Thursday, August 18, 2011

Whose Timeline Is It, Anyway?

I think this article from the NY Times - entitled "What Is It With 20-Somethings?" - probably made its way around the Internet this week faster than the speed of clogging arteries currently occurring at the Iowa State Fair. (Fried butter, anyone?) I myself posted it to facebook, Twitter, and Google+ (my "big three", though, let's face it, this article about G+ is kind of about where I'm at these days - yeah, it's great, but nobody's using it, and it's an awful lot of work to try to shift your entire social network over to a new platform... I feel like I'm talking to a wall sometimes in G+. While the exclusivity was part of the draw, it also kind of defeats the purpose of a social network. I'm not calling it quits yet, but my interest is largely waning.)

The psych minor in me was practically bouncing up and down in my chair while reading it (though, if I'd actually been bouncing up and down in my seat, I probably could have gotten a nice lower-body workout, as the article spans nine pages, which, on the Internet, is pretty much the equivalent of War and Peace.) This is the kind of thing that fascinates me. If I hadn't gotten into our exclusive selective graphic design club program, I would have gone into that field. I'd actually probably still be in school, too, as a psych degree is fairly useless unless you go all the way. And you know I'd get ridiculous amounts of joy from being called Dr. Kelly.

The confused twenty-something in me, however, suffered from a blown mind and narrowly escaped a stiff neck from all the nodding along I was doing. I think it is safe to attribute all of my current angst and restlessness to this particular phenomenon, and while I'm not always keen on being lumped into generalizations (I am a special snowflake, dammit!), it's nice to know that I'm not a freak or a failure. This is happening to my entire generation. Sure, some people have it figured it out, but on the whole, we're lost. We're moving at a different pace than all of the generations before us... and yet, those generations have sent the benchmarkers for the timeline we're supposed to be following. We're playing by someone else's rules - no wonder it feels like we're not getting anywhere. What's more, I really do feel like an obscene amount of pressure has been placed on our generation to Be More, to be everything, do everything. We have all these opportunities and resources at our fingertips, but it's so overwhelming to even know where to start.

It doesn't help, either, to see all these other backyards that our peers are playing in, where the grass most definitely looks greener. But we can't all work for startups or be entrepreneurs or freelancers. It doesn't fit for everyone. I don't think it would work for me. I need stability and a steady income - I have far too many financial obligations and debts to pay down to play a paycheck roulette every month. I'm not sure I have the unbridled ambition, either. There are some days where I am definitely phoning it in - anyone who says they don't is a liar. But I can pick up the next day and it's okay. When my entire livelihood would revolve around being "on" all the time... I don't think I could do it. I'm exhausted and burnt out now, and I'm not working for myself. I'd either turn that perfectionist switch back on and run until I was probably actually hospitalized from exhaustion, or I'd get discouraged and hide under my blankets. Neither one is a desirable outcome. So I will stick with my 9-5 (or, um, 9-6ish, as it were) and try to make my path from here.

Scientifically speaking, I always focused more on social psych than developmental psych, so I'm not qualified to really sit on a soapbox about it, but it sounds like the adoption of a New Life Stage OMG is a pretty big deal, and it sounds like the rest of the psychology community isn't really having it. I can see their argument - for it to be An Actual Phase, it needs to be "universal and essential." This whole quarterlife crisis ("emerging adulthood") era seems to be pretty confined to, well, first world countries. Boo hoo, poor us and our problems. Not everyone goes through it. Not everyone will. But more and more of us are, and even if it's not a concrete developmental phase, it's definitely SOMETHING, and I think it's worth paying attention to. It's more than just a handful of us being in a rut - it's our whole generation, and it's not slowing down. I think it would do us well as a society to start adopting some new mindsets and possibly some modifications of social traditions and expectations, even if this phase doesn't get chiseled in the Rock of Developmental Stages. It clearly needs to be dealt with; left unchecked, it's going to have an effect on not just our generation, but the ones around us. (I'm not going to repeat the examples the article gave, you can read those if you want). It's especially going to be an interesting mix of demographics about ten, twenty years down the line when those of us who have pushed back some of the more traditional timelines are interspersed with those who haven't. I don't want to be picking out wedding flowers at my ripe old age of thirty-who-knows-what alongside some perky early-twenties recent college grad. It would make me stabby, I think. Granted, there will probably be another world-weary thirtysomething right there beside me, so there's that. I don't know where I'm going with this. My brain has wandered away from me.

In summary: there are a lot of social implications to our generation taking its sweet-ass time getting to where we're supposedly supposed to be. Good, bad, otherwise, who knows? On the one hand, our meandering paths might mean that we have had a chance to weigh our decisions and get it right the first time, because we felt confident about making up our mind. On the other, if the traditional status-quo timeline still exists and continues to be shoved down our throat, we might feel so rushed that we just give up and grab the first thing that comes along when we hit that ominous three-zero. I had a moment the other day, maybe it was today, I don't remember, where I suddenly felt very zen about turning thirty. It suddenly didn't bother me. Which is probably good, because I'll be turning twenty-seven next month and I can see Russia 30 from my house. Let's not dwell on this. On the third hand (because it's the future and we're now mutants), it doesn't even affect some of us at all - some people know what they want and by God they already got it. They've left us in the dust, those of us that struggle to figure out our place.

What about you guys? Are you part of this transient generation? Do you feel pressure to hurry up and hit those milestones? Have you already checked those things off your list? Do you second-guess yourself? Do you roll your eyes at the quarterlife-crisising group and mumble to yourself, why can't they just get their shit together? I'm really curious as to where everyone else lands.


verybadcat said...

economic factors can't be discounted; baby boomers are struggling to retire from the highest paid positions, and we have a glutton of professionals in an increasingly service-based economy. it isn't a failure to launch if there's nowhere to nest.

it's funny that you mention security and risk-tolerance as detractors to entrepreneurship. they absolutely are, no question, but my reasoning in setting out on my own was that in the long run, it's more secure. i'm thirty-one, i've worked since high school, and i've been laid off twice. if i build a clientele, the risk is diversified- no one company holds my entire future in their hands.

every generation bemoans some fatal flaw of the following generation. since the beginning of time, people have expressed concern that "the kids aren't right", and it never amounts to much.

i read an article in the atlantic yesterday about maslov's hierarchy and subsequent research on motivation and needs. the new studies suggest that far from a hierarchy, all needs are equal. in fact, if any need outweighs the others, it is the social need. i think that offers the best explanation of this delay in homeownership, marriage and career development. those things are inherently isolating and increasingly unstable.

of course, having divorced after a decade-long marriage and buying a house together colors my perception. but i think it resonates because there's truth there- the establishing of the family unit or a successful career requires a huge investment of time and effort that precludes fulfillment of social needs. the investment is a risky and volatile one; you're putting all of your eggs in historically unreliable baskets. so twenty-somethings want to be sure that they're on the right path before they take on those restrictions.

which makes them smarter than the people who jumped into the hard stuff and are now single and broke in their forties because it all fell apart or they realized they didn't want any of it.

i'm just lucky that the process moved more swiftly in my case.

Ashley, the Accidental Olympian said...

I felt like I was in the middle of the worst kind of quarter life crisis for almost the whole two years we lived in Olympia. When my career was basically stolen out from under me and I shifted gears to an unemployed homeowner living in the burbs, let's just say I was completely LOST.

When I ended up having to take a part time UNDER PAID job that was seriously beneath me I felt like everything I'd been sold in high school and college was a damn lie. Only once I magically got my job back with my original company and felt as if I was back on track for a career did I feel like I left the quarter life crisis behind. But, it took me two years, therapy, and medication to get there.

So, I think it's completely legit that 20 somethings are lost. Watching my sister graduate from college and step into the work force was terrifying. There's almost nothing there for them. The whole, "You can do it" thing is gone. Now it's just, "SURVIVE."

It's a fucking mess out there.

terra said...

These developmental stages are fascinating to me. Childhood is such a brand new thing and now, with the whole boomerang thing, adolescence basically lasts until mid-20s. We're a long way from 100 years ago when kids pretty much popped out of the womb expected to be polite and proper mini adults.

Steph A said...

I've been neglecting your blog for the past couple of weeks. But, never fear, for i shall catch up.

It's interesting that society is changing to accommodate this "new" developmental stage—in the form of people staying on their parents' health insurance longer, and such. So when i joke that having a child means giving up eighteen years of your life (and money), i'll have to start saying something more like twenty-two years or twenty-four years. YIKES.

Did you know that life expectancy is up to about 80 in this country now? EIGHTY. We're EXPECTED to live to be 80. That is amazing!

I have little mini-crises all the time (like right now, as a matter of fact) but i think that as a rule, our generation needs to realize that we cannot all be as fucking special as we think we need to be. When i was thirteen i honestly believed that i could become a famous actor AND a model AND a singer by the time i was twenty if i really wanted to. And it just set me up for disappointment.

I don't think we tend to value the small pleasures in life enough. Having plenty of food to eat. Being close to our families. We all think we need to strike out and move away and Become Something. I don't know where the idea came from, but it causes a lot of depression and anxiety, when in reality we have it so made.