Mintz (History/Univ. of Texas; Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood, 2004, etc.) puts into historical perspective the changes and continuities that have marked adulthood over, principally, the last 200 years.
Adulthood, writes the author in this capacious survey, has its timeless, universal qualities: economic independence, romantic relationships, fruitful multiplication and the discovery of rewarding work. But it has always been a fraught time, quixotic in its challenges and demanding in its responsibilities, even when the responsibility was to abjure responsibility. Mintz wears his scholar’s hat lightly, with polish and a comfortable pace to the writing, which translates nicely into storytelling that animates a wide variety of sociocultural circumstances. The author rightly points out that assuming the mantle of an adult isn’t for quitters; it has been, and likely always will be, stressful and greatly affected by class, ethnicity, race, gender and sexuality. Historical moments have sometimes limited opportunities for development and sometimes expanded them, and Mintz examines a host of broad themes—from stoicism to flexibility—as well as old chestnuts (“Condemnation of the younger generation is among this country’s oldest traditions”) and specific situations—e.g., the ramifications of no-fault divorce, which “failed to adequately account for the inequities and disabilities that many women face.” Throughout, the author scatters personal anecdotes, and he rightly notes that for every liberation from rigidity, there is a loss—of social connection, societal safety net, work stability and kinship ties. Coping with adulthood, Mintz makes plain, requires other timeless, universal qualities: candor, purpose and discipline, to name a few. “If immaturity connotes irresponsibility and abandon,” writes the author, “then maturity implies responsibility, reliability, sensible judgment, and the wisdom that can be acquired only through experience and reflection.”
A thoughtful and strangely encouraging tour of an often difficult life stage.