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on adulthood


Being an adult means to take responsibility over your own life – to make your own decisions and live with the consequences, be it good or bad. It is not defined by the milestones you have achieved such as age, position, skills or wealth although this is what the world may suggest. Adulthood is not something you just roll into, but rather a series of conscious efforts to step out of your comfort zone and stop relying on someone else to look after you, be it physically, emotionally or financially. It means having the courage to take the driver seat and steering your life in the direction you would like to head to, taking control of the speed to get to the destination and learning to manoeuvre any obstacles that may come your way. Navigating through the unknowns is a skill that will be acquired along the way, so it is equally important to know when and how to seek for help when required. Mistakes will undoubtedly be made throughout the journey. Learning to accept these mistakes and taking ownership for them will be a crucial part of the process of becoming an adult.

I considered myself to be an adult sometime between the final years of university and working my first ‘real’ job. I was definitely thrown in the deep end and was placed in many ‘swim or sink’ situations during this period. I was challenged intellectually and emotionally on a daily basis and had to confront many of my fears. Being on a minimum graduate wage was no easy feat either. Looking back, it was during this time that I learnt to make my own independent decisions and reaped the fruits of my labour (not all the fruits were good!). Till today, I still have days where I want to run home to my mummy (or my family in general) when things are falling apart, but their roles have changed. They are there to simply offer love, support and comfort, not to make decisions on my behalf as they did when I was a child.

– Tania, 30, Process Engineer


Do I consider myself an adult? At this point, plain and simple, no. It’s a very sore point that’s served as the fuel for many an argument with my parents, and kept me awake more nights than I would like.

I’m turning 24 this year. There are certain milestones of adulthood that I haven’t met yet. I only recently started my first proper paying job. I’m doing my second uni degree, and in about a year’s time my main professional title will no longer be Miss, but Doctor. Yet I’ve never left home. I’ve only ever done one long overseas trip without my parents. I don’t drive. It feels utterly terrifying that I’ll be able to perform minor surgery on people yet have almost no clear idea what I want in life. At this point, I don’t even have a clear idea as to what the definition of being an adult is. What is an adult, and how can I tell if I am one? It’s a definition that has changed so much for me, at least over the last 7 years.

When did I first consider myself an adult? When I was 15, I had it all figured out. I was going to finish high school and read Archaeology and Psychology at Uni, and become a teacher after that. I was going to marry my (then) boyfriend (we had been going out for 3 years by that point) and have 2 children, one boy and one girl. I had planned all my life out. As you might have realised things have changed quite drastically over the last 6-7 years. On a recent-ish (3 years ago) class reunion, my high school classmates, upon being told what I was doing, went “What the heck, we all thought you wanted to become a teacher. Now we’ll be calling you Doctor?!”

It definitely feels like I was way more certain then, than I am now? When I was 15, I felt more grown up and mature than everyone around me. A consistent phrase in most report cards going home was “She is very mature for her age.” I thought I had my life all figured out. I moved overseas just as I turned 16. I skipped a year of high school, and I went to an international school where everyone was older, so almost by default I was the youngest in the whole school, let alone my year. So all of a sudden I became the youngest instead of the most mature, which was frankly bewildering. But since then I’ve felt that since then everyone else back home has grown up around me – the boys went off to the army while the girls went to Uni, and everyone had their drivers’ licenses all of a sudden. I’ve also reached that stage in life where people my age are settling down and getting married. I have nothing against that, but it’s scary because I cannot picture myself in a situation like that. There is a Grinch in me that Bah-Humbugs occasionally, ruminating on soaring divorce rates, but I actually envy them, because I imagine it would feel so secure, having found their soulmate/love-of-their-life/sun-and-stars-moon-of-their-life, the person in (at that point) they truly trust they can spend the rest of their life with. It’s always been a nagging thought at the back of my mind that this void (? Can it be called a void?) in my life is a reflection on myself as a person, rather than my luck with relationships.

One of my sisters recently declared that she wanted the whole 2.5 kids + White Picket Fence dream. My other sister was raising a virtual child, Tamagotchi-style, for her Developmental Psych class and would declare Alexander’s latest unlocked milestones at the dinner table each night (we toasted with champagne when he graduated high school). And here I am thinking I’ll never want children because frankly, the responsibility terrifies me. I already have trouble taking care of myself sometimes, so it’ll be an absolute clusterfuck being responsible for another living being. Maybe I’m jaded because I work in a profession where I see lots of children get hurt because of their parents making stupid decisions, but I’m really skeptical about my ability to care for other living beings without screwing up big time.

Sometimes I ask my parents ‘how the heck did you bring us all up to be somewhat normal?’ and their answer is always ‘Well we really didn’t know what we were doing with you. It really was trial and error since you were the oldest, but you helped us learn.’ :P

But then I suppose there’s much more to life than getting married, having children and being successful in careers, right?

And what, in my opinion, does being an adult really mean? One of our final exam questions last year involved a scenario where a legal minor (16-year-old girl) demanded life-changing treatment (an extraction) without her parents present. The technically correct answer was that legally, we weren’t allowed to acquiesce to her wishes because she was not of the legal age to provide informed consent for herself. Yet, as a tutor was arguing, a 14-year-old teen mother is allowed to provide consent for treatment on her baby by virtue of her fact that she is their parent, but will not be able to do the same for herself because she has not reached her legal majority yet. The principle is that to provide informed consent, you should be able to demonstrate that you understand any risks and complications involved in your treatment and be able to live with any negative consequences should they arise. So I suppose that’s another big topic to think about in achieving ‘adulthood’ – having the maturity and being able to take responsibility and live with the consequences of your own decisions?

I’ve always counted myself incredibly lucky that my parents have been on the liberal side of the conservative Asian family nexus. Their criteria were that so long as we were happy doing what we chose to do and were able to support ourselves, we should go for it. So that’s another way I’ve defined self-sufficiency and maturity as ever since.

It’s sometimes a scary thought, reflecting in my last year of formal education, to realise that over the last 16 years or so of my life, one of my main defining role has been that of a student. I’m somebody’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s friend, and (have been) twice now, somebody’s girlfriend. But I’ve spent 16 years back to back in the classroom. Am I tired of that? Sometimes. But I’ve found that I absolutely love learning and teaching. Or maybe I’ve just grown used to it?

But learning never stops, does it. I’ve learnt that experiences teach just as much, if not far more, than books and teachers and journal articles ever will. I’m that weirdo who learns best by mucking up, since I never really understand the purpose for a rule until it’s broken. When I mentored more junior students in my course, I used to have a section of ‘don’t do this because I screwed up and I don’t want you to be making the same mistakes I did’, but now I feel that while some might find that really helpful, it’s not the best since everyone’s experiences will be different because everybody is different. While we learn from the mistakes of others, oftentimes we learn best from the mistakes we make ourselves. On my birthday each year, I sit down and write a letter to myself a year ago, as a sort of reflective exercise. I used to conclude each one by going ‘it’s ok, you’ll be all right, there’s light at the end of the tunnel so don’t give up.’ And then I wonder, would I have done anything differently? My answer is always no, or at least, to the decisions and experiences I learnt the most from, because I would never have had the chance to learn those things if I had never made those choices in the first place.

– Roseanne, 23-going-on-24, Graduate Student, Doctor of Dental Surgery


I think being an adult means being able to live independently and being responsible for our choices in life. But when you’re past a certain age, society will deem you an ‘adult’ regardless.

[Do I consider myself an adult?]

Yes? There are times when I felt like an adult but that could change based on the circumstances. I first considered myself an adult when I began working part-time during my university years. I’m not sure when or where I learnt to equate earning money to being an adult but it felt good being able to support myself financially for once.

Gen Y-ers are in a very difficult position. Gone are the days where earning a university degree secures us a job immediately. Hence, the means to live independently – able to afford a house, car, etc with little to no support from parents – comes later in life. But that shouldn’t stop us from being responsible for our choices. Whether it’s to take up a part-time job, have clean clothes to wear or even eat three square meals a day. I know I try.

– Julian, 25, Independent Videographer


A checklist in no particular order [on what being an adult means]:

  • Being able to accept and respect other people, without discrimination based on silly reasons like race, gender, sexuality or socioeconomic status. We should all be nice to our waiters and the cranky old people who insist millennials are destroying the world.
  • Being able to take positivity and constructive criticism, and accept (or at least tune out) petty negativity. LET IT GO.
  • Following through on your commitments like jobs, bills and relationships.
  • Giving back to the world in some capacity.
  • You understand stock markets. (Kudos to you if so. I work in the industry and have NO IDEA what’s going on.)
  • Preferably being self-sufficient and independent (but that’s just me – some people have debilitating illnesses, doesn’t make them less of an adult).
  • Making your own choices and feeling happy and secure in your decisions, big and small.

In terms of age, yes, [I do consider myself an adult]. I’m noticing grey hair and fine lines. Mentally and emotionally, no.

I don’t consider myself an adult because I’m still incredibly insecure about many things: whether this is the right job for me (answer: no, but what can I do in this economy), whether other people think I’m dumb, how not to feel personally attacked by other people’s offhand cruelty…the list goes on. I’m working on it.

That said, I used to think adults had it all figured out. They represented the pinnacle of human intelligence, had the measure of their own abilities, and knew exactly what they wanted to do in life and how to achieve it.

However, as I age, I realise nothing’s set in stone and that life still throws so-called adults a curveball now and then. The people we previously viewed as adults – parents, teachers, employers – were all confused 20-somethings once, and were (in some cases, still are) just as lost as we are.

It’s all subjective. You could be a well-paid CEO and a terrible human being, or a high-flying lawyer who binge-watches Marvel’s Daredevil inside a blanket fort during your few precious holidays. Make your own limits and stick with it.

– Anon, 23+, Financial Services Executive


Being an adult obviously is not about age but about maturity. Personally, I think a person is considered as an adult when he/she reaches certain level of maturity, which is usually depicted by his/her level of responsibilities (responsibilities to other people, job, etc.) and way of thinking. I considered myself asa  ‘half adult’ when I was doing my master’s degree, but became ‘more adult’ when I worked. So, for me ‘being an adult’ consists of stages where people can reach higher stages when he/she is more developed.

– DS, 24, Consultant


I think an adult is someone who’s not only responsible in the way they approach their life choices but also someone who’s able to rise to the occasion by demonstrating values that are considered brave, mature or responsible. And because of that, I don’t necessarily feel that I am an adult just yet. At 24, I still feel like a teenager but I also feel that others my age who think they’re adults because reached certain milestones like buying your own house, working full-time, getting married or even starting a family are partly mistaken also. Indeed some of these ‘life accomplishments’, if you will, do help to shape one’s character but it’s what they make of those milestones that bring out the adult in them.

– Anon, 24, Grad Student