The Sunday Magazine

Adulting 101: Why being an adult is harder than ever

'Adulting is scary' and 'Adulting is hard' might seem like excuses, but author Julie Lythcott-Haims believes there's validity to those claims. She says things like helicopter parenting has left younger people without the skills and self-efficacy they need to prosper in their adult lives.

Student loan debt & lower wages all contribute to a more difficult experience, says author

Is adulting today really more difficult than it was decades ago? Yes, it is, says Julie Lythcott-Haims, author and Stanford University's former dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising. (Henry Holt and Co.,

This month, many Canadians are getting ready to graduate from high school, college and university. But along with a diploma, many of these students will carry the fear of entering into the uncertain and intimidating world of adulthood.

Though some may scoff at the concerns millennials and generation Z have about adulting, Julie Lythcott-Haims, Stanford University's former dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising, says their anxieties are legitimate.

"I'm not here to quibble with the largest generation in history. I'm here to say, 'Wow, things have really changed such that this period of life you enter, if you've survived childhood, feels daunting,'" she told The Sunday Magazine host Piya Chattopadhyay.

Lythcott-Haims is the author of the New York Times best-seller How to Raise an Adult, which highlights the ways over-parenting harms children and society at large. Her new book, Your Turn: How to Be an Adult, builds off of her previous writing and helps readers become more comfortable with the uncertainty of adulting.

She spoke to Chattopadhyay about why being an adult is harder now than ever before.

I know some of our listeners are rolling their eyes because they're hearing this term, this actual word, 'adulting.' How did this term get traction … and what does it really mean?

It's the grammar nerds that are rolling their eyes, Piya. 'They can't invent a new word.' Guess what? Yes, people do. And who's responsible? Millennials. And when did it happen? Oh, 12, 15 years ago. They began saying, 'I don't know how to adult. I don't want to adult. Adulting is scary.' And that's a truth for them. 

I'm this older person, Gen X, really compassionate, saying, 'Wow, OK, so what has changed? Let's validate that. Let's sit with you as you experience those realities and let me root for you in making your way forward.'

The simple definition is adulting is the bookends between childhood and death…. In childhood, you are more or less the responsibility of someone else. And at the very end of your life, unless it comes suddenly, you are typically in the care once again of people who are more hale and hearty and capable than you. 

So adulting is this sweet set of decades we hope of health and wellness and of personal choice-making and accountability and responsibility. And it's on you, and that's terrifying, but it's also awesome. 

I'm listening to the younger adult generations … who say, look, it is hard adulting these days. Is it really any harder for adults these days than it used to be? And if so, why?

Yeah, it is.

In many places in [the United States] and Canada, it is simply not possible for a young person to leave home and earn wages that will pay for a one-bedroom apartment. Wages and salaries have in many places not kept up with the cost of living. 

Add to that the fact that to go to university in America ... many of our students take on enormous student loan debt because of the cost of university and the lack of support in the form of scholarships. And so they have this student loan burden … to take on all this debt, and then their salaries/wages can't keep up with the cost of living in the town or with this debt burden. 

You know, the minimum wage was created in our country following World War II — following the Great Depression, actually — and it was meant to support a man, his wife and one child. And the notion that minimum wage in the U.S. could support one person with a decent quality of life, let alone three, is utterly laughable. 

Some graduating students might feel that adulting is scary and difficult. Author Julie Lythcott-Haims says their concerns are valid due to factors like student loan debt, rising housing costs and low wages. (Shutterstock)

Finishing your education and getting a job are two of the five markers that we've traditionally used to define what adulthood looks like. So [finishing] your education, getting a job, leaving home, getting married and having kids…. And for our generation, the Gen Xers and older, that is a marker of quote-unquote success for a lot of people. How relevant are those markers to the reality of being an adult on the younger side of adult in 2021?

Largely less relevant. Here's why. 

'Finish education.' We know education should be continually accessed throughout life to level up your skills, to pivot to a completely new career just for personal edification and enrichment. So 'finish education' [is] an outdated term. 

'Leave home.' It's not about leaving home. It's about wherever you live, whether with your parents or with an extended pod of your own peers, are you behaving as an adult, taking care of body, bills and belongings? Taking care of business? That's not where you live, it's how you show up where you live.

Then 'marry/have kids?' Boy, this harkens back to a time when a woman went from being the property of her dad to the property of her husband. It's very gendered and it's very heteronormative. Today, you don't have to get married to be an adult…. You do not need to be married to have kids. You do not need to have kids if you are married. 

There's a lot of freedom and flexibility now, which wasn't available in the 20th century or prior. And I think that wide-open flexibility, which requires choice-making, might be a little daunting. They feel like, 'Well, I'm supposed to be doing this,' or 'Everyone around me is doing this.' 

My point in the book is, this is yours to craft. You are the architect. There is no path. There is no right track. It's not about what anyone else says has to happen. What has to happen is you have to figure out who you are, what you're good at, why you're here on the planet, and give yourself permission to be that person.

Ask yourself, what would I study if it was just up to me? What would I pursue for work if it was just up to me? If no one else was judging, what would I choose?- Julie Lythcott-Haims

You do write about some of the practical stuff…. But you also give some more surprising advice … and one of them is this case that you make for why people should talk to strangers. You encourage this. Why do you tell them to do this?

When 'stranger danger' was born in roughly 1983, that's when parents started preventing kids from having the life experiences that would enable them to feel confident and competent around strangers [such as] advocate for themselves, treat this other person with respect. 

We have this overbroad rule, 'Don't talk to strangers,' which means young people emerge from their homes and high schools and go out into the world of work or university or the military, and they don't feel comfortable — they might even say they're scared/don't know how to simply talk to somebody.

It is not the fault of the young person who was raised that way. This is on us as parents. We have done this. This was bad advice. You do need to talk to strangers. Why? Because humans are everywhere and everyone outside of your family is inherently at first a stranger. So you've got to lean into that. 

From helicopter parenting to stranger danger, Julie Lythcott-Haims says parents have left younger people without the skills and self-efficacy they need to prosper in their adult lives. (

I'm speaking to you in June, the time of year when many Canadians [and] Americans are looking toward their next step in their process of adulting. So let me ask you to give a bit of advice. Whether someone is moving on … and venturing out into a new big, uncertain post-pandemic world, what's your advice to them?

Listen for your own voice. Ask yourself, what would I study if it was just up to me? What would I pursue for work if it was just up to me? If no one else was judging, what would I choose? 

Another way into that answer is what do I know I'm good at? What do I know I love? And let me find work or study at the intersection of those things because you've got to both be good at it and love it for it to be meaningful and rewarding. 

Finally, who's in my way? Who are the people I'm afraid to share these things with? That's real and valid. Tell that truth to yourself and then get some support, whether it's from a mentor or an older relative or a therapist. And having that tough conversation with whoever might be preventing you from leaning into the life you know is yours.

Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Peter Mitton. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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