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"Adulting" shows what society has won - and lost

Key Points
  • I've often been the first to roll my eyes at the way millennials talk about "adulting," and the churlish way it's covered in the media.
  • Now that women of childbearing age are overwhelmingly in the workforce, I'd argue the next battle is going to be over the home front as our generations struggle to balance the two.
CNBC's Kelly Evans
CNBC

I'll admit it: I've often been the first to roll my eyes at the way millennials talk about "adulting," and the churlish way it's covered in the media.

This week's case in point: UC Berkeley is now offering a class on adulting, making it one of the more "serious" academic institutions to join this growing trend. This letter to the editor of the L.A. Times typifies the reaction:

"These kids mean to say that they are capable of earning a degree from one of the world's foremost academic institutions, yet they cannot figure out by themselves how to read a cookbook, get to work on time or how not to outspend their income?"

The writer added, "This is one more puzzlement facing this octogenarian in today's world gone mad."

Well, I've been thinking a lot about this lately. Because I'm on maternity leave trying to figure out how to juggle two little kids while keeping everyone fed and the house in some semblance of order (short answer: thank you mom!) and let me tell you, it doesn't just come naturally. At least not to me*!

As I've noted before, learning home economics is just as hard, and takes just as many hours of work, as learning "macro" econ. Except you only get one shot at family life, and failure isn't really an option. And you kind of want to enjoy it and not just be stressed out and upset all the time because you haven't exactly mastered the art of meal planning just yet.

In other words, "adulting" is hard, and it doesn't hurt to be taught some skills before you're thrown into the fire. I, like probably many, was not at all interested in learning any of that a kid. I loved school and sports, and thankfully those are the two things society values most right now because they can get you into a good college. Worked for me!

Cooking and cleaning and "homemaking," on the other hand? Shudder. And I'm hardly alone in that regard. My mother-in-law is an amazing cook. Amazing! So I had always just assumed it was her forte in life. But oh, no. Turns out her mother had made her stay inside and learn how to cook for the family while her brother got to play outside with his friends. Horribly sexist? Sure. But is it really "empowering" for me to not have her cooking prowess, and instead have to rely on expensive, unhealthy food delivery for my family while I try to figure it out?

I was thinking all this over as the latest J.P. Morgan research note landed in my inbox. "Prime-age female [labor force] participation could keep rising," it says. It's currently just below 77% for 25- to 54-year-old American women, and has hovered around there for almost two decades now. The firm says it could rise above 80%, closer to rates in Germany, Japan, and Canada, as more family-friendly work policies (like paid parental leave) gain traction.

To which I say: great, but the gains have largely been made. To the women of past decades who fought and sacrificed so that I could be in the workforce: thank you. Does more still need to be done on that front? Perhaps. But now that women of childbearing age are overwhelmingly in the workforce, I'd argue the next battle is going to be over the home front as our generations struggle to balance the two.

I absolutely expect parental leave policies to get more generous very quickly. It's not because we millennials are "soft"--it's because we're all expected to both work and raise our kids, instead of splitting up the tasks. And since those kids are society's future, there's more than just our own sanities at stake in getting this right.

But it's not just about having enough time to be at home--it's also about having the skills necessary to "keep house" and raise kids properly. So either we go back to making kids learn this stuff in school (like the "home ec" of yore), or it should be part of any "general education" college requirements, since college has become the holy grail crowding out everything else.

Or, make it your new go-to wedding gift: cooking classes and a session with a financial planner for the happy couple. Home life is really hard, and it deserves more emphasis and respect than it's been getting in our professional achievement-obsessed culture. I'm glad it's starting to get more attention, however sardonic. So don't roll your eyes the next time you see an "adulting" class pop up in the headlines. Tell your kids about it! OK, boomer?

God bless,
Kelly

Twitter: @KellyCNBC

Instagram: @realkellyevans

*And I should note: my parents actually made me do chores growing up, and my mom made sure I knew how to at least whip up some spaghetti or Kraft mac 'n' cheese. I used to feel pretty self-sufficient ;-)

P.S. And is there a "long 'adulting,' short 'convenience economy'" pair trade here to consider? Hmmm....

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