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Archive for the ‘quarterlife’ Category

Flying solo is in–in a serious way. A New York Times Q&A with Eric Kilnenberg, NYU sociology professor and author of the new book “Going Solo,” leads with the facts:

In 1950, 22 percent of American adults were single. Now that number is almost 50 percent. One in seven adults lives alone. Half of all Manhattan residences are one-person dwellings.

Kilnenberg has done his research. He spent a decade studying the phenomenon while working on his book, and he has all kinds of good explanations for those numbers. There’s less stigma than there once was around being single. People crave privacy and personal space–tough to preserve when you’re sharing a bathroom. From another piece he wrote several weeks ago,

Living alone comports with modern values. It promotes freedom, personal control and self-realization–all prized aspects of contemporary life.

And Kilnenberg’s not the only one digging in. Melanie Kurtin enumerated what keeps her from committing here and Dominique Browning did the same thing here, while Kate Bolick’s much-discussed piece in The Atlantic, “All the Single Ladies,” leads with a simple confession:

In 2001, WHEN I was 28, I broke up with my boyfriend. Allan and I had been together for three years, and there was no good reason to end things. He was (and remains) an exceptional person, intelligent, good-looking, loyal, kind. My friends, many of whom were married or in marriage-track relationships, were bewildered. I was bewildered. To account for my behavior, all I had were two intangible yet undeniable convictions: something was missing; I wasn’t ready to settle down.

And this, I think, really gets at the truth behind our reluctance to commit: to borrow–and tweak–a phrase from a long-ago presidential campaign, It’s too many choices, stupid!

When we’re told that we can have it all, that everything is on the table, why would we ever commit to anything? Even if we know we love the thing to which we’re committing, we can’t help but wonder about all the things we didn’t choose.

And I’m not just talking about relationships.

Too many options applies to commitment of the romantic sort, sure, but also to jobs and where we should live and what kind of life we should have. Passion or paycheck? Security or freedom? Long hair or short? High heels or hiking boots?

Deciding, by definition, means “to kill.” Choosing one thing means you’re killing the possibility of having the other. And when we’re raised on the idea that anything’s possible–and every option is available–we see choosing anything as settling. And, of course, it is–it’s settling for something less than everything.

When you decide to take one path, there’s a risk of missing out on something–something we often imagine to be glorious, the proverbial greener grass–waiting for us at the end of another. As Hannah, a woman we profile in Undecided, put it:

The grass is always greener. Like, do I want to move to San Francisco? Colorado? South America? Will life be any better in any of those places? Probably not. But it might be, so there’s that risk that I’m taking by not moving.

This mindset is so prevalent, some worry we have an entire generation of commitmentphobes on our hands. Psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett is trying to get the in-between stage–the years when we try different jobs/relationships/cities/hairstyles on for size–designated as a distinct life stage, one he calls Emerging Adulthood. People don’t spent their entire career with one company anymore–the very idea sounds Flinstonian. Nor do they generally marry their high school sweethearts. To paraphrase Hannah, There’s that risk we’re taking by not checking out what else is out there. We have the whole world to explore first!

For women in particular, it’s excruciating. Because, in addition to that message–that we can do anything!–we were fed another, often from the women just a generation or two older than us, who weren’t afforded the same opportunity: that we’re so lucky that we can do anything. And combined, they leave many of us shouldering a load of responsibility. 

From a post I wrote some time ago,

This bounty of opportunity is so new that we were sent off to conquer it with no tools–just an admonishment that we’d best make the most of it.

We know we’re blessed to have all of these options. We get it. And so is it any wonder we want a shot at each and every one of them?

But therein lies the rub.

We want to travel, but can’t take off whenever we feel like it if we’re also going to get our business off the ground–and featured in Oprah. We want a family, but that’d mean that packing up and moving to Cairo or New Orleans on a whim is pretty much off the table. We want to be there for our daughter’s every milestone, yet we also want to model what a successful career woman looks like. We want torrid affairs and hot sex, but where would that leave our husbands? We want financial security and a latte on our way to the office every morning, but sit in our ergonomically correct chairs daydreaming about trekking through Cambodia with nothing but our camera and mosquito net. We want to be an artist, but have gotten rather used to that roof over our heads. We want to be ourselves, fully and completely, but would like to fit in at cocktail parties, too. (And when on earth are we going to find the time to write our novel??)

We want to do it all, to try it all before we buy! And that, I believe, is what’s at the root of the cold feet. Choices are hard. Damn hard. And every one of them entails a trade-off. The work is in accepting that–and in finding out who you are right down at your core, and figuring which of those trade-offs you can live with.

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Today’s post is one of those ones that I’ve thought about writing often, but been happy to shy away from. It’s tricky territory. But over the past week, fate intervened: first, in the form of the New York Magazine in my mailbox, which screamed from the cover: Fifty years ago, the pill ushered in a new era of sexual freedom. It might have created a fertility crisis as well. And then, in the form of a headline on one of my Google Alerts, a personal essay by Elaine Gale, called Breaking up with feminism: A heartbreaking loss led to a new and deeper relationship–with the Feminine.

At issue: the not-so pleasant side effect of the power to impose a little control over our reproductive lives: that while we indeed have incredible control to suppress our fertility (while still expressing our sexuality) while we establish ourselves professionally, or financially, or just allow ourselves to get the sowing-of-the-wild-oats out of our systems, well, we don’t have control over when our reproductive systems time out.

Just typing that out loud feels like I’m a traitor to the cause. Because, you know, the Pill is a good thing, as I’ve mentioned before. As Vanessa Grigoriadis writes in the NY Mag piece,

…the Pill, after all, is so much more than just a pill. It’s magic, a trick of science that managed in one fell swoop to wipe away centuries of female oppression, overly exhausting baby-making, and just marrying the wrong guy way too early.

True, dat. Quoting Kelli Conlin, president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health, Grigoriadis goes on:

“Today, we operate on a simple premise–that every little girl should be able to grow up to be anything she wants, and she can only do so if she has the ability to chart her own reproductive destiny.”

…These days, women’s twenties are as free and fabulous as they can be, a time of boundless freedom and experimentation, of easily trying on and discarding identities, careers, partners.

And, you know, why shouldn’t we take equal part in that experimentation–a time that’s become so fundamental to the American experience, science types are trying to get it distinguished as an entirely new life stage? The Pill gave women power and freedom and equality — and what could possibly be more empowering than that? These very things were the great promises of feminism.

Which brings us to Gale’s story:

I loved all the things Feminism whispered to me at night when I couldn’t sleep:

“You deserve the world on your own terms.”

“I will take care of you and make sure that things are fair.”

“You can have it all!”

…Meanwhile, my life had a repeating narrative: professional success, romantic mess. There was Mr. Right Now, Mr. Adorable Slacker, Mr. Too Bland, Mr. Has Potential, Mr. Too Old For Me, and then Mr. Artistic But Unstable.

I always thought that I had plenty of time to get married and crank out some children. Women can do anything they want when they want, right? That’s what feminism was always whispering in my ear.

Then, at age 36, she married her husband. She writes:

We decided that we wanted to have a child, although at the time, I partly saw it as another box to check off. After the miscarriage, feminism and I had our falling out.

What’s feminism got to do with it? Here’s Gale’s take:

Feminism was always going on and on about the importance of having choices. But I found that my biological choice to have a child was snatched away from me while I was being liberated.

I had been told that I could have my career first and have children second. That it wasn’t either/or. I thought that it was going to be better for us than it was for our mothers. But my mom ended up with a wonderful career as a university professor and had three children.

Confused, I rued the day I fell under feminism’s sway. How could I have been so naive? How could I have put off having children so late that I have possibly missed the opportunity to have children at all?

Tough stuff. And props to Gale for that kind of blunt honesty. Back to Grigoriadis:

The fact is that the Pill, while giving women control of their bodies for the first time in history, allowed them to forget about the biological realities of being female until it was, in some cases, too late… Inadvertently, indirectly, infertility has become the Pill’s primary side effect.

And ironically, this most basic of women’s issues is one that traditional feminism has a very hard time processing–the notion that this freedom might have a cost is thought to be so dangerous it shouldn’t be mentioned.

And that, I tend to think, is the real trouble here. Not the cost itself–but the reluctance to admit to it. It seems to me that we’re shying away from what may be the biggest challenge for women today: admitting that freedom might–no, does–come with a cost. In the reproductive realm, yes, clearly — but in the larger sense too: We’re missing the rather nasty message that every choice entails a trade-off. That we can’t have it all.

You read that right, sister. You can’t. I can’t. No one can. It’s an ugly message, so is it any surprise so few of us want to go there?

It’s funny, the other night, I was out to dinner with some friends, and one was asking me about the book. And I said something that left him stunned: that when we talk about “choice,” we focus on all the options, and the things that we choose. But, by its very definition, making a choice entails not choosing something else. We just like to leave that part out.

And he looked at me with his mouth open for a minute or two, and said, Holy Crap! That’s so true, but you’re right, no one ever talks about that.

I think we should talk about that. Not least because there’s something about talking about stuff that makes even the suckiest of stuff suck a little bit less. Seems like Grigoriadis might agree:

Sexual freedom is a fantastic thing, worth paying a lot for. But it’s not anti-feminist to want to be clearer about exactly what is being paid. Anger, regret, repeated miscarriages, the financial strain of assisted reproductive technologies, and the inevitable damage to careers and relationships in one’s thirties and forties that all this involve deserve to be weighed and discussed. The next stage in feminism, in fact, may be to come to terms, without guilt trips or defensiveness, with issues like this.

The reluctance to discuss the very real consequences of putting off getting pregnant because we’re afraid doing so would somehow discount the very important freedom that comes with being able to put off getting pregnant does us a disservice. Is that freedom of any less value because it comes with trade-offs? When we talk of choices only in terms of what we choose–and never with a nod to our feelings over what we consequently choose to leave behind… well, how empowering is that, really? And when we talk of “having it all” as though all “all” entails is a big bowl of cherries, how are we to feel when we realize that, in aiming to have it all, what we’ve really wound up with is all of the work?

They’re tough questions, and they require tough honesty. Isn’t there some kind of pill for that?


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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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Lately I’ve been getting a lot of emails from former students, wondering what to do with themselves when grown-up dreams get bitch-slapped by recession-era reality. One, from a talented writer, whose job fell through after only a matter of weeks, particularly hit home. Should she stay in the big city, where she had just scored the perfect apartment, she wondered, or move back to the comfort of her middle-of-the-country roots.

Moving home, she wrote, was “somewhat appealing. But then again, not at all.”

Which reminded me of an apocryphal story I once heard that speaks — in a very weird way — to the tyranny of the comfort zone. It goes like this: There was this housewife who for years cut the ends off a roast beef before she put it in the oven, until someone asked her why. That was the way her mother always did it, she replied, but then got to wondering herself. And so for the first time, she asked her elderly mother why SHE cut the ends off the roast. Her mother’s reply? Because the pan wasn’t big enough.

And therein lies the danger of sticking only with what you know — why, as Shannon wrote in Perfection: A Zero Love Game, comfort zones can morph into prisons of our own making: You stop asking why. You forget to explore.  It’s not just about moving back to your high school bedroom after college, or cooking dinner the same way your mother always did. It’s also about surrounding yourself with people just like you, people who think like you think and do like you do — whether they’re hipsters or jocks, high school buddies or sorority sisters, take-no-prisoners business types or stay-at-home moms. If you’re stuck in a homogeneous universe, as comfort zones so often are, your world shrinks. And there’s the danger. Before long, you not only become trapped by the norm of your own particular niche, you cease to question it. Choices that take you beyond it — in any direction — get scary.  Cognitive dissonance, the method by which we learn and grow?  Out the window.

To a certain extent, all this comfort zone business can be a cliche of the quarter-life crisis, which Washington Post reporter Lindsay Minnema tackled anew last month:

It’s not a new phenomenon, but today’s young people seem to experience it more acutely than the young people who came before them. And with the tumultuous economy and job market meltdown of the past year, recent grads are getting a double helping of quarter-life anxiety.

Unlike young adults of generations past, many of whom were married and settled in their careers by their mid-20s, today’s college grads experience a longer period of transition to the settled-down stage, said Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a research professor of psychology at Clark University in Massachusetts and author of “Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road From Late Teens Through the Twenties.”

“It is a unique time of life when people are not entirely dependent on their parents . . . but they don’t have a stable life structure with marriage and parenthood and stable work,” Arnett said. “They go in a lot of directions, change jobs a lot, change love partners. They go through a long period of figuring out who they are and how they fit in the world.”

Arnett believes this transition period can be positive, with its opportunities for growth and adventure. But for some people, the turmoil brings worry, fears of failure or of being trapped by responsibilities, or depression.

On that latter note, Minnema quotes Leslie Seppinni, a marriage and family therapist and doctor of clinical psychology in Beverly Hills, Calif., who suggests that one route out of their funk is for quarter-lifers to expand their horizons:

Instead of stewing in their misery, quarter-lifers should focus on what they can change, Seppinni said. “Although it is a time of depression, it is also a time of being creative in getting yourself to do something out of your comfort zone,” she said. “Embrace the challenge.”

Meanwhile, what did I write to that former student? Nothing profound. Just this:

I once held a job for three days. This is true. They were the longest, most awful days of my life. But at least I knew. Your next step will likely evolve, rather than present itself as such. Meanwhile, don’t give up. And yes, you should definitely test the waters in ——- to see if you like the city, by working as a barrista if need be. If you packed up and left right now, you’d always wonder if you had missed out. You may love it. Or you may hate it. In which case, you can skip away happily in search of something new…

In other words, you’ll give yourself the chance to figure it out.

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But is that necessarily a bad thing? Not completely.

In a piece in last week’s New York Times, Alex Williams explored what college kids and newly minted graduates might be doing this recessionary summer. The answer? For a great many of them, moving back home with mom and pop. He writes:

The well-paying summer jobs that in previous years seemed like a birthright have grown scarce, and pre-professional internships are disappearing as companies cut back across the board. Recession-strapped parents don’t always have the means or will to bankroll starter apartments or art tours of Tuscany.

So many college students and recent graduates are heading to where they least expected: back home, and facing an unfamiliar prospect: downtime, maybe too much of it. To a high-achieving generation whose schedules were once crammed with extracurricular activities meant to propel them into college, it feels like an empty summer — eerie, and a bit scary.

And yet. For a generation that’s been pushed, prodded,”given trophies just for showing up” and told they could do anything so long as they worked hard enough, the staycation in their high school bedroom might in fact have an upside. For one thing, it’s a safe lesson that, no matter how hard you work, life sometimes intervenes. And, hidden at the end of Williams’ story, is another glimpse of a silver lining:

In the short term, the lost summer of 2009 might actually be a blessing, some psychologists said, especially because members of this generation have lived their lives like track stars trying to run a marathon at the pace of a 100-meter dash — their parents typically waiting at every turn with a stopwatch.

“Parents have really put a lot of pressure on the kids — everything has been organized, they’re all taking A.P. courses, then summer hits and they’re going to learning camps,” said Peter A. Spevak, a psychologist in Rockville, Md. Now, he said, with opportunities for achievement at a minimum this summer, “there is something to be said about sitting out on a warm evening and looking at the stars — they need more of this contemplation and self-evaluation.”

In other words, time off the treadmill. Where passions often have time to percolate, and looking at choices becomes less stressful, and more thoughtful.

One of my students recently told me he will be spending his post grad summer living in his parents’ basement — and, since the job prospects are slim and none, taking the time to do some serious work on his writing and his music.

He’s looking forward to it.

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Undecided? Numbers say you’re in good company

If Hana R. Alberts is right about quarter-lifers being the hardest hit by the choice conundrum, there are a lot of twenty somethings out there scratching their heads, trying to make up their minds. The census bureau reports that there are some 75 million millenials (born between 1980 and 1995) among us.

Of those millennials, 1.7 million are women who graduated from college this June. If you’re one of them, you’re out there right now, casting about for something to do that comes with a paycheck, right?

Once you do find that job (trust me, you will) you’ll likely follow your big sisters’ footsteps — and get a new one: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average tenure of 25 – 34 year-old women in any one job is 2.6 years.

You may even do a couple of jobs simultaneously. According to Tina Brown, an exclusive poll commissioned by “The Daily Beast” found that one-third of the respondents—college-educated workers over 18—reported that they were either working freelance or two jobs. A few weeks later, Brown told NPR that in light of what she calls the gig economy, “the word ‘career’ is going to become antiquated.” In other words, more choices still.

And sooner or later, you’ll move. A recent Pew Research study on “movers and stayers” found that 77 percent of college graduates have changed communities at least once, and are more likely to have lived in multiple states. Sixty-five percent of women classify themselves as “movers” rather than “stayers,” and 45 percent of those who have moved say they will move again.

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