The first time it dawned on me that I might be responsible for my own choices was when I was 16 years old, attending school to become a Registered Nurse back in Austria.
During one fateful afternoon, the teacher said to us: “Ultimately you are responsible for the consequences of the care you provide to the patient. It is important that you know what you are doing because your actions matter.” This shook me up. I had to decide and live with the consequences of my decisions. It scared me. Was I ready to do that? Was I able to decide for myself and the patient and live with that decision?
Being responsible for your own choices is what makes you a grown-up, an adult, and perhaps a productive citizen.
But even as adults, most of the time, we are asked to do things that other people decided for us at work, in school, following traffic rules etc. Often, we do things based on decisions that nobody seem to know who made them. Children can do that also. Then there are those choices we make every day that do have consequences for which we don’t feel responsible. For example, filling up the gas tank, buying take-out food at the end of a busy day, or using an email server that tracks our viewing patterns.
Finally, there are those conscious choices we make such as planning our education, career path, choosing a partner, buying or renting a place to live, having children or not having them, in short planning out our adulthood lives. Not all these choices will work out the way we plan. Really, we can only control a small portion of our lives. In the end, we may not even make decisions so much as follow conventions – the conventions of adulthood – job security, marriage, family, and mortgage.
Such conventions are changing in the Western world thanks to (an increase in) gender equality, more inclusiveness of sexual orientations, an openness toward alternative families, and same sex marriages. In addition, young people deviate from conventions carrying forward an inward-looking perspective for which emotional well-being and meaningful self-fulfillment are more important than material compensations. The “mood economy”, the parents who reinforced a message of “we are all winners”, and the self-help movement all contribute to high levels of self-confidence and a confidence in the future for young people across income levels, according to researchers of emerging adulthood in the USA.
However, all this requires a certain set of social, political, and economic conditions. Individuals can only follow conventions or fulfill their own calling if there are opportunities for them to do so. Can they afford the food, rent, and education needed to carve out a fulfilled life, conventional or not? How can we be responsible adults standing behind our choices when the necessary conditions for such choices are weak?
Going back to my Nursing student example, in the end, I was able to make informed decisions and learn to live with this responsibility over time because I was given the knowledge, skill set, and support system to do so.
Many individuals today are not able to be responsible because our society does not provide such conditions and has failed them. Their adulthood is in limbo. Jennifer M. Silva’s research, documented in the heartbreaking stories of working-class young adults in the book “Coming Up Short” is a great example of research that clearly shows this. Young working-class men and women in precarious situations – bouncing from one temporary job to another lack real opportunities. What is more, they blame themselves for their situation. Often coming from broken homes, they too believe (like their middle class college educated tech savvy counterparts) that self-worth and success is achieved through an inward-looking therapeutic narrative of self, that their failures and short-comings are of their own making, and that they need to triumph over them by pulling themselves out on their bootstraps so to speak.
Jennifer Silva argues (and I agree) that neoliberal policies have fostered this. The defunding of public education, jobs that only pay $8 per hour, deregulations of banking practices, etc. are all policies that destabilize conditions needed for people to become responsible adults and citizens. These policies hurt families and young adults the most but are bad for everybody in the long run.
Neoliberalism not only creates more precarious situations for people, less real opportunities to become adults, neoliberalism also promotes a “swim or sink” ideology that puts the responsibility back to the individual without providing the needed conditions to succeed. Depending only on oneself means that intimacy, community, solidarity, and even politics become difficult or impossible. A whole generation of working-class adults in precarious situations never grows up and is denied the opportunity to become responsible adults because of failed policies.
It is neither the conventionality nor the peculiar behavior of the Millennials that defines if somebody acts like a responsible adult. Rather it is the ability to choose in the first place and whether or not someone is given the opportunity to be purposeful in their choices.