Adulting in Middle Age

Why millennials don’t grow up.

A couple of millennials ride Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Magic Kingdom Park on March 12, 2016, in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. (Chloe Rice / Disney Parks via Getty Images)

When I’m lyin’ in my bed at night

I don’t wanna grow up

Nothin’ ever seems to turn out right

I don’t wanna grow up

How do you move in a world of fog

That’s always changing things

Makes me wish that I could be a dog

— Tom Waits, “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” 1992

No one is quite sure who reads Teen Vogue, and these things are hard to confirm.

The media class certainly reads it, or at least that’s what they claim. Gen X writers from the Financial Times applaud their “kick-ass” news coverage. Even this publication praised the outlet, which includes such serious-minded reporting as “Teens Officially Read Way More Than Adults Do, So There” (well, yeah, they’re in school) and “Makeup Tips for Girls with Glasses and Freckles” (which is not, as I had hoped, the single sentence “Put the makeup on your face”). The latter piece is replete with product placement, including a $700 pair of vintage Cardin spectacles, but this has not shaken the faith of lefty writers that a decidedly woke shift in editorial direction represents a serious or at least positive trend in publishing for young readers — and, sure, maybe a few of their zoomer-curious elders.

Five years ago, conservative news outlet the Washington Examiner cited data from digital analytics company Comscore, which reported 8,341,000 unique visitors to Teen Vogue’s website in May 2017. The “Trump Bump” was certainly good to them, with online readership tripling in 2016 after they started pumping socially progressive and political soapboxing content to their roster, followed by a steep plummet to 4,476,000 one year later. More compelling, however, was the reader age demographics:

Most damningly, just 1.7 percent of their May 2018 audience was 17 or younger. Only 2.6 percent were 18 to 24 years old. At the absolute most generous estimate, in Teen Vogue’s digital audience — the only audience they still have after they shelved their print edition with a final copy featuring Hillary Clinton on the cover — 1 in 20 readers is an actual teenager.

Always consider the source and its agenda, of course. A right-wing publication like the Examiner has a vested interest in debunking Teen Vogue’s relevance (the alarmist angle that woke media is corrupting the youth is pretty standard, too, if a little played out), so it’s worth looking at Teen Vogue’s numbers as a counterbalance, their own motives notwithstanding. Unfortunately, Teen Vogue could not be reached for comment, and their 2023 press kit merely highlights their 4.3 million average unique views, with 54 percent of those clicks from people “under 35.” (Of course, nearly half of everyone is under thirty-five.) In 2017, a few months before the Examiner article, the former editor in chief Elaine Welteroth described the age group eighteen to twenty-four as “their sweet spot” — but “sweet spot” doesn’t indicate actual readership; it could just refer to their target audience. And, yes, only a third of those aged eighteen to twenty-four are actual teenagers.

Criticisms of Teen Vogue don’t come exclusively from the Right. Clio Chang of the Columbia Journalism Review described the magazine’s portrayal of girls as “frequently flattened into either Greta Thunberg–like saviors or overly woke children who need to be saved.” And Chang zeroes in on what the Examiner misses: Teen Vogue’s editorial remit is not about reaching out to girls so much as portraying a parody of them, documentary-like, to their curious, envious elders.

While the exact numbers are disputable, one thing is certainly clear: far more adults — mostly millennials, in fact, even as we drift into middle age — are reading the teen magazine touting itself as “the young person’s guide to conquering (and saving) the world” than teens.

It would be tempting to pin this on an infantilizing women’s mediascape, but men, too, are drinking deep of the teen (the latest numbers show that 30 percent of Teen Vogue‘s readership are men, and it’s not clear if the publisher’s insistence that their readership is “genderless” is a nod to gender diversity or to queer politics). There also exists an adult teen counterpart that Brad Troemel calls “Funko Masculinity,” named for the nonthreatening, toy-collecting man-children who curate their tastes not merely through building model airplanes or hand-painting Dungeons & Dragons action figures of yore (at least those are DIY projects) but through the already fully finished, CalArts-reminiscent, hyper-neotenous bobbleheads (that don’t even bobble) from a publicly traded company valued at $600 million in 2020.

This is the generation now entering middle age in America, and while they have thoroughly memed the apparently insurmountable daily task of “adulting,” they’re the ones who are reading Teen Vogue. They collect toys. They go to Disney World, unaccompanied by a minor, often alone, and on purpose. Troemel also notes that art galleries are morphing into adult playgrounds, where swing sets and ball pits are billed as “installation pieces.” They read young adult fiction (rebranded as NA, or “new adult,” to maintain some semblance of plausible deniability), watch YA movies and TV, and are dutiful completists of every all-ages franchise they’re sold, from Pixar to Marvel. They need a nap, and a treat, and time to scroll through a million instructional “adulting” videos that teach them how to poach an egg or fold their clothes, not to mention the ’90s kids nostalgia memes and posts to remind them of a past they may very well remember fondly — even a bit wistfully — but should have long outgrown.

Someday, my baby, when I am a man

And others have taught me the best that they can

They’ll sell me a suit and cut off my hair

And send me to work in tall buildings

— John Hartford, “In Tall Buildings,” 1971

Lest I unfairly lay the blame solely on my peers of the “net generation” (possibly the worst and therefore most underused of our neologistic monikers), a distinct progressive middle-class youth culture with an aversion to adulthood started well before we started buying coloring books with our own wages. The “turn on, tune in, drop out” New Left is largely responsible for the modern cult of youth, from the Youth International Party, aka “the Yippies” (which was, ironically, informally led by an already thirty-one-year-old Abbie Hoffman), to Berkeley’s 1964–65 Free Speech Movement and environmental activist Jack Weinberg’s famous dictum of the era, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” Of course, as a newly minted consumer demographic, flush with purchasing power from a postwar economy, capital was all too happy to flatter their new sense of identity as a Young Person (“I’d like to buy the world a Coke” — indeed, as long as everyone in the commercial is between the ages of seventeen and thirty-two, and incredibly hot). Thus the cultural — and, more importantly, political — fetish for youth was born.

Lest I unfairly lay the blame on the hippies, they could be forgiven for assuming everything from the Vietnam War to Jim Crow was simply the symptom of an ossified mind. The halls of power, now suddenly so visible via the television revolution, were all headed up by people much older than them. Staring at these graying men holding court in political, cultural, and economic institutions, we can forgive the young boomers for their certainty that they’d never be like their parents (no way, man!). To cut them a little more slack, their parents came from the broadly traumatized “Silent” or “Greatest” generations, and to cut them some slack, the PTSD of two world wars and an economic depression didn’t exactly make for a happy, well-adjusted adulthood. One of the biggest reasons generational politics are such a dead end? If you were from theirs, you’d most likely be one of them too.

It’s nobody’s “fault,” exactly, that prolonging childhood somehow became a cultural norm or even a goal — it’s just an evolving series of rational responses to material and political conditions. For boomers, things were pretty good: when The Who sang “I hope I die before I get old” in 1965’s “My Generation,” the band members’ ages ranged from nineteen to twenty-one. But by 1971, a decidedly more gentle and acoustic thirty-four-year-old John Hartford was imagining the bittersweetness of an office job as a “goodbye to the sunshine, goodbye to the dew, goodbye to flowers, and goodbye to you.” The last boomer sentiments of resisting adulthood were already burning off by this time, even in the counterculture — and rightfully so, as they would see after the 2008 financial crash, when their own children would have killed to be “going to work in tall buildings.”

Most of the New Left came to terms with the fact that affluent (or at least semi-stable) boomer adulthood was pretty groovy. Plus, it made sense for self-preservation: it’s pretty shortsighted to set an end date for your own social and political superiority. Logan’s Run with flower power — but an assured death at thirty — was a pretty raw deal compared to stable work, security, and the square, bourgeois family life they discovered could actually be loving, restorative, rewarding, creative, and even adventurous. As for the “abolish the family” left, when something desirable is unobtainable, you might as well call for its abolition and insist you never wanted it in the first place.

Conversely, after educated boomers (and to a lesser extent Gen Xers) spent their gap years damning the man and lolling in free love (or slacker-ing in grunge and MTV), they still had options, prospects, and — if not a guarantee — the high likelihood of a good future.

The aspiring middle-class professionals of my own generation, however, graduated with massive debt, into an economy where adulthood presents no reliable rewards — only risks, restrictions, insecurity, anxiety, and the end of leisure and sociality. Millennials went to college because everyone older and wiser told them that higher education was a pro forma bribe they had to fork over in order to reproduce their class position: pay to play. You grease the palms of the PMC, study hard (or don’t), get a degree, and you’ll have a mortgage, health care, job security, a spouse, and some kids — the whole shebang, just like your parents. Obviously, that didn’t happen, and without those milestones, what’s the point? Childhood is the only carefree time millennials can remember, so they regress into an obnoxious, cringeworthy parody of youth. To become a Disney adult is to throw a kind of tantrum, clinging to the last time they were truly hopeful, like a cranky baby with a raggedy blankie.

Additionally, the comparative poverty of educated millennials (if I’m saying “educated” a lot, it’s because the culturally middle class are the only group for whom generation is an identity) has resulted in a lot of jealousy and intergenerational resentment, poorly disguised as — and often confused for — class war. We did what we were told, but you welshed on the deal because you wanted to hog all the wealth. There’s an identitarian desire to distance ourselves from our elders in both affect and culture: “OK boomer” as gallows humor.

What is new about millennial generational warfare is the strong current of wealth envy, and since Occupy Wall Street and the two Bernie Sanders campaigns brought class politics back, we’re just as stuck to the idea of “capital” as a metonym for Hunter S. Thompson’s “forces of Old and Evil.” To be old is to be evil; to be young is to be good. The very invocation of youth is tantamount to endorsing the future, rather than a barbaric past, an inverse of the right-wing “kids today!” that proudly proclaims, “I, too, am baby.”

Faced with the highly unrealistic task of having and raising children capable of reproducing the class position of the parents of millennials, one that most millennials never reached, it doesn’t even feel like a responsible decision to consciously start a family, compared to previous generations. Often we turn instead to crafts and the upbringing of an Instagrammable array of houseplants. (Allegedly low-maintenance succulents are still quite popular, though many listless gardeners quickly find them surprisingly easy to kill.) If we can manage something with as many needs as a pet, they are our “fur babies.”

And, well, I won’t die now

Someday I’ll be dignified and old

I say hey, you, don’t die now

Someday we’ll be dignified and old together

— The Modern Lovers, “Dignified and Old,” 1976

At the peak of Teen Vogue mania, editor Welteroth told the Guardian, “I learn a lot from the girls we feature, and [star of Disney show Girl Meets World] Rowan Blanchard wrote how ‘activism is a need to know, a need to explain, and a need to help. So, by this definition, I am an activist. And I think the readers that we reach would all consider themselves activists, too.” It also follows, then, that to be young is to be an activist, and to be an activist is, therefore, to be young. Welteroth, by the way, would have been about thirty-one at the time. (Yippee!)

To confuse things further, millennials don’t “feel old” (or at least we don’t want to admit that we do), which begs the question: “What does ‘old’ feel like?” Or at least, “What should old feel like?” We don’t appear to have aged as hard as generations before us, by which I mean we objectively don’t look as old. I mean, I have yet to see a millennial that looks like a thirty-five-year-old Lee Marvin (unfortunately). Hotness, they hope, will preserve us. “Kim Kardashian just turned forty-three, and she’s still relevant, right? Maybe? Teen Vogue thinks she is! So maybe I am too!” (Please, just put me on an ice floe.)

Boomers, however, got to make getting old cool, or at least fun. And it’s not so much death that millennials fear as not being cool, meaning our own irrelevance, which makes a kind of sense: our cultural capital is the pittance of a concession we had to accept in the absence of economic capital and political agency. The only politics at the fore are in the culture, and generational warfare is the doting wife of culture war. Of course, actual children (like the ones Teen Vogue wishes they had as readers) are not very powerful political actors either, but they’re great mascots, and they sure are gullible when you tell them they’re the future. Youth is by its very nature shortsighted, and it usually fails to realize that the new is always destined to become the old.

As unsatisfying (and embarrassing) as it may be, the adage works both ways: if you treat someone like a child, they will act like one, and unlike boomers or the jaded (but relatively adult) slackers of Gen X, smol bean millennials missed the well-timed benchmarks of traditional adulthood, so they were held back a grade or two, socially, psychologically, and emotionally speaking. As a result, they long for a preschool UBI world, with soft surfaces and hard rules, and they reminisce about the days when they didn’t feel stupid for having (relatively modest) dreams about what they would be and do and have when they grew up.

For millennials, middle age feels more like a kind of death than actual advanced age, the literal senescence of our parents and grandparents notwithstanding, because the middle itself has died. I mean, look around, where do you see any middle?

Gone is moderation, the middle class, the middlebrow, even the mid-budget. Everything is either gargantuan and bloated or measly and weak. There are stagnant wages and unaffordable housing alongside hyper wealth concentration at the very tippy-top. There are a million comic book movies a year with a tiny bit of room for a few annoying, micro-budget, indie mumblecore features. Age of Ultron for nearly half a billion dollars with few to no kid-unfriendly films. Coffee? No, it’s either caffeine-free adaptogenic mushroom brew or a lemonade energy drink that makes your heart explode. And have you smoked weed lately? It’s almost impossible to find mids. No one just wants to put on Maggot Brain and giggle, they want to lie prone and see the face of god.

If you’re approaching middle age right now, adulting is harder than it has been for generations. You can’t do your taxes because they’re intentionally byzantine, so you doomscroll and rage post about Taylor Swift. You enjoy the most juvenile and lowest effort entertainment because you don’t have the brain or the stomach for anything with teeth, and you take your little naps because you’re exhausted, anxious, and depressed (which is also why you can’t get out of your pajamas, cook a whole meal, or clean your room).

For a lot of millennials, there’s just nothing to look forward to — no rewards to go with the responsibilities of age, nothing cool or fun or exciting or even dignified about getting old. It just beats the alternative.