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Archive for the ‘Quarter-lifer’ Category

By now, you’ve surely seen it. The cover story in this Sunday’s New York Times magazine went viral days before it landed on my doorstep. Robin Marantz Henig’s “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” focuses a lot on the work of psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, who’s trying to get “Emerging Adulthood” identified as an official, distinct life stage. Arnett’s quest is an interesting one, but, regardless whether the label will earn approval, there’s little question that it fits.

Here is, as we geeks of the pen call it, the nut:

It’s happening all over, in all sorts of families, not just young people moving back home but also young people taking longer to reach adulthood overall. It’s a development that predates the current economic doldrums, and no one knows yet what the impact will be–on the prospects of the young men and women; on the parents on whom so many of them depend; on society, built on the expectation of an orderly progression in which kids finish school, grow up, start careers, make a family and eventually retire to live on pensions supported by the next crop of kids who finish school, grow up, start careers, make a family and on and on. The traditional cycle seems to have gone off course, as young people remain untethered to romantic partners or to permanent homes, going back to school for lack of better options, traveling, avoiding commitments, competing ferociously for unpaid internships or temporary (and often grueling) Teach for America jobs, forestalling the beginning of adult life.

The subsequent discussion that’s hit the airwaves and the blogosphere comes down like this: Yes, for many 20-somethings, and opposed to maybe their parents’ generation, and certainly their parents’ parents’ generation, the decade is more about exploration than commitment. It makes sense: we live–and work–a lot longer now than ever before. And the interconnected nature of modern life puts all the options out there, front and center on our computer screen, the riper for the fantasizing. So is it any wonder that today’s 20-somethings would rather try before they buy? Rule things out as they make their way, honing in–circuitously… eventually… maybe–on what they ultimately want for their lives? Whether that’s jobs, locations, or romantic partners, the goal of this cohort, in the words of blogger Jessie Rosen,

is to get to the right place, not to get there at the “right time.” It’s not that we don’t know what it means to be an adult and how we’re supposed to do it–it’s that we do.

We are painfully aware that the decisions in our 20s lay the foundation for all of adult life. We know exactly how old our parents were when they had us, and exactly what they sacrificed as a result. We know that time is precious, age isn’t really just a number, and having kids changes everything…

What is so much better about becoming an adult faster?

What am I gaining by taking my time versus what I’m losing by just getting to it already? With every year I wait to be ready to get married, am I letting all the people there are to marry pass me by? Will I be a better, more mature mother at 35 or would I have been just as adept and instinctual at 25? If I live at home with my parents for one more year while I save up to be a full-time writer, will that leave an eternal mark of lame on my life resume? Does being an adult mean having the maturity to know you’re not ready for adult things, or having the maturity to dive in and just figure it out? Won’t I be a better, happier, healthier adult if I take my time getting there?

All of which begs the question: what is this “adult life,” anyway?

According to the NYT piece, sociologists typically define adulthood using a checklist comprised of five milestones (altogether, now!): completing school, leaving home, financial independence, marriage, children. In 1960, 77% of women and 65% of men had ticked them all off by the time they hit the big 3-0. As of 2000, less than 50% of women and one-third of men had killed the checklist.

But, again, to quote–well, myself–is it really that simple?

While financial independence is one thing, as for the rest of it–marriage, parenthood, and one single Career–is making such commitments all there is to being an adult? Is signing on to something–one thing–forever and ever the only thing that can ferry you over the threshold, out of NeverNeverLand and into GrownUpDom?

The idea of checklists, commitments, clearly demarcated life stages, they imply a destination, rather than a journey. And I think the fact of the matter is that whether you’ve got the mortgage, the 2.1 progeny, and the pension plan or not, life is always a journey. We are always emerging, as Arnett puts it. And in that way, it’s apt, though not a stage at all. It’s just life.


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I came across this story in the Philadelphia Enquirer the other day about the new angst of quarterlifers. (I’ve buried the lead once again. But stay with me here.) The story revisited the book, Quarterlife Crisis, written back in 2001, and then went on to enumerate the ways in which the Crisis, thanks to the recession, is worse than ever:

Experts say the quarterlife crisis might be harder to navigate now than when the book came out. Entry-level employees, for example, are fighting for fewer jobs and lower pay, [Abby] Wilner, [coauthor of Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties] said in an e-mail interview recently.

“It’s absolutely a tough time,” she wrote.

Even those with jobs are in rough waters, said Dustin Williams, a career counselor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. A glut of older employees aren’t budging because they can’t afford to retire, so younger ones can’t move up. Plus, less-experienced employees are more likely to get laid off. Job security is a real luxury these days.

“Four or five years ago, “Williams said, “people would say, ‘Well, I’m not happy, so I’ll just change jobs and see how I do.’ “

Now, more than ever, it’s easy to get stuck in crisis mode. And recent college graduates are lucky if they land a job at all.

The story goes on to paint pix of doom and gloom, of how difficult it is these days to be twentysomething and trying to make your way in the world, noting a recent Harvard poll that found that 60 percent of young adults worried about whether they would ever end up better off than their parents.

Flipping to the upside, the story continues:

Yeah, becoming an adult and figuring out your future can be painful, especially these days. But it’s only natural, said Deborah Smith, a sociology professor at University of Missouri-Kansas City. Many people experience angst in their 20s because they’re reflecting on their lives for the first time in a long time, she said.

“In my mind, it’s not a crisis,” Smith said. “It’s a decision point, a pressure point, a life-stage change.”

Which brings me to my point, albeit a bit circuitously. But first, let me first say I know (from second-hand experience) about the presumed death of the dream for so many twentysomethings these days: no matter what their goals, it’s hard out there to reach them. At least at first. Money is tight, jobs are scarce and switching out the dream in exchange for settling — or moving back to your high school bedroom — is a real possibility. But yet.

It isn’t necessarily a crisis. At least right now. Unless, of course, you convince yourself it is. Which leads me to my point.

You have to wonder if quarterlife angst goes viral when you’re attached to a hundred different lives-in-crisis at any given time, when you’re inadvertently seeking out those who either share or validate your own personal misery. Call it over-sharing times, well, a number that may coincide with twitter and Facebook friends. A friend once described her Facebook page in terms of a cocktail party: You’ve got this conversation going on over here, but over there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of others you can eavesdrop on as you scroll down the page. I wonder if the better metaphor might be slumber party.

While all those connections might give a good sense of the zeitgeist, it’s not too much of a stretch to suspect that a certain amount of quarterlife angst can be contagious, especially among younger women, given research out of the University of Missouri back in 2007.

The study found that when adolescent girls did too much venting with their girlfriends over their problems, they ended up feeling worse. Yep, more miserable. Their friendships got stronger, the researchers, found, but the girls got caught up in a vicious cycle in which their anxiety led to more venting, which in turn – you guessed it – led to more angst. Getting off on the drama of it all? Who knows. But the more they talked, the worse they felt.

Not good, wrote Carol Lloyd on Salon’s Broadsheet some time later. She connected the study to her own childhood, growing up in 1970’s-era Northern California where, because her family …

used to process every five-minute spat with several hours of grueling self-analysis, early on I developed an acute case of communication fatigue. Feelings, I decided in my own little Idaho of tough love, could be crutches, disguises and distractions from the things we want to do, the people we want to become.

Clearly, feelings are not to be denied. (In fact, haven’t we said many times that gut instinct can be a good compass?) And yet. Despite the fact that we’re not teenagers, nor is life like a slumber party, you still have to wonder: Does angst beget angst? Is crisis mode contagious?

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