Between quarter-life crises, people working instead of retiring, 20-something billionaires, and moms and daughters wearing the same outfits, some of us are a little confused about what it means to be an adult anymore. We've lost many of the old signifiers for adulthood (buying a house or getting married by a certain age, getting a job that you'll stay in for decades) because of changing economic situations and technology, but it's not all outside influences that are changing us. It's also because we, as individuals, are making different choices. Many have chosen not to follow cultural dictates about what we're "supposed" to do.

Of course, like everything, these changes have their upsides (the ability to craft your own life in your own way) and their downsides (some people seem like they'll never grow up, debt).

I can relate to both the joys and the sorrows of a less-defined adulthood; I only really started thinking of myself as a grown-up at age 37 (and that was recently). It felt true inside for the first time, yet my external circumstances are a mixed bag. I bought a house when I was 27, but I live across the country in a tiny rental. I use my bike to get the groceries because I no longer own a car. I figured out that marriage isn't really for me — though I dearly love my partner of five years and we have a pretty typical hetero-coupled life. I don't have much interest in working for the same company for decades on end; new challenges, people and situations are inspiring and life-affirming. I've also supported myself completely since I was 23, have a graduate degree, can fix almost anything around the house, and feel comfortable traveling the world, having now visited almost 25 countries.

Which of those things makes me an adult? Different people would probably point to different things as "adult" in that list, and some might consider some parts of my life immature. But these days, I'm feeling like an adult, so I'm claiming the moniker for myself and I don't care much what other people think of my life (see number 2 below). 

So in the spirit of defining adulthood for oneself, here's my idea of what really makes someone a grown-up (and it doesn't have much to do with the 1950s idea of the concept at all):

1. You feel comfortable in your own skin: I spent most of my youth hating on various body parts. And my hair. And why wasn't I better at networking at parties? I fought my natural tendencies toward introversion, fought my curly hair, and half-starved myself on multiple occasions to fit into smaller clothes. Part of being an adult is letting that stuff go. You will never have a perfect body (even models complain about theirs!), so now I aim for strong and healthy. No, I don't mean engaging in unhealthy eating or exercise habits, but rather being OK with my imperfections and/or working with them — the maturity is about intent and motivation. I exercise five days a week not to fit into smaller jeans, but to feel good, to up my overall health, and to maintain mental clarity and calm. For a long time, I felt guilty that I didn't fit into an office working environment, but a few years ago I embraced my introvertedness and now work from home, on my own, which gives me more energy to spend on other parts of my life (energy that used to go towards being around people all day in an office.) Bonus: I'm now an ace networker when I do go out — being comfortable with who you are and loving what you do (see below) will have that effect.

2. You do what you love: Whether this is your day job or not is not super-important. The point is that you know what you love to do, and you do it on a regular basis, without caring much if other people think it's cool. 

3. Your friends are there for you: One of the hallmarks of immaturity is being friends with people who lie to you, treat you badly or disappear when you need them. If you let these people stay in your life, it means that you don't value yourself enough to quit the relationship. By the time you're a real grown-up, you've moved away from "friends" like these (here's how to tell if your friendship is toxic) and instead have those people around you who truly love you and have your best interests at heart — though that doesn't mean they can't challenge you sometimes! It does mean that they do it because they care, not for some sense of one-upmanship.

give hugs

Photo: Annette Shaff/Shutterstock

4. You express love easily: You give hugs, you bring food to someone who's unwell, you write thank-you notes, you check in when someone seems down. Adults do these things because they have already figured out how good it feels when someone does it for them, and they have the capacity to transfer that caring attention to other people. If you can't or don't express how you feel to the people in your life, you are still, emotionally, a selfish 12-year-old.   

5. You listen: Sure you have opinions, but sometimes you just act as a sounding board for a friend, spouse or child. And you really do listen, then offer advice or consolation if necessary. You are a grown-up when you know when to keep your mouth shut and give a loving ear to someone who needs it. 

6. You're not afraid to eat, fly, go to a movie, or wait in public solo: Most teenagers and even young adults are too insecure and self-conscious to do these things on their own. Adults are secure enough in who they are and realize a simple truth: that really, nobody is paying any attention to you anyway. Nobody is snickering behind their backs about you as you dine alone with a good book, and nobody notices when you head into the movie theater with a bag of popcorn by yourself. It's called down time, and sometimes it's nice to enjoy it alone, on your own terms.

7.  You stand up for what you believe in: Doing what's right isn't easy, but it becomes easier as you age. A fully grown person, secure in who he is, will vote his own opinion (not that of his spouse or friends), love who he loves, and defend the downtrodden on the street, at work, and even at home. An adult is the person who stops to help the homeless person who has fallen on the street, will volunteer time at an animal shelter or soup kitchen, or have the difficult conversation with a neighbor about their kid's bullying behavior. Grown-ups don't just walk by when something needs doing. 

8. You listen to your body: Science and medicine have plenty to teach us about what's healthy and what's not, but too often it doesn't take into consideration the needs of our individual bodies — only we can do that. So if you feel great eating a vegan diet, it works for you. Just because it didn't work for your friend Joe — or a famous food writer — doesn't mean much. If running makes your knees hurt, but hiking is just fine, your body it telling you what it likes — so when it comes to your health, listen to yourself first and everyone else second. 

9. You're OK with saying "no": Being bullied or pressured into doing things you don't want to do is for kids. Adults know the value of their time and are confident in their abilities (and are cognizant of their shortcomings). They say no (politely of course) to things they don't want to do, can't do, or won't do a good job on. They know their limits and enforce them. 

10. You realize that all that negative cultural hype about getting older is bollocks: Growing older is actually pretty awesome. On balance, for many people, it's better than being young (even with the wrinkles and softer stomach), and research says that most people are genuinely happiest in their 60s —not their 20s — especially women.

What perspectives would you add to this list about what makes you an adult? 

Related on MNN: 

Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

You know you're a grown-up when ...
Adulthood seems to start later and later every year. What IS an adult anyway?