I’ve had a lot of conversations lately where people I haven’t seen in a while stop talking. They look at me. They squint. Then they go, “You’re not in college anymore, are you?”
Nope, Toto. Not in college anymore.
In fact, I’ve passed the 1-year mark since college graduation. I have over 12 months of experience living in the “real world.” And the topic of twentysomethings, “boomerang kids,” and the new, extended adolescence keeps coming up in conversation. Adults of the last generation often shake their heads when I tell them I’m living at home, cobbling together freelance English work. “That’s not how it was when I was growing up,” they say. “Kids moved out to go to college and never came back.”
And we twentysomethings look at each other in desperate frustration.
The thing is, we’ve been handed a different world than the one our parents grew up in. With digital technology making many human-powered industries obsolete and a global economy that’s in the tank, many of the jobs our parents inherited no longer exist. Opportunity has looked in the mirror and found itself slimmer.
Life between college graduation and age 30 has always been fraught with decisions. But in this day and age, it’s even more charged with expectations and anxiety. Being a twentysomething can feel like setting out on a cross-country roadtrip with only a city map (or spotty satellite signal, if you take your GPS). You’re young, a little stupid, pretty naive, and doing ping-pong between immense enthusiasm and deflating depression. Most of your life experience comes from hearsay. And yet the decisions in these pivotal years set the course for the rest of your life. I find this quotation by Soren Kierkegaard, Danish theologian and one of my most-admired authors, very true: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forward.”
This is the time when soap-bubble dreams, spacious and unlimited, start to pop or settle down into the more tangible, more limited suds of reality. To choose your life’s course, you want to be a little informed about what you’re supposed to be doing here…what life is about…how to be happy and find meaning on a road that can feel confusing, dangerous, and sometimes disappointing.
So what do you do with a time when it feels like you’re blindly charting the course for the rest of your life?
Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist writing for the LA Times, pounces on this decade of frustration and anxiety to scold twentysomethings for not growing up at a satisfactory pace (you can read the whole article here). Stop acting like kids and start passing the milestones that will make you an adult, she says.
And what are those milestones? “Make money, get married, buy a house, go to graduate school, start a business, save for college and retirement, and have children.”
So life is about making money and wearing a ring on your left hand? Whoops.
An article by economist John Kay paints quite a different picture of purpose (read it here). Forget racking up a fat bank account or having 10 kids. He says that happiness is reached only by a principle he terms “obliquity.” It’s like looking at faint stars: when you aim your eyes directly at them, they disappear from your vision. But when you look just to the side, focusing on something else, you can see them quite clearly.
Kay quotes John Stuart Mill in saying that “aiming thus at something else, [happy people] arrive at happiness along the way.” To be happy, to enjoy this space of years we are granted, we need to not make “being happy” our goal. We must aim at something bigger than ourselves, bigger than our finances, our relationships, our legacies, in order to truly hit on what matters, what will satisfy the big, dark, frustrated hole inside most twentysomethings.
Not that finding love or having a savings account can’t be part of that bigger goal. I caught an episode of the show “Secret Millionaire” last night and was inspired to see the enormous power for good in the hands of people blessed with wealth. But buying a house and saving for retirement aren’t like the hokey-pokey: they’re not what it’s all about.
Kind of a paradox, isn’t it? In order to really be satisfied with life, we have to lose ourselves in working for something bigger. We’re whole only in self-forgetfulness. Jesus said almost just that: “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.”
So yes, I’m a twentysomething, a year out of college, still living at home, learning how to make a living by my pen. But ask me what I’m doing that’s bigger than myself. Who knows? I might even ask you the same question.