The recurring figure of the hero was described by Joseph Campbell in “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” thusly:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
The details of the adventures vary between cultures, but the fundamental elements of the hero’s journey are pervasive.
As a society, we have largely done away with heroes (though we absolutely do embrace idols – but that’s a different story altogether). We no longer consider it healthy to look up to others as better than us, inasmuch as that may cause us to look down on ourselves. In fact, “hero-worship” is now a bad word. We don’t aspire to the hero’s journey, either. We do not consider ego-death as a necessary thing, or even a tolerable thing, because we’re perfect just the way we are. We don’t even consider more superficial changes as necessary: “if you can’t handle me at my worst, then you don’t deserve me at my best.”
Yes, these are gross generalisations, but it does not make them incorrect. If you don’t believe me, pick a hero, any hero, publicly declare that you think that they’re better than you, and check out people’s reactions.
The same kind of transformational experience that characterises the hero’s journey is mirrored in rites of passage into adulthood. That’s also something that we’ve lost. Not only we don’t have formalised rites of passage, in fact, but we do not even have goalposts that, by virtue of us crossing them, make us an adult. This is partly because we have a greater ability to pick and choose the kind of lives we want, and the result of practical/financial reasons that have either taken away the practical significance of certain life events, or made them prohibitively expensive. For instance, graduating may mean nothing more than a return to your parents’ house. Getting a job may not bring financial independence. Marriage may be delayed, sometimes indefinitely (“Do not get married until you’re 26, because then you have to get off of your parents’ insurance” – life advice to a young friend from her teacher last week). Having children may also be delayed, or scrapped altogether in favour of “living life to the fullest” (and I quote).
The bottom line is that while there are no fixed criteria on what it means to be an adult, there is also nothing to tell us when we’ve got there. And I’m not entirely sure that’s an optional extra: to be an adult within a society, if you don’t have what it takes to TAKE the role, then it has to be given to you. The shift is not insignificant: there are massive differences in the responsibilities and powers of adults and children. Whether formally or informally, if there isn’t a shift from childhood to adulthood then you can end up stuck with a foot in either role, unable to adequately fulfil either.