By Aiya Madarang


“Check it out,” a boy my age whispered to me. He pointed at the computer screen, which was currently displaying his bank account. I leaned over. Checking balance: $10.06. “I wasn’t lying,” he said, smiling.

The trope of the Broke College Student is both fabricated and based on reality. It is perpetuated by young adults everywhere, as an attempt to make sense of mixed feelings and confusing situations, simultaneously privileged and disadvantaged, angry at the world, yet ridden with constant self-pressure. Above all, the trope provides a special sense of validation: Looking at my friend’s pitiful account balance, all I could feel was an enormous sense of relief. Thank God, it’s not just me.

Teetering precariously on the rocky edge of adulthood is not easy; it feels like constantly swinging back and forth between states of being, or rather, stages of life. On Monday afternoon, you are full Adult, standing in the grocery store with your arms full of toilet paper and Windex. On Saturday night, you are Adult-Child as you stumble around the street regretting every drunken decision you made in the past hour. On Thursday morning, you are Child, eating Fruit Loops and wandering around your apartment sans pants with a facial expression that tells anyone who’ll listen: Judge me. I fucking dare you. But this chaotic back-and-forth, temporary as it’s supposed to be, seems to be stretching on for longer and longer periods of time. This rocky transitional period, once used to describe “new” adults in their early twenties, now encompasses the age group up to about 30 (though I can’t speak for anyone older than that). What is going on?

It’s obvious: Nobody knows.

Today’s coming-of-age generation, the millennials, face the daunting challenges that come with a rapidly evolving society. A 26-year-old in a different decade might have been building a career and making their way towards buying a house and getting married. A 26-year-old today is probably living with his parents and paying for his art history degree with wages from Chipotle. But to be fair, the world is different now and it’s not our fault. Millennial students face the highest tuition rates—and subsequently, the largest amounts of student debt—that this country has ever seen. Tuition for the University of California system alone has increased by over 250% in a ten-year period, with an additional 5% increase having been approved just last year. (Quite an accomplishment, really.) No more of this “working your way through school” nonsense.

After the 2008 recession, the adult world became a wildly different place. Priorities shifted. Owning a home and a car is now more of a dream than a goal, and millennials are on average marrying much later than young adults in previous generations. Instead, all we seek is financial stability. Without the roadmap to the real world that guided our parents, we are living by exactly two hard rules: Coupon the shit out of everything, and don’t let anyone else know just how little you know. The rest is trial-and-error.

So with the standards of functional adulthood scattered around in no order whatsoever, what does it mean to be all grown up in 2015?

I guess the more important question is: What does it not mean?

I know a girl in her mid-twenties who’s never worked retail. I know a guy who’s 28 and doesn’t cook for himself. No one looks down on you anymore if you move back in with your parents. (In fact, they get jealous.) For crying out loud, we’re the generation that grew up Googling medical symptoms. Look around. We’re just babies in suits.

So here’s the secret: It’s all in perception.

By that, I mean that if you’ve somehow fooled everyone into thinking you’re all grown up, then it could actually be true. On the other hand, if the people around you think you’re an immature pissbaby, you probably are. The attitude and character of a generation now has an effect on what it means to be a functioning member of the real world, simply because the new standards of adulthood are being shaped in terms of social acceptability. Not having your entire life figured out at 25, 28, 32 is suddenly okay—as long as we say it is.

Perhaps we can say that to be an adult just means to take care of yourself, do whatever works for you, and be a decent human being. And if adulthood varies on an individual basis and only means what we perceive it to mean, does that not reveal that the standards of adulthood are, and perhaps have always been, completely arbitrary?

Sometimes I like to think there are full-grown adults out there who still haven’t got it all figured out. Maybe some 45-year-old still suffers from social anxiety. Maybe some 60-year-old somewhere still doesn’t know what a mortgage is, or how to take a bus. Maybe adulthood is just this vague, made-up concept that really only depends on how well you can get along with other people.

So if you catch your 29-year-old roommate having nothing but gelato and wine for dinner for the third time in a week, give her a break. You’re in this together.

But if you are that 29-year-old roommate, we’re all judging you.