What makes an adult?

Have you ever wondered what makes you adult? Is it your age (18 or 21 years on this planet are enough to be adult?)? Or is it your capacities to function and contribute as an adult member your family and of society? When you are a Maasai warrior, you used to become adult when you killed a lion. In other cultures, you have to be go through an initiation. In the western world you get a driving licence and are told you can vote and buy vodka… Traditions and legal systems vary, but in general being an adult means that you are now a fully functioning adult member of society, with a voice, some rights, some power (represented by your vote or your capacity to enter into contracts including marriage) and responsibility for your actions (and the consequences of your actions).

Being adult in this full sense therefore means having a certain number of skills and capacities. The list below is likely to be culturally biased to the western lifestyle, but can be a first indication of what is needed.

Let’s start with the most basic skills some which you would have learnt as a toddler, others in kindergarten, but all being pre-requisites for anyone who calls himself/herself an adult

Hygiene and habits

  • Washing oneself,
  • washing hands after toilet visit and before food,
  • brushing teeth at least once a day,
  • using (or at least knowing how to use) cutlery,
  • washing the dishes,
  • washing/ironing clothes (basic know-how, including operating a washing machine),
  • knowing when to get a haircut.
  • Basic house/home cleaning procedures.

Many young people I have met at university and then later in life were surprisingly not proficient in these basic activities. Some members of older generations (especially, but not only men) are also desperately clueless on some of those… There is an excuse if you come from a developing country, but a 40-year-old European male not knowing how to use a washing machine or not knowing how tu use a mop to clean the floor has no excuse.


  • vaccines in order
  • regular visits to health practitioners that one needs – dentist, gynaecologist, dermatologist…
  • recognizing when one’s sick and needs a doctor (not so evident even for the elderly)
  • taking prescribed medication

For me, being adult is also taking care of oneself and healthcare is part of that. An adult know that prevention is better than cure and that preventive visits, vaccinations, or going to the doctor when one’s sick or has a problem, even though the visits may not be pleasant is simply necessary. Making one’s own appointments, telling the doctors the truth, asking one’s own questions to the doctors. Taking the prescribed medications according to the rules. This is – I believe – being responsible, this is part of being an adult. Unfortunately, it seems that many people are unable to take their medicines following the doctors instructions (within the appropriate time intervals) or finish a course of antibiotics once they have started.

Basic administrative literacy

  • know how to fill in a form,
  • keep in order his/her main identity and other documents (up to date, easy to find, safe – possibly with copies),
  • knowing one’s ID number, full address, etc.

This one is a bit tricky. I had to learn this the tough way. Basically, until I was 18, my parents used to fill in the forms for me. Most of them. It was also maybe linked to the fact that the forms tended to be in foreign languages as I lived abroad a lot… Which means that at 18, faced with my first forms I was in panic, took it way too seriously and it stressed me out terribly… I had to learn fast, and it was not pleasant.

Forms are now a permanent fixture of our environment. Paper forms, online forms, visa forms… Knowing your way around them (a bit), a feeling of what info is asked what is enough and what is too much, is a good skill to have. And it is not a sign of intelligence, it is a skill and can be learned. (In my former career, I have met many a university professor who could only fill in a grant request form with great difficulty – being concise and to the point being a major problem in many cases.) Ideally, parents should “teach” this to the kids before they are faced with one on their own. I know that this is one skill I will want my daughter to have when facing the big 18.

Basic urban survival/independence skills:

  • grocery shopping and basic cooking,
  • cleaning one’s own apartment and taking out the trash,
  • driving a car or riding a bike (or knowing how to get a metro card)

The general idea is – an adult should be able to live and function on his/her own in society. If you live alone, there are some things, that are not so much fun, but that have to be done regularly. A friend’s teenage daughter refused to go shopping once, not to prevent her father from doing “something he liked”. Unfortunately, her impression that he did the shopping twice a week because he LIKED it was wrong. He did it because it had to be done.

As an adult, and despite what the teenagers think, one does not only do things that are fun and you like doing, but you also do things (actually many many many things) because they have to be done.

For the point on driving a car, I have had long discussions on this with many young people living in cities – does one really need to learn to drive a car when living in Paris or in another city with an extensive public transport system. Well, no, if you never go away from there… But if you want to travel, driving may be necessary at some point and I would just like to note that car rentals are only available to people who have had their driving licence for a bit (2 years is a minimum I believe), so if you are planning that holiday with friends driving across Europe next summer, you should already have taken your driving test 6 months ago…. Besides, you could also be the (sober) adult person who drives themselves and others from the party  safely home at 3 a.m. rather than taking stupid risks or the person that drives a parent or a child to hospital when necessary…

The last category I have focussed on in this post (but there are possibly many more to be defined) is:

Financial literacy  (please see more details on this key set of skills in my next post)

this category has been on the news a lot in my area of work (government, policy and regulatory issues). It is – it seems – slowly making its way into middle school curricula, but still seems a bit underestimated. This is a bunch of skills we all should have to call ourselves adults in the capitalist world we live in.

  • knowing what things cost – the rent, electricity, wi-fi, holiday travel, the new iPhone he/she wants so much, car insurance
  • earning money – meaning – being able to do something that has real economic/monetary value (that people will be willing to pay you for) – or at least having had that experience in the past during a summer job for example (possibly not involving the sale or rent of organs or other body parts);
  • how to manage his/her money – have a savings account, financial reserve;
  • understand a contract and legal consequences of not respecting it;
  • what to do when your card gets stolen/lost/damaged/swallowed by the ATM;
  • understanding how bills work – why do you have to pay them, when and what to do if you forget…
  • taxes – basic knowledge (such as: “do I have to pay any, and if yes, how much/when/to whom?”);
  • understanding how credit works – including credit cards or consumer credit…
  • basic understanding of how insurance works – oh yes, just had this discussion recently – most life insurance does not pay out in case of suicide and it is useless to insure the same apartment twice because two people live in it. And yes, the information you give the insurance needs to be correct (like, the address) for the  insurance to be valid.

So going through this checklist, how adult are you?






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