Future Tense

Alexa, How Do I #Adult?

Millennials may not be equipped with the skills they need, but the Echo is.

An Amazon Echo in the foreground as a woman chops vegetables in the background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and Amazon.

Alexa, what’s in the fridge? Do you know? Because I certainly don’t. Alexa, how long have these Brussels sprouts been here? And can I still eat this rice? Alexa, how do I season a cast iron skillet? In the oven … are you sure? Should I get a credit card? What is a W-2? How do I get a stain out of silk? Alexa, what should I do with my life?

Generation Uphill,” they call us, and was there ever a cohort more receiving of pity and scorn? If you’ve been following the think pieces, you’d be justified in being surprised that so many of us have kept ourselves alive: The stereotype, warranted or not, that millennials are struggling to #adult is widespread, and it’s more durable than my houseplant (RIP).

Less controversial is the stereotype that we love our in-home technology. Market research shows that millennials are most responsible for the rapid uptake in voice-assisted smart speakers, with their use “projected to outstrip Gen X usage 2-to-one for the next three years, and outstrip Boomer usage 3-to-one.” As tech natives, millennials are more likely to embrace and become immediately comfortable with new technology, with anything that offers to make our lives easier. We may not like calling or interacting with people, but we’ll happily do so with futuristic tech.

We also have a lot of questions. Some of them are about the news or the weather, but many more of them are about how to be a functioning grown-up. “So it turns out, being an adult is mostly just googling how to do stuff,” goes one of the internet’s numerous “adulting” memes. (After all, “one does not simply turn 18 and morph into an adulting adult.”) That’s not to say that all millennials are flailing when it comes to adulthood, but many are. According to a Bank of America survey of 18- to 26-year-olds, 40 percent of college-educated grads don’t feel prepared for the “real world,” while more than one-quarter of young people said they wish school had taught them how to manage monthly bills and do taxes.

Enter the Echo. The number of enablable skills in the Alexa Skills Store has reached more than 30,000, though some are of questionable quality (like Remember Your Keys, which tells you to remember your keys … but only if you say “Alexa, open Remember Your Keys”). Alexa is full of life skills and organizational tips, and a growing number seem to be targeted at millennials struggling to run their own lives. Are millennials picking something up from Alexa other than a penchant for NPR?

Search for “adulting” in Alexa Skills, and you’ll find Adulting Guide, a skill that “provides advice for young adults starting out on their own.” It has six areas in which it can advise those wishing to #adult: Finance, Auto, Insurance, Time Management, Food, and Home. (Someone should probably tell the makers of Adulting Guide that millennials aren’t buying cars.) “Welcome to the 411 for adulting,” says the guide when I enable it. “If you are just getting started on your own, you can pick up some helpful information here.” When I ask for an insurance tip, the guide tells me, “Investing in good, quality food and regular exercise is the best way to insure yourself against future health problems.” (It’s not bad life advice, but …) It’s clear this skill is trying to condescend to millennials when I ask for a household tip: “Vinegar and baking soda are not just effective for science fair volcanoes but are useful agents to clean pots, pans, and even the kitchen sink.”

If you’re in an existential crisis, you can turn to Operation Millennial: “Advice for millennials on answering that age-old question, “What Should I Do With My Life” in college, career and relationships”—surely helpful for us self-absorbed millennials, obsessed with “finding ourselves,” though unfortunately it had no advice/updates for me today. A search for “millennial” also returns Millennial Money, The Personal Brand, and Patience & Hustle Daily—an exhaustive list of what millennials need to survive. Oh, and of course this Unofficially Magical Conch Shell (definitely not affiliated with Magic 8-Ball) for making those big quarter-life decisions. In fact, millennials living away from home for the first time can actually turn Alexa into a parent with skills Mom Says and Dad-Bot. When I asked for some Mom advice, I was told never to be afraid to say I don’t know, and to “at least once, date someone with beautiful red hair.” Dad was ready with some tough love: “If you want to be a dumbass, then keeping doing it that way.”

Other brands are also seeing the potential in helping millennials win at life. One bank launched an Alexa Skill that converts prices into “CurrenSee,” or the equivalent working hours, targeted at—you guessed it—us spendthrift millennials. (Alexa, convert one avocado toast into hours spent working minimum wage.) Soon there may no longer be a need for Still Tasty, the site that tells you how long produce will stay fresh: This Kickstarter wants to create Alexa-connected smart Tupperware that warns you when food is about to go bad. Alexa’s Household Chores tips, meanwhile, are verging on insulting. If you ask for one, Alexa suggests, “How about washing bedding and towels today?” (Well duh, with what, Ned?)

On the other end of the spectrum, smart homes are helping another transitioning generation—baby boomers—to “age in place” and maintain their independence. Smart homes allow older people to control lights and temperature, answer the door, order groceries, and keep their minds engaged. A number of these smart home features wouldn’t go astray in a millennial household—including turning off the stove if left unattended too long.

It’s clear that some millennials are struggling a little with adult life, but it’s not our fault. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett—a Clark University psychology professor whose research focuses on what he has termed “emerging adulthood,” the period between adolescence and full-fledged adulthood—says that this gap has lengthened over time. In his TEDx Talk, “Why Does It Take So Long to Grow Up Today?,” Arnett says that due to numerous recent revolutions—sexual, women’s, technological—young people are completing major milestones—marrying, graduating, starting a home—later in life. It’s during this phase of roommates, further study, and emerging adulthood that we may feel like we’re struggling to feed and clothe ourselves—and turn to memes about #adulting and #wine.

When I call him to ask, Arnett says he isn’t particularly worried about millennials, or their use of digital assistants. Our transition to adulthood may be slower, but #adulting is something that most people pick up gradually. For tech native millennials, Alexa is just “another source of information,” says Arnett. “And information is good when you’re going into new challenges and new responsibilities that you may not fully feel you’re ready for.”

Hey, as Mom Says always says, never be afraid to say, “I don’t know.”