Is Adulthood in America Dead?

November 2014

This question has been on the mind of New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, who has written a searching essay about the cultural degeneration of adulthood, and its depiction in pop culture (Sept. 11), with particular emphasis on the conclusion of the TV series Mad Men. Why should this bit of pop-culture ephemera command our attention? Because television characters, Scott writes, “are among the allegorical figures of our age, giving individual human shape to our collective anxieties and aspirations.” In Mad Men, a period drama about the Madison Avenue advertising industry of the 1960s, we get a glimpse of “an old order collapsing under the weight of internal contradiction and external pressure.” If one word could define that old order, says Scott, it would be patriarchy, the “slow unwinding” of which has been “the work of generations.”

Scott tells us that this unwinding is part of a “narrative of progress” — one that has liberated women and created a “freer and more open” society. While that’s a highly debatable assertion, he also tells us that, in “doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grown-ups.”

As a film critic for the past decade and a half, Scott has watched as movie studios “committed their vast financial and imaginative resources to the cultivation of franchises” that “advance an essentially juvenile vision of the world.” Tales of “adolescent heroism and comedies of arrested development” are not only “the commercial center” of Hollywood, they are its “artistic heart.” And so the studios regularly serve up films like The Hangover, Forty-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Neighbors.

Meanwhile, on the small screen, the offerings not only herald the “end of male authority” but also the “erosion of traditional adulthood in any form.” What shows like Broad City, Masters of Sex, The Simpsons, and Bob’s Burgers all “grasp at,” says Scott, “is that nobody knows how to be a grown-up anymore. Adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable.”


You have two options:

  1. Online subscription: Subscribe now to New Oxford Review for access to all web content at newoxfordreview.org AND the monthly print edition for as low as $38 per year.
  2. Single article purchase: Purchase this article for $1.95, for viewing and printing for 48 hours.

If you're already a subscriber log-in here.



New Oxford Notes: November 2014

Read our posting policy Add a comment
I don't see this abandonment of maturity as being an economic issue. As the author points out, this phenomenon can be seen among women as well as men, even though women are getting more the stable jobs nowadays. Rather, I think this, along with many other regrettable things, are an outgrowth of the overall liberal trend that accelerated in the 60's. In this new liberal culture, youth is highly valued and adults are encouraged to act like adolescents. So basically I think this is a cultural issue and not an economic one. Posted by: pcugini@gmail.com
November 26, 2014 08:45 PM EST
Add a comment