Throughout my life, I have said many dull things. But I think, “The terms of this arrangement do not offer us a good Return on our Investment of time” is the most boring. This was an actual sentence produced by me in a work context last week. Thank goodness it was communicated by email, because if I’d had to say this thing with my human mouth to human ears, I simply would have cracked up laughing. Or, crying.
Business language does not come easily to many of us. Honestly, I think the commentary of wrestling matches and beauty pageants has more poetry in it than sentences like “end-to-end solutions” and “just-in-time deliverables”. It’s a cold game described in cold, competitive language that stops my heart when I am forced to use it.
But, there was another reason that I felt like a dill using the phrase, “Return On Investment”, and it wasn’t only because business is ridiculous. It was because I have also begun to find the idea of being an adult ridiculous. I have begun to suspect that adults don’t actually exist.
For a while, I was pretty sure I was a grown-up. About a decade ago when I saw people of my age reading books like Harry Potter, collecting Star Wars memorabilia and going to comic conventions in large number, I was shocked. “Act your age,” I thought to myself, as I continued the very mature practice of re-reading Pippi Longstocking.
Something was happening to adulthood in the West. My age-mates were reading Twilight. The idea of a Jedi spirituality was seriously discussed. Both Millennials and X-ers started eating cupcakes and keeping a close ear to the slang of teenagers so that they could slip it into to everyday conversation. And, it was hardly as though I were exempt from this practice. I think I said “YOLO” twenty times in the hour after I first heard it. The work email chain in which I had said “Return on Investment” also contained the phrase “lit fam”.
I was thinking about this tendency to behave like a kid recently when I was invited by a friend to her daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. I envy this little woman for her access to a ritual that marks the transition from kid to non-kid. I thought about all the traditions across cultures, like Walkabout—a term that has taken on an illogically derogatory usage by racists—that served this great purpose: to mark you as a grown-up.
About a decade ago when I saw people of my age reading books like Harry Potter, collecting Star Wars memorabilia and going to comic conventions in large number, I was shocked.
Western Christian culture used to have a range of these rites of passage, too. As much as the idea of being a Debutante makes me itchy—sexism and white dresses have that effect—I get that the opportunity to really enter adulthood has a very useful function.
The thing about Western culture, though, is that it has so long been defined by business and assets. Once, we had ceremonies. Later, we had moments like a first job or a first home. In the West, we let money markers step in where culture had once served.
While many non-Western and non-Christian peoples across the world have fought to retain their useful coming-of-age customs, the West just let them go. And, now, what has begun to happen is that business is letting the West go.
Underemployment is on the rise. Millennials have very limited hope of that first home, or that first step in an ongoing career. The “gig” economy doesn’t allow anyone to feel like they’re getting older, but keeps them existing always as a kid.
I have begun to suspect that adults don’t actually exist.
There is such a great vacuum at the centre of Western life. We Western kidults don’t have any of the signs of personal progress that were, for a time, provided by financial independence. We make ourselves feel better by discussing Game of Thrones as though it were more than what it is, which is just—and this is not a judgement call—an R-rated kid’s show.
The possibility of success is now diminished all over a world deep into a time of recession. But those of us in the West who enjoyed a brief period of boom learnt to confuse this success with actual growing up. The West let its own culture slip away, replaced by a “Return on Investment” language. And now, I think, we’re really regretting that.
When I hear a Bernardi or a Hanson type assert “Western culture”, I wonder what they are talking about. We don’t have one any more. We wrote it away in a billion business emails. All we have are dreams of grown-up success that so few can now attain.
When I hear these claims about “white” or “Western” culture, lost long ago to the rhythms of business, what I hear is the sound of a kid. A badly behaved one who is envious of others with the remarkable stubbornness to hold onto their cultural traditions.