Over winter break I was forced to come to grips with some difficult and grim realities. To begin with, I am 21 and still living with my parents. Next, my primary source of income comes from delivering pizzas. Finally, and worst of all, I’m graduating from college in just four short months.
This last undeniable fact sucks in a profound way. I have never fully accepted the reality of my own adulthood, and now I no longer have any grounds to deny it. I’ve racked up $20,000 in student loans to get this ridiculous education, and because my grades aren’t good enough for graduate school I’ll either have to fake my death or get a job.
How could this have happened? How could my spectacular laziness and asocial tendencies have carried me this far in life? And just how am I supposed to get a job with a Bachelor of Arts in history and English?
As I pondered these ominous questions over several anxiety-filled weeks, I began to notice something: All my friends who are my age – an age when they should be graduating from college, getting jobs and beginning their adult lives – are instead finding themselves locked in a kind of transitional state defined by a deep sense of uncertainty and temporariness.
Instead of starting careers they are taking several part-time jobs or internships at once and living at home to save money. Many are still financially dependent on their parents, and almost none have any plans to get married.
Some are finishing their undergraduate degrees and are already thinking about more school, often in fields totally unrelated to what they’ve been studying. Still others are secretly plotting to move to places such as California or Europe – areas they know nothing about and where they have no job prospects – on the faint and improbable hope that something better awaits them in far-off places.
There are several ways to interpret all this, but it seems to me that our generation suffers from a serious lack of direction.
In fact, ambiguity over what to do with one’s life has become so statistically common among young people that sociologists have invented a whole new term to describe the life stage between 18 and 34: “transitional adulthood.”
In December, The New York Times reported that over the last three decades, the percentage of people in their 20s and 30s who live with their parents has increased by 50 percent. In that same time period, the median age of first marriage increased by four years. And the average amount of time it takes to finish college has increased from four to six years.
In other words, we’re taking longer and longer to reach the traditional benchmarks of adulthood: education, marriage and financial independence.
I don’t want to imply that a 9-to-5 job, a nuclear family and a house with a white picket fence are the only standards by which to judge one’s life – not by a long shot. But it seems equally clear that as the old standards disappear, it becomes harder to define the nature and meaning of adulthood.
So what should we be doing? Working? Learning? Nothing at all? Is there anything wrong with being a “transitional adult?”
On one hand, it seems perfectly reasonable to live rent-free at home so you can save money and accumulate enough education to move on to bigger and better things.
On the other hand, it appears there is a kind of aimless despair involved in being a “transitional adult.” To put your life in a state of constant preparation for the future implies that the present is meaningless and unimportant. Shouldn’t youth be devoted to more interesting things than mere preparation for old age?
Most of our lives have been comparatively easier than those of our parents, and yet people our age seem more lost and uncertain than older generations who had fewer opportunities in life. It seems paradoxical, but the truth is it’s easier to make decisions when you have fewer choices.
I’ve been mulling over my options for post-college life for some time, and although I haven’t figured out exactly what I’m going to do yet, I have reached at least one solid conclusion: The only way to figure out what you want in life is to try new things.
This is why the concept of “transitional adulthood” makes me nervous. It might be a path to a bigger and brighter future, but it is also an all-too-convenient excuse to avoid the financial, moral and emotional obligations of living life on your own terms. After all, if we never strike out on our own, how can we know who we really are?
Nick Busse is a columnist. He welcomes comments at [email protected]