You have heard this before. If you were lucky enough not to hear it from your parents, you were subject to a media blast. Oddly, the same people who tell you to stop fooling around and grow up are the same ones who smile softly when they hear the ultimate compliment: “I had no idea you were 40 – you look so much younger!” Or will say of someone else: “He’s so wonderful – truly young at heart.” This paradox should suggest how conflicted we are.
Excepting the mythical Peter Pan, no small child wants to stay that way. And though no one who’s past the age of 30 wants to relive the struggles they’ve finally put behind them, we persist in telling people in their twenties that it’s the best time of their lives.
What can we learn about growing up today from the great thinkers of the past like Kant or Rousseau? Because they lived at the time when coming of age first became a problem – because earlier epochs took for granted that your life would be pretty much the same as your parents’ – it is well worth taking a look at their accounts of what it means to grow up. Far from agreeing with the contemporary view of growing up as a matter of resignation – giving up your dreams of adventure and hopes for a better world – these philosophers encourage us to view growing up as a matter of independent thinking that challenges the status quo. Go ahead: ride a Harley, dress in scarlet as long as you like (this goes for both genders – men in colour, women on bikes). These are trivial choices, but they may even signal a willingness to question convention. And while that isn’t the last, it is surely the first step towards growing up.
Why Grow Up? by Susan Neiman is published by Penguin (£9.99)