I see it in my own life--I'm not sure if I qualify as a "grup," but I certainly share some of these attitudes and interests.

I suspect the default response by Christians to this phenomenon is condemnation, both of these "grups" and of a society that encourages adults to put off social responsibility as long as possible. In general, I'll agree; what disturbs me the most about the "grups" subculture is the sense that so much of our lives--adolescent and adult--is based around shallow materialism. Reading the article, I see too many people defining themselves by the music they listen to, the clothes they wear, and the trends they adopt, rather than defining themselves by actual personal ideas, values, or religious beliefs. (The religious life of "grups" goes largely unmentioned here, perhaps either because it's close to nonexistent or because this article simply didn't explore that side of their lives.)

But I'm not unsympathetic to the plight of "grups," either. As the article points out, the type of adulthood against which they're rebelling doesn't always sound very appealing:

Which brings me back to my father: the one who wore suits, not jeans; the one who, when he was my age, already had four kids; the one who logged a lifetime at exactly the kind of middle-management jobs that no one wakes up excited about going to in the morning, and who then found himself sandbagged by the late-eighties recession, laid off in what must have felt like the worst kind of double whammy. All the adult trade-offs he’d made turned out to be a brutal bait-and-switch. Is it any wonder that the Grups have looked at that brand of adulthood and said, “No thanks, you can keep your carrot and your stick.” Especially once we saw just how easily that stick can be turned around to whap your ass as you’re ushered out the door, suit and all. Just how easily a bona fide, by-the-book adult can be made to wonder where it all went wrong, and why you ever bothered to grow up in the first place.

The author has a definite point. None of the lifestlye choices permitted to us by our fallen world hold out any guarantee of spiritual fulfillment. If we define adulthood and maturity by the standards of our society alone--if we take only the choices offered to us by our materialist culture--we'll end up either as listless "grups" or slaves to the proverbial rat-race.

And that's where I think the church can offer an answer. Christ offers us true maturity--one that isn't measured by age or musical preferences or a stable job. How exactly the church can make that message relevant to "grups" is a challenge to which I don't have the answer. But I hope that Christians will see in this phenomenon not just something to criticize, but an opportunity to show people a genuinely better way to live and define themselves. If we're going to ask "grups" to grow up, let's make sure that the maturity we point to is not just "adulthood" as defined by our broken world, but rather spiritual freedom as revealed in the Gospel of Christ.

(Hat tip: Al Mohler, who also shares some comments.)

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, Social Trends