Back in May 2017, about a week after I moved out of the apartment my ex and I had shared and into my own new space, I wrote this article about the concept of “adulting.” I had just bought a $124 tool set on Amazon so that I had wrenches and the like, as well as some toiletries. So I was feeling pretty adult on this new journey, I must say! I was 36, by the way. I probably should have felt that way sooner, but we all run the life race at our own pace, ya heard?
Anyway, I’ve long thought that work is kind of “fake adulthood.” In conventional white-collar bullshit life arcs, which admittedly are changing rapidly, you’re drinking beer and discussing the world with your friends at 21–22. Suddenly, at 23, you’re talking about “strategic initiatives” and saying you will “circle back” in meetings with people 30 years+ older than you. It all seems kind of forced and fake.
The Atlantic recently wrote an article on this, about how buzzwords specifically are the way people pretend to be adults. I’d agree with that, broadly. Knowing the right buzzwords is kind of like joining a club company-wise, and it makes you feel less like an impostor or a child. Ironically, buzzwords did evolve from a good place — to give different silos kind of a shared language. Over time, they’ve become insufferable, and I think we all know that.
That said, though, the idea of work as fake adulthood goes beyond just buzzwords.
Think about kindergartners playing with blocks and towers
This is what commonly happens:
- The kids experiment with blocks.
- They move around the blocks and stack them.
- They build towers and are fascinated.
- Some other kid comes over, knocks down the tower.
- The first kid is upset for a while.
- Teacher comforts him. (Snowflakes!!!!)
- The kid eventually builds another tower.
By the way, in kindergarten I myself got a one-day suspension for knocking over one of my classmate’s towers.
Now, let’s use those bullet points and move them to 29 year-olds as opposed to five year-olds:
- Dude has an idea.
- Dude experiments with it.
- Dude builds it out with self-funding, friend funding, venture funding, or immediate sales/revenue.
- Some rival or disruptor comes along, knocks it down.
- Dude is pissed for a while.
- Goes back and tries something else.
You ain’t that different at 5 and at 30, on the baseline.
Oh, and Legos
I’m no real fan of Silicon Valley or the idea of “thought leadership,” TBH, but … some “thought leaders” in “the Valley” use the idea of children and Legos to explain business development to newer entrants into the corporate game.
Again, 5 and 30 ain’t as different as we think.
Most people would probably not choose to work
Millions would, of course — the true workaholics and virtue-signalers amongst us — but I think millions to billions would not want to work if they could avoid it. The way companies treat you is often a form of non-physical (and sometimes legitimately physical) inhumane abuse. There is no loyalty. You are largely doing this because you have to, because you have bills or you think it’s virtuous or your grand-pappy told you this is what people do, or whatever other reason. You are often not here by choice. Ya heard?
But to keep afloat in these worlds, you need to play at being an adult. Most of these companies are about 5–7 people getting rich. There is not group ownership at most places; there is not a logical, rational incentive structure. The top gets their nut. Everybody else grinds. That’s “the game,” for better or (often) worse.
It’s not real adulthood. I would not equate a conference call full of buzzwords and small talk to parenting, putting your mom in hospice, getting divorced, losing a dog, etc. Those are real markers of adulthood and adaptability and resilience. Listening to KPI Kevin prattle on about “value-add services” — when Kevin barely knows what the company produces — is not adulthood. It’s a corollary to adulthood that you need to have the resources to do the other stuff, but it’s fake adulthood. It’s playing. It’s a game.
It feels to me that a lot of people think work is complete bullshit, and know work is complete bullshit — and anthropology backs that up — but we need to play at this ridiculous, fear-inducing, buzzword vomit-spewing game in order to keep up.
It’s not actual adulthood. It’s not the stuff you will remember in hospice. No one is begging for more spreadsheets, conference calls, deadlines, and deliverables.
But we’ve inflated it to this place where it matters so much — the first thing we ask people is “What do you do?” — and that’s a dangerous pathway. How can you define yourself by a job where the company has no loyalty to you, and you’re using invented words in unnecessary meetings all day just to periodically get a check?
It’s not real adulthood and we need to stop pretending that it is. It matters predominantly as a means to an end, or a source of self-worth and relevance (also dangerous).
Oh, while typing, I just thought of another parallel: deifying certain people as “job creators” is kind of akin to high school popularity. “Oh, he brought shy Tommy to the party.” It really doesn’t matter broadly. Shy Tommy is still kind of a dork and needs to come into his own. He won’t get invited to lots more parties just because Job-Creator Popular Paul brought him to this one, much like a job being created is cool, but means nothing because if revenues erode for 2–3 quarters, the job won’t exist within a year of being created. (“Last in, first out.”)
Work = fake adulthood. Not the real one. Remember this.