When I sat down to write this, I was a millennial about to tackle one of many adulthood markers – college graduation – and I struggled with the feeling of bouncing back and forth from being an adult one second and a child the next. Legally, I was an adult and had been since I was 18. My doctor said I had reached my maximum adult height. But I still called my parents on a weekly basis, and at one point I had planned to move back home after graduation.
Julie Beck’s piece for The Atlantic in January 2016, “When Are You Really An Adult?”, dives into emerging adulthood, that moment when you’ve maybe worn a college graduation cap and gown but at the same time feel like you’re a little kid playing dress-up.
Initially, I was drawn to this piece hoping it might provide some answers to my own adulthood issues. But what kept me reading was Beck’s thorough exploration of adulthood development research interwoven with her personal insights and vignettes from readers who have felt lost through the dips, bumps and curves on the road to adulthood.
Opening with a story of a boomerang child (who is later revealed to be far from a millennial), Beck brings a fresh voice to a topic that could otherwise be easily bogged down with dense research.
After graduating with a major in journalism from Northwestern University in 2011, Beck freelanced for Popular Science and later landed her first job with the Chicago trade magazine InsideCounsel before becoming the associate editor for the health section of The Atlantic. With almost three years of work at The Atlantic behind her, Beck is now the senior associate editor and writes about health and psychology.
She spoke by phone from The Atlantic’s office in Washington, D.C., about the piece.
How did you come up with this story idea about emerging adults? What was your inspiration?
This piece initially came out of another piece that I did, which was about narrative psychology and the way that people tell the story of their lives to themselves. One of the researchers I was talking to for that piece mentioned that studying adult development is really difficult. More difficult than child development, because in childhood you have these markers that you hit at a prescribed time and you can track it, and it’s very similar for everyone. But when you get to adulthood, the development is much more self-directed. People can come and go in any direction they want, and it makes it really difficult to study. So that was initially what the piece was going to be about, and when I was looking into that, I found that it’s even harder to write about than I thought because the question was, “What even is being an adult?” So I ended up centering the whole piece around that question.
You open the piece with a character named Henry, who a few paragraphs later readers find out is Henry David Thoreau. Why did you open this way instead of finding a current person going through the emerging adulthood phase?
I think a lot of the articles about adulthood that have been written recently are about how people are taking longer to become adults and that today’s young people are so aimless, and so you do see very similar kinds of ledes. One of the main points of the piece is that this sort of stumbling path to adulthood is not an anomaly; it’s very common in the grand scheme of the history of our country. And so, to have someone from the past and write about [Thoreau] in the same style that you see people writing about millennials today, hopefully was to show that this happens all the time.
Why did you decide to reach out to readers to provide their thoughts on when they became an adult? What do you think these insights brought to the piece?
We have a section called “Notes” that’s very engaged with the readership and publishes a lot of comments. In that section I put out a call before the story was even done, to ask people to send me their stories about when they felt like they became an adult. When you write about these large societal things or psychological things, it often ends up being a very bird’s-eye view with a lot of generalities. I wanted to include some more personal stories as well to give people little glimpses into people’s personal processes of becoming an adult while I’m talking about all these grand trends. It makes it a little more relatable, hopefully
I think a lot of the articles about adulthood that have been written recently are about how people are taking longer to become adults and that today’s young people are so aimless, and so you do see very similar kinds of ledes. One of the main points of the piece is that this sort of stumbling path to adulthood is not an anomaly; it’s very common in the grand scheme of the history of our country.
There’s a lot of reporting in this piece about the “markers” of adulthood, like brain and body development, cultural ceremonies, maturity, marriage and parenthood. How did you know when you had reported this topic fully?
Oh, I’m sure I didn’t get all of them. My process is always like an extremely inefficient gathering of way too much stuff. (laughs) So you know, I usually have a Word doc of things that I’ve copied and pasted from PDFs, and studies and notes from books or all my interviews. It’s about 50,000 words of notes, so it could be better or it could be worse. I guess I just gather things and maybe you’re never really done, but the point at which you decide you have to be done is when you start seeing things or reading things and you’re like, “OK, I already knew that.” I printed my notes out and highlighted them and in my notebook made a bulleted list about things I wanted to talk about. And sometimes it’s repetitive and you’re like, “OK, this thing and this thing can actually go together, or maybe this part is a separate story.” It’s helpful to have these different forms of organization, to have a list and be able to check things off. It’s very patchwork.
You inserted yourself into this piece by mentioning a professor you had in college who talked about how you will be flailing between ages 22 and 25, and also mentioning how one of your sources thought it was funny you mentioned “Leave it to Beaver” … What was your decision behind making yourself a character?
I feel like this one was less first-person than my other pieces have been. It’s a choice everybody has to make. I feel like I tend to be a more casual writer, just in terms of style. If you’re writing a very straightforward, serious news piece, that might not be appropriate. But especially with these sort of fuzzy, vague unanswerable topics that I usually like to write about, there’s definitely no escaping that you have a perspective on it. I think it’s more honest and more straightforward for me to just include that, rather than trying to pretend objectivity. And also hopefully by questioning my own thoughts about something or exposing my own thoughts, it can be more transparent and a more complete picture, because the reader can just decide whether they want to agree with me or not. I try not to do it too much. And this piece is one where I really didn’t do it that much, except just in the beginning to be upfront about what the process was. And also because this is a 5,000- to 7,000-word piece, I’m just going to tell you right now that if you get to the end of it, there’s not going to be an answer.
Kaitlynn Martin graduated from the Missouri School of Journalism in May 2016 with an emphasis in magazine writing. During her summer internship at The Dallas Morning News, she profiled a couple who attends an early-stage dementia program at the Dallas Museum of Art, three Dallas chefs participating in the city’s Okrapalooza and a band of teenage girls who reflected on the Dallas ambush shootings through music. She is currently the editorial intern at Feast Magazine, a food and beverage publication in St. Louis.