Outsourcing Adulthood

Can you ever really grow up if you don’t do anything for yourself?

Photo: harpazo_hope/Getty Images
Photo: harpazo_hope/Getty Images

I live two blocks from the nearest grocery, but sometimes months pass between my visits. During those times, I rely on Amazon Fresh for my weekly supply of eggs, paper towels, and Diet Coke. When I scroll through Amazon’s virtual grocery store on my phone, I tell my boyfriend I’m “making a grocery list,” encouraging him to believe the tote bags hanging by my front door are functional. In truth, my groceries come packaged in enough cardboard to trigger weekly guilt spirals about deforestation. (A box the size of an ottoman once contained a single onion.) Who knew that the defining feature of my generation would be our ability to break down cardboard boxes? We are masters of reverse cardboard origami, a side effect of entering adulthood at the dawn of a radical new age of convenience.

To be a grown-up is to be done growing up — as in, done with the part of life that requires parental supervision and support. You’re supposed to be able to survive on your own. You should know how to clothe, feed, and shelter yourself. But today’s young adults have parents who are deeply involved in their practical, financial, and emotional lives. Meanwhile, rapid shifts in money, technology, and culture are changing how we clothe, feed, and shelter ourselves in the first place. Many of the tasks once viewed as integral components of adulthood — the ones I pantomimed while “playing house” as a child — are no longer mandatory. With money and a smartphone, you can outsource anything. Companies that offer on-demand versions of these tasks advertise themselves as convenient solutions for busy go-getters: “Let us take a few things off your plate,” offers Soylent, the maker of meal-replacement beverages for people who are too busy to chew.

For we are living at a time of unprecedented convenience. Any chore can be outsourced: FlyCleaners for laundry, Uber for driving, TaskRabbit for, well, anything. Takl encourages users to “tackle” chores by dividing them into a million tiny tasks that can be outsourced individually: washing dishes, salting an icy sidewalk, moving a single piece of furniture. (“We really don’t need boyfriends anymore,” a single friend marveled.) And if you don’t know what you want from the world, you can outsource decision-making, too. Don’t want to plan a week of meals? Order a boxed meal kit with pre-measured ingredients and instructions for assembly. Too tired to choose an outfit? Subscribe to a boxed clothing service like Trunk Club or M.M. La Fleur, which will refresh your closet with seasonally appropriate garments selected to function as a complete wardrobe.

These conveniences are, of course, not limited to young adults. When Uber arrived in Midwestern suburbs, my mother rejoiced as though freed from lifetime imprisonment in a station wagon. (For all the bluster about older generations resisting change, most boomers and seniors are on social media. Four in ten seniors report owning smartphones, which means phone-adjacent convenience may be inevitable, particularly as mobility wanes.) But a generation coming of age in the convenience economy will, inevitably, understand practicality and independence differently than their elders did. (Why look up “how to fix a leaky faucet,” when you can Takl it instead? And when the plumber arrives, why watch and learn, when hundreds of plumbers are easy to find and on demand at all times?) Skills once viewed as universal basics become hobbies you can pick and choose: grocery shopping, once viewed as a banal task, becomes an “experience” at stores designed to mimic farmers markets. (Rookie hobbyists linger at Whole Foods. Advanced practitioners join a CSA, dine farm-to-table, and Instagram all of it.) The resulting uncertainty over which skills and knowledge are essential, which are optional, and which are obsolete triggers angst in olds and youngs alike. If you don’t know what counts as independence — or, worse, know but cannot achieve it — do you ever really grow up?

This is the anxiety that powers “adulting,” the much-maligned neologism for performing tasks that seem grown-up — doing laundry, changing tires, fixing leaky faucets, mounting flat-screen TVs. But the fact that these tasks fall under a special umbrella of adult-like behavior sort of proves how optional they have become. “America’s young adults have gotten a lot of flak for missing many of the milestones that earlier generations checked off with ease,” Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell wrote in 2014, arguing that the same economic forces powering a nationwide move away from an “ownership society” and toward a “share economy” are also moving the goalposts on independence. (Why fix that leaky faucet when it isn’t even yours? Home ownership rates are down.) A similar logic underpins Anne Helen Petersen’s BuzzFeed essay, “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,” which opens with a lament about “errand paralysis” and ends with a theory about the never-ending labor of grown-up “organizational kids.”

Millennial Marxist Malcolm Harris, author of Kids These Days, explains: “[W]e’ve internalized this drive to produce as much as we can for as little as possible. That means we take on the costs of training ourselves (including student debt), we take on the costs of managing ourselves as freelancers or contract workers, because that’s what capital is looking for.” A generation raised to view every moment through the lens of productivity will naturally apply that perspective to workplace project-management skills. Time-is-money calculations and “hustle culture” diminish the incentive — and thus, perhaps, ability — to perform analog tasks like going to the post office and cooking dinner, as opposed to farming them out. And the same hyperspecialization people use to move forward in their workplaces also transfers to their home lives. In other words: As children, millennials acted like career-minded adults. And as adults, we seem like helpless children.

If adulthood is about assuming control, then using your phone as a remote control would seem to advance the enterprise. “Convenience is the commodity that matters most to our generation,” comedian Hasan Minhaj says in an Amazon-themed episode of his Netflix news-show. “I can’t believe I used to go physically to the store, take money out of my pocket, and pay for stuff like a peasant.” Whereas now, “things come to me like I’m an emperor.” But the clueless, profligate kind of emperor who doesn’t entirely grasp what she’s doing to herself or her domain. Our emperor-level luxuries often come with emperor-level prices, but when the spending is abstract and the fee structures are byzantine, losing control is easy.

In her book Bad With Money, Gaby Dunn devotes a chapter to dissecting the bills, expenses, and receipts she accumulates in one month. “I definitely need to cut down on my Amazon spending,” Dunn writes. “The whole ‘now anyone can indulge any passing whim with the click of a button!’ thing hasn’t exactly been ideal for me.” She cites the ease of purchase as a catalyst for impulse purchases. (It’s called “Seamless” for a reason.) By phone, Dunn expressed guilt about convenience fees. She used her own former employer, Postmates, as an example: “If I went to Panera, I would have paid ten dollars for this [meal]. But now it’s 22 dollars. But sometimes you just need to do it. My brother was like, ‘One time I PostMates-ed an onion to my house. I was in the middle of cooking and I realized I didn’t have one.’ That was a $30 onion.” When Kylie Jenner admitted to a similarly drastic use of Postmates for a single carrot, the delivery was viewed as evidence of consumer excess. (Kylie was making matzo ball soup.) “I know that I should delete Postmates,” Dunn writes. Versions of this sentiment come up in almost every discussion of apps that offer one-click purchasing.

But even when you know it’s wasteful, convenience can be so damn tempting. When I asked my friends about the most wasteful on-demand goods they’d purchased through delivery services, several listed the unwanted junk they’d purchased to meet the minimum quantity for delivery: “Over a dozen bananas and a coffee. The coffee because I wanted coffee, and the bananas because there was a minimum.” Another friend cited a $20 surge price on the delivery of an $18 burrito during a rainstorm: “I tipped $8, plus tax, so I guess it was a $50 burrito.”

There is a strange and perhaps unnatural comfort when no material object is unavailable, if you’re willing to fork over enough cash. Many people I spoke to admitted to ordering cheap socks and underwear instead of doing their laundry. (Especially those whose apartments lack laundry machines, prompting lengthy economic justifications for buying low-quality disposable goods from dodgy manufacturers.) More than one person confessed to buying multiples of items they suspected were buried somewhere in their homes but were too tired to find. (This occurred primarily in homes big enough for laundry rooms. Every unmanageable home is unmanageable in its own way.)

When outsourcing is the default, choosing inconvenience becomes a statement. 34-year-old Sheila Frankfurt, who lives in Austin, forgoes diaper delivery services because she prefers to wash her daughter’s cloth diapers at home. She makes her own baby wipes by soaking flannel cloth in a DIY mixture of distilled water, aloe vera, and witch hazel. (I know this because she shared her iCloud document on iCloud with how-to guides and baby-product recipes with me.) Her fervor derives from a combination of a minimal-waste ethos, a parenting-as-activity mentality, and a sort of streaming-sunshine vision of domestic grown up bliss. (A classical musician, Sheila breastfeeds beside a full-sized harp.) And, she stresses, she saves a lot of money— a justification that makes her hand-wrung baby wipes a little less hippie-dippy, and a little more austerity. Either way, though, rejecting convenience doesn’t make her seem extra adult, so much as a bit eccentric.

So what are the new markers of adulthood, as “adulting” skills become optional or downright eccentric? When home- and car-ownership drop, and stigma against childlessness wanes? Every generation has its own answer to this question, of course. (Generation X’s coming-of-age involved the rise of the yuppie-hipster “grup”.) When I asked my peers, the answers suggested a variety of values. There were emotional benchmarks: self-knowledge, losing a loved one, dropping the self-centered delusions of youth. And there was recreation: sexual liberation, the ability to consume alcohol in moderation. But the most persistent themes were work- and money-related: Having a “real career.” Earning enough to abandon your roommates, afford travel, pay off student loans, or avoid credit-card debt, often in the name of feeling free. Adulthood, to them, was as much about self-sufficiency as self-direction.

And so, yes, millennials do grow up — as did every generation before us, and as will every generation to come. “Adulting” may be a moving target, but it’s also unavoidable, not growing up isn’t really an option. If “adulting” describes the things adults do, then “adulting” now includes ordering GrubHub to your desk at WeWork while waiting for Amazon to deliver dental floss, which you will use while washing your face with whatever Birchbox sent this month. While seeking a spouse on Tinder. So you can get married, have babies, and sign up for monthly diaper and baby-food bundles from Honest Company. (We can’t all be Sheilas.)

Ultimately, the chores we keep and those we outsource come down to matters of taste, preference, and idiosyncratic priorities. I avoid car services, in part, as a matter of taste. (Stop-and-go traffic makes me motion sick.) Political backlash regularly inspires boycotts on companies like Amazon and Uber. Sometimes this seems to alter individual companies’ shares of their markets, but probably not the overall market for these new conveniences. Too many people already rely on them. “Hate Amazon? Try Living Without It,” Nona Willis-Aronowitz writes in a New York Times op-ed documenting how, after a stroke, her 85-year-old labor-activist father came to rely on a corporation he loathed. “It’s hard to care about the big picture when you’re simply putting one foot in front of the other,” Willis-Aronowitz writes. Not that any of the above applies to my shameful Amazon Fresh habit. If I put one foot in front of the other, I could be at a grocery store in a minute.

Outsourcing Adulthood