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The age-thirty milestone is a time of reckoning for many people – a number of new books contend with what it means to come of age in a world where the definition of adulthood is being challenged.

Image: Eric Fischer, Flickr (CC BY-2.0)

Image: Eric Fischer, Flickr (CC BY-2.0)

Sometimes books come along when you most need them – as indulgent as it sounds, you start to imagine that they have been written to console you or send some well-timed message, such is the serendipity of their arrival in your life. Briohny Doyle’s nonfiction debut Adult Fantasy (Scribe Publications) is one such book.

Part memoir, part cultural critique, Adult Fantasy explores Australian millennials’ shifting attitudes to maturity within an urban, middle-class context. The genesis for the book comes from an argument Doyle has with her father one Census night. At age 30, Doyle’s life resembles rather closely the one she was leading at age 20. She is still studying, casually employed, renting a room in a share house.

As she fills in the Census form, her father becomes increasingly disapproving, noting the list of supposed achievements she is unable to tick off – what sociologists refer to as the ‘five adult milestones: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child.’ She becomes defensive, then contemplative. What does this arbitrary list say about her maturity levels, she wonders, before quickly turning the question outwards.

Now 34, Doyle’s central thesis – ‘How do you structure an adult life that resists normative definition without finding yourself shut out in the cold?’ – is something I am increasingly fascinated by. It is also a topic that is becoming harder to escape. Australia’s housing and job markets are worsening, and the media’s response has been to invent a war between baby boomers and younger generations.

‘How do you structure an adult life that resists normative definition without finding yourself shut out in the cold?’

The narrative surrounding millennials, an age bracket so large (those born from the early 1980s to mid 2000s) as to be statistically meaningless, is the same old story rehashed by legacy media channels every few years. We are failing to grow up, we are selfish, narcissistic, lazy. It is all our fault, my fault. The term ‘kidult’ is the go-to insult. It’s all so boring; I never want to read an article linking house prices to avocados ever again.

As a result, I’ve chosen to tune out the discourse, as much as I can, and concentrate on my future and what it might look like. With my own ‘age-thirty deadline’, as Doyle puts it, fast approaching, I’ve felt increasingly awake to the mistakes and missed opportunities of my twenties – to the point where it has begun to occupy my thoughts and direct my choice of literature. Reading about other people’s stop-starts and dead ends would make me feel better about my own, I reasoned – maybe I’d be able to pick up a few tips of my own, and if I was lucky, feel a little less ‘shut out’. Distrusting popular psychology, I instead sought out books like Doyle’s as a kind of ‘reading cure’.

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‘My investigation is driven by memoir or writing of the self,’ Doyle says in the introduction to Adult Fantasy. ‘There you are, again and again, in the connections you make, in the kinds of books you open, in the type and structure of questions posed to others.’

Being the perfect model of the drifting millennial myself (unwed, childless, precariously waged), I can’t help but view Doyle’s book through the prism of my own small life. It’s the same jolt of recognition I felt reading the opening chapter of Emily Witt’s Future Sex, an exploration of millennials’ evolving sexual identities.

Being the perfect model of the drifting millennial myself, I can’t help but view Doyle’s book through the prism of my own small life.

At age 30, Witt imagined the trajectory of her romantic prospects, ‘like a monorail gliding to a stop… I would disembark, find myself face to face with another human being, and there we would remain in our permanent station in life: the future.’ However, like most things in life, the ride for Witt was not so smooth, and the future felt hazy and impossible to reach. ‘What do you desire?’ is the unanswered question Witt leaves her readers.

As Adult Fantasy tells us, the path for Doyle was not so straight either. Like Witt, she found herself paralysed with indecision around which direction to take. But like many people her age (my age, our age), the idea of the straight, slow moving monorail didn’t appeal.

‘I never have to do that,’ Doyle writes, while watching a television show in which a mother is torn from her bed in the middle of the night to comfort her screaming newborn. In that moment, she makes the decision not to have children; instead, she will devote her time to fostering dogs and forging close friendships. She doesn’t want to marry her long-term partner and she is perfectly happy living in separate houses.

But even in 2017, Doyle’s lifestyle is considered a bit ‘unusual’, and one she will likely have to defend for years to come. She acknowledges this, writing: ‘It’s hard to beat your own path through the scrub, and seemingly ill-advised, too, when there’s a well-lit road that runs straight past it.’ Her determination is enviable, in many ways. For a generation regularly criticised for its indecisiveness, Doyle stands resolute.

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Around the time of the book’s release, I began noticing a growing divide between those in my social orbit who were living the adult fantasy, and those who were beginning to lose faith in it. There were also those who never believed in it to begin with, and those who were actively excluded from it. But whatever sexuality, gender, race, or income bracket we fall into, we each hold within us a normative standard about how an adult should be – or rather, how an adult should want to be. Many of us fail to measure up to this ideal, but we are still happy and unhappy in our own ways.

Whatever sexuality, gender, race, or income bracket we fall into, we each hold within us a normative standard about how an adult should want to be.

I enjoy my life, but have long felt a faint metaphorical ticking, one that has been slowly getting louder. The ticking has nothing to do with fertility, but rather the fear of being left behind, of aging out of my interests and lifestyle. In Adult Fantasy, Doyle calls this the ‘cultural clock’ and no one, it seems, is immune.

Women, however, are taught to watch the clock more than men – and as my cultural clock grew louder, I started to notice a pattern in the books piling up on my bedside table. In Avalanche, Julia Leigh painfully recounts how her career, which took off during her thirties, led her to prioritise work over starting a family, resulting in a series of expensive and emotionally taxing IVF treatments during her forties. Ariel Levy tells a similar story in The Rules Do Not Apply; her decision to foreground travel and a demanding career left her lonely and grieving for her lost child by the end of her thirties. Both women went against the rules, and let time escape them. Were these books warning signs, or collective howls of grief at an unfair system that reduces women’s achievements to their reproductive capabilities? I couldn’t name any recent books by men on this topic.

Then, another book came into my life. Around the same time Adult Fantasy was attracting buzz, Griffith Review released its Generation Y-themed issue, Millennials Strike Back. One essay in particular, Michelle Law’s ‘Conversations with my sister’, spoke to my anxieties. Like Doyle’s book, Law’s essay is chatty in its tone, and thematically structured around conversations between family members.

Law describes attending a friend’s hen’s party where all the guests are either pushing prams or sipping expensive cocktails. Her freelance income precludes her from buying a lavish engagement present, and she writes about her embarrassment as her friend unwraps gifts in front of everyone. Like Doyle, her ambivalence to marriage and home ownership is counterbalanced with a deep commitment to her work and writing, which means many adult milestones remain slightly out of her financial reach. ‘By my age, my parents had two children, a thriving restaurant and a house that stretched across two blocks of land,’ she thinks, standing at the edge of the group. Even though she acknowledges it is counterproductive to make comparisons, she feels at a crossroads, between the commitments of her parents’ generation and the values of her contemporaries – values which are far from uniform and very much tied to a person’s earning potential.

[Law] feels at a crossroads, between the commitments of her parents’ generation and the values of her contemporaries.

To be clear, Law’s essay is not about failure; rather the failure to measure up to society’s expectations. When we ask, ‘what makes someone an adult?’, we are really asking, ‘what makes someone a conventional adult?’ Is it the accumulation of capital, of meaningful experiences? The ability to put a down-payment on a mortgage? Capitalism doesn’t reward domestic labour – and that’s what is it, labour. Looking after children, the elderly, the infirm, animals, is not recognised or financially compensated. If Australia is an aging population with less retirement savings moving forward, how can we afford to spend our days?

From there, the questions spiral. Is monogamy even healthy, let alone realistic? Divorce is no longer the sin it once was, but in Australia, marriage is still narrowly defined as the union of a man and a woman to the ‘exclusion of all others’. Fertility should never be assumed, nor should it be assumed that all women want to procreate. So why do we still fall back on traditional milestones of maturity and life success, and just how adaptable are our fantasies?

I am drawn to these books and writers, who tackle these issues head on – but as much as I might like a definitive answer or clear instructions on which path to go down, of course, they can’t provide it. What they can do, though, is provide a non-judgemental space to evaluate priorities away from the loud, circuitous conversations in the media. These books reassure us that young or old, we all face the same problems or needs. As Doyle notes, ‘We are never finished growing up.’

Adult Fantasy and Griffith Review 56: Millennials Strike Back are available now at Readings.

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