What’s It Like Being 18?


What’s it like being 18?
like shaking hands with a hurricane?

I was wondering over the weekend what it’s like to be 18.  This is not because I want to be 18 again.  I am deeply grateful to have escaped my youth, a time that now looks to me like Eastern Europe before the collapse of the Soviet, a time defined by arbitary restrictions, ideological immobility, and terrible shortages (in my case, sex, sense and sensibility). 

If you are 18 right now, you were born around 1987.  You began to move out of the parental orbit around 1997 (when you were 10-ish).  Your head began to clear around 2002 (when you were 16-ish). 

In 1997, a boy band (Hanson) and a girl band (The Spice Girls) ruled the world.  Notorious B.I.G. died that year and hip hop began to splinter and reinvent itself.  Around 45% of American homes had a computer and around 40-50 million Americans and Canadians used the internet.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted on TV introducing a new concept: witty television.  In the next few years, you will see the installation of the tech industry as the heart of American commerce.  It will look like a gold rush, and it will fail like a gold rush.

In 2002, boy and girl bands were not just a thing of your past, they were a cultural antique.  We were one year away from a violent contraction caused by 9/11, but the music scene was still continuing to fragment in all directions, with pop punk, indie, alternative, emo, hip hop, (to name a few), with critical favorites, The White Stripes, The Strokes, The Vines resurrecting the Velvet Underground.  A couple of years before, another TV show, The Gilmore Girls, had introduced another bold new idea for TV: articulate television.  In any case, you are now spending a big chunk of your disposable time on the computer, a medium that was reinventing itself substantially every 3 months.

If you are now 18, (and I am now guessing, because I haven’t done the ethnography), you live in a world that is noisy with novelty, restless with innovation, giddy with the good natured froth of a pop culture, lively with a new order of intelligence, and swirling with menace and difficulty.   

Of course, all of us live in this world (or something like it).  But my boomer generation boarded dynamism.  We did not have it thrust upon us. 

Boomers could see things getting smaller, faster, more hectic. The intellectuals told us so.  We could see popular culture and culture drawing together, the sheer liveliness of one now joined to the intelligence of the other.  We didn’t have an easy transition, but it was a transition.  However we did it (using a bestseller or amnesia as our launch), we were able to pull up beside the new culture and get on.  ("Jump, Spot, jump!")

Sure, there were unhappy moments, near misses, terrible spills, hard landings.  Not everyone’s dock-siders had quite enough adhesion.  Not everyone was quite nimble enough to decide which assumptions were now called for, and which were to be left behind.  (There are several million of my generation that are still standing on that ever distant shore, insisting on opera tickets and "civilized discourse," before taking solace in American Idol.)  But the rest of us packed our bags and booked passage for the new land of plenty.  (Los Lobos/Latin Playboys was my Ellis Island, Ani DiFranco my Lady Liberty.)

If you are 18, it’s not clear to me when you ever had a moment to "get your feet," as the phrase has it.  The deck is always wet with something.  You go away one summer vacation and "cirque de soleil" becomes the new Vegas.  You go away another, and "cage fighting" supplants boxing there.  Not, of course, that you care about Vegas very much.

No, what you care about is going to college, and if ever there was an institution like the old Vegas, this is it.  The old headliners, aging songsters who are still crooning tunes that haven’t changed for ages.  And why change when fan loyalty (aka tenure) protects them for having to rewrite a line?  A great buffet is there for the asking, and it is filling, but it’s not long before you begin to wonder if you can ever eat again.  Choices, you must make choices!  Look, here’s a building that looks like ancient Rome.  Here’s another that looks like Tuscany.  So life-like, so pleasant, and so utterly implausible as a simulation of any actual Italy, past or present. 

Here’s what I was really wondering on the weekend.  What if the world has got suddenly smarter?  The evidence is everywhere.  People thinking without silos, with newly versatile interpretive frames, with newly assimilative powers of survey, with newly rapid and penetrating powers of pattern recognition.  And who is it that got smarter?  Not me, I can tell you…or don’t have to tell you.  Not my cohort companions who continue to pour themselves into well marked forms, the ones that wick away intelligence and culture mobility, their price for this creature’s comfort.  No, I think it’s "kids today."  (As a concrete test, compare the television created by David Kelley and the television created by Mitch Hurwitz.)

I think this is what happens when you grow up in a world that’s never still.  To think at all, you must think well.  (Well, not everyone.  There’s a "far shore" here too.)  But it doesn’t look comfortable.  No, it makes me think of a cat leaping up to a counter and landing on a tea towel.  He digs in for purchase, only to pull the towel out from under himself…and digs in for purchase, only to…   

I leave the rest to Bloc Party and the lyrics of a track called Pioneers

We will not be the first, we won’t
You said you were going to conquer new frontiers,
Go stick your bloody head in the jaws of the beast

We promised the world, we’d tame it, what were we hoping for?

Breath in, breath out

So here we are reinventing the wheel
I’m shaking hands with a hurricane
It’s a colour that I can’t describe,
It’s a language I can’t understand

14 thoughts on “What’s It Like Being 18?

  1. Grant

    Tom, thanks, and thanks for the birthday greetings. Pam and I went bowling. It was really fun. Thanks, Grant

    Kedar,thanks for your comment, I have moved it so that it is now part of the post in question. Grant

  2. Peter

    What always amazed me concerning 18 year-olds, at any time in the last, oh, 30 or so years, is that they were always completely understood by Florence Skelly.

  3. fouro

    Beauty Eastern Europe riff. I fear I shall have to steal it.

    Grant, I think you’ve made me wonder about the vertical (and horizontal?) distance between idyll and guile and that tea towel. And about wind shear. And maybe about the number of tea towels. Do today’s 18 year olds (or 14 year olds for that matter) have a grace or aplomb that you and me and Tom and Peter didn’t? After a while, living in the cultural version of Mooree’s Law gives you a certain acrobat’s faclilty maybe? And like the acrobat, as we leap from platform to platform, the upcoming gets all our attention, then gets forgot as we yo-yo on and up to the next. In a world where “Slipping” is the new Solid and replaces the dusty old idea that “purchase” and stability somehow makes us more capable, maybe the sky has marmalade and diamonds. Should be cool. Okay, may be cool. Definitely teflon. I’m checking my 401k now.

  4. Grant

    fouro, buddy, beauty, there _is_ a Moore’s law. Shifts are twice as big but require half the intellectual effort to absorb. Thanks for a comment better than the post, Grant

  5. fouro

    Hey, you’re the wind beneath my wings.

    I like Moore’s Law better than Mooree’s Law, or his faclilty. Thanks for the cool post and the kind words.

  6. Anonymous

    I am not 18 today. I am 19. The truly amazing thing about being this age is that you feel old when you realize you are no longer younger than the people in Mountain Dew ads.

    The most bewildering aspect of 19 is communication. MySpace, facebook, cell phones, e-mail, instant messengers, text messaging, letter writing: all of these come tied up with different levels of intimacy, and certain modes cannot be used with certain people. I am deeply envious of previous generations, who I envision as having had the option of writing or knocking on someone’s door. Now communication is a minefield.

    There’s also something to be said for the iPod replacing public music. We all live in personal technological bubbles. The iPod poses diplomatic issues: do I know this person well enough to make them take their earbuds out? Should I wave at them or leave them alone? It is now entirley possible to alone in public, with your headphones broadcasting your isolation.

    Being 19 is a complicated affair.

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  9. Henri

    Shaking hands with a hurricane, great quote and so true. I turned 18 2 months ago and i do find it a rather confusing age but alas less confusing than being 17(i can drink and vote now at least!). One thing about being my age (and possibly in my location) is the intricate social network that seems to span wide and far (six degrees of seperation comes to mind).

    It is a rather complicated affair, but one worth enjoying.

  10. Grant

    Anonymous, thanks for the ethnographic datum. Very interesting…and kinda Victorian. Best, Grant

    Henri, more illumination on networks. Network work sounds interesting. Thanks, Grant

  11. Alex

    I have been 18 for a while now, but it feels like much longer. I was physically a man but I was never allegedly “legal” yet.

    Being 18 is a weird age, let me tell you, first you are friends with 14-16 year olds whom you shared your “minorhood” with in High School until the magic day. Despite being in a completely different age cohort (18-34) which is eery to me. Married mothers with children of their own are in this age group.

    Now being 18, you “magically transform” into a completely different person. The world doesn’t see you as a “kid” anymore. They see you the same as a fully mature, never to get any more mature, “grown-up” is appropriate. even though you are still going to school, and friends with teenagers, you are NOT a teenager, but a full adult, a twentysomething, despite being eighTEEN. At 18, the Government considers you an adult, to fend for yourself and EXPECTS YOU TO MARRY AND HAVE CHILDREN at this age, despite people who are roughly the same age, 17, who are considered CHILDREN WHO CANNOT DO ANYTHING WITHOUT THEIR PARENTS. On your 18th birthday, the Government wants you to go from a PARENT’S CHILD to a CHILD’S PARENT overnight. That’s magic in itself.

    But also, 18 has a second side to it. I also associate with 19-25 year olds and have been even while working back at age 16. What I’m trying to convey here is that 16-17 year olds are not children, many women that age are fully formed physically, also men are full size with facial hair at this age. And 18-19 year olds are not full adults because they are not fully matured yet. There should be a gray area between childhood and adulthood, called “minority” or “emerging adulthood” Minority should be shifted to the 16-19 and 20-24 cohorts

    0-11 children

    12-15 youth

    16-19 minors (older teenagers gain more rights)

    20-24 emerging adulthood (when a boy becomes a man in the newspapers)

    25+ Full adulthood (This to me is the age that a man or woman is fully mature, ready to marry, get a career, and start a family, {not 18})

    With each cohort gradually gaining more rights than the last

    18 is such a random and arbitrary age to divide life into two uneven halves. Considering an 18 year old is probably still in High school or maybe beginning college. It would make sense legally if a 19 year old was a boy and 20 a man. It just makes more sense. I wonder how they chose the random age of 18.

    Drinking should be 20
    Driving should be 16 (Provisional)
    Unrestricted license at 20
    Age a child can be left unsupervised 12
    Unsupervised in public 16
    Employment 12
    Unlimited Employment 16
    Voting 20
    Smoking 20
    Childbirth 20
    Consent 20
    Contracts 20
    Age Of Majority 16, 20 or 25 depending on crime
    Gambling 25
    Guns 25
    Marriage 25

    The last 3 should be 25 because it takes lots of responsibility to handle the last three. Young marriages usually end up in divorce.

    These ideas seem more sensible to me than the “abracadabra you’re an adult today but a small child yesterday with no gray area in between legally”

    a person is a boy and a girl up to 15
    a male or female between 16 and 20,24
    a man or woman 20, 25+

    My proposal would create a gray area between two distinct life stages, instead of a literal black and white line.

    When i woke up on my “special birthday” I’m like “Where’d my childhood go?” Even my parents treated me different overnight and I asked them why they wouldn’t treat me the same again. I knew I was never going to get that childish love that I once had. Turning 18 is a sad day indeed. Therefore I believe the journey int adulthood should be a years long affair and not an overnight one.

    Thank you,

  12. Adam Benmakhlouf

    That was really refreshing.

    I love Douglas Coupland when he is at his best.

    This was better.

    Beautiful, lyrical, nostalgic…

    Like that song, “Wear Sunscreen” with Baz Luhrman…whatever…

    Love from Scotland.

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