On her marriage certificate dated 1907, officials categorized my great-grandmother Essie as a spinster. She was only 22 years old. I thought of it when I read this quote:
“Since young people must meet ever-higher criteria (including more schooling) in order to become successful adults in the information age, the ladders they must climb to reach adulthood are lengthening. (…) In post-industrial societies like the United States, the age has shifted from twenty-two to twenty-six.” Imagining Ourselves: Global Voices from a New Generation of Women, Edited by Paula Goldman
If considered beyond the usual age of marriage for a woman, when might Essie have been considered an adult—at sixteen or eighteen? I wonder what criteria she felt pressured to meet. Perhaps adherence to a strict Baptist moral code in a small community where neighbours knew everyone’s business? A content husband and well-turned-out children? A tidy home and a root cellar full of root vegetables and preserves? At a time when a woman’s skills of wifedom and motherhood determined her worth, these expectations must have loomed large.
In the year of her birth, the University College in Toronto admitted the first women students. During her childhood years, steam turbines were invented and then engines, electric and diesel. Radio signals crossed the Atlantic Ocean. A few years before Essie’s wedding, Orville Wright completed the first controlled flight at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina and Model-T Fords were rolling off the Ford Company’s assembly lines. World War 1 broke out just before her seventh anniversary, forcing uncertainty into her life. And a few years later, the Spanish Flu Epidemic swept the globe.
Taylor Swift sang about being 22 on her album Red more than a century after Essie was the same age. “We’re happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time / It’s miserable and magical, oh, yeah / Tonight’s the night when we forget about the deadlines.” The progression of steps to adulthood implicit in previous generations—school, marriage, house, baby—is dissolving.
By the time Taylor and her contemporaries turned 22, computers had become common place. They used HDTV, wireless internet, and self-expression as an avatar. The Walkman of their childhoods had given way to MP3 players and eventually to streaming and Bluetooth technologies. Then came iPhones and Kindle, touch screens and artificial intelligence. Swift’s generation are digital natives, self-proclaimed rudderless, and now navigating a daunting full shift to the Information Age with all its implications. Heaped upon this is the danger and drudgery of a pandemic.
The verb adulting has been added to the vernacular—which suggests the challenge of climbing to adulthood is a topic of increased discussion.
I’m not a sociologist with a tidy bow to tie at the end of piece. I’m a novelist and as such, I’m compelled to observe and ponder the human experience. What makes us the same— even though we’re different?
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