coming of age in your thirties

She gives a short, mirthless laugh. “It’s no wonder we’re all in such a mess, is it? We’re like Tom Hanks in Big. Little boys and girls trapped in adult bodies and forced to get on with it. And it’s much worse in a real life, because it’s not just snogging and bunk beds, is it? There’s all this as well.” She gestures though the windscreen at the field and the bus stop and a man walking his dog, but I know what she means.

That’s from Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, a very entertaining and well-constructed novel that I just finished reading. It belongs to the genre of coming-of-age stories in which the appealing male hero realizes that other people also matter and that happiness will require commitment. Compare and contrast James Atlas’ The Great Pretender, Martin Amis’ The Rachel Papers, or all the early Phillip Roth.

What struck me, though, was the age of Hornby’s protagonists. These people are turning into adults in their mid-thirties, not their early twenties like Portnoy. Come to think of it, that’s not a surprising phenomenon. We’re living longer, women can safely bear children later, and there are impressive returns to education–including not only school and college, but also such educative experiences as internships, living abroad, and experimenting with jobs. Under these circumstances, people who can delay do delay all the irreversible markers of adulthood.

Laura says to Rob in High Fidelity, “You’ll keep your options open for the rest of your life, if you could. You’d be lying on your deathbed, dying of some smoking-related disease, and you’d be thinking, well, at least I’ve kept my options open. At least I never ended up doing something I couldn’t back out of.” She’s describing Rob’s amusing character flaw, but it’s more than that–not just a personal trait, but a consequence of investing in people’s “human capital” for the first four decades of their lives so that they can produce economic goods and children for the next three decades before comfortably retiring.

Overall, I think this is progress. People are developing their own rational autonomies by learning and experimenting before they make critical decisions about work and family. One drawback, obviously, is inequality. While some take a decade after college to explore their options, others have left school at 16 and have few choices at all. Hornby’s novel is not really about inequality, but it is about the ethical dimension of delaying adulthood. What makes it time to start the real business of life? How should one treat other people during the period of exploration? (I’d say that no 16-year-old owes any friend or romantic partner a lifelong commitment, but I feel differently about a 30-year-old. Why?) What are the appropriate purposes of exploring one’s options?