The art of the 20-something life crisis

"When I was your age, I was older than you." Those are words my dad said to me on my 30th birthday, and they seem relevant today. There's a great article in the NY Times this week that talks about the peculiar stubbornness of modern-day 20-somethings – a lot of them just have a hard time growing up. It's a pretty involved read if you care to soak it all in, but I just wanted to touch on a few points that hit home for me. From the article:
The 20s are a black box, and there is a lot of churning in there. One-third of people in their 20s move to a new residence every year. Forty percent move back home with their parents at least once. They go through an average of seven jobs in their 20s, more job changes than in any other stretch. Two-thirds spend at least some time living with a romantic partner without being married. And marriage occurs later than ever. The median age at first marriage in the early 1970s, when the baby boomers were young, was 21 for women and 23 for men; by 2009 it had climbed to 26 for women and 28 for men, five years in a little more than a generation.
Speaking personally, I moved back "home" after college. The plan was to make it a very temporary stay. Unfortunately, getting a steady paycheck as a personal trainer is much easier conceived than achieved. I floated from one job to the next, bartending for a while to get some extra cash, and all in all spent a good two and a half years trying to get my life together. I was more than a little miserable. I realized of course that moving back home after school is becoming increasingly common, but it's certainly not what anyone dreams of doing. Most of us are damn happy to get out of the house and have our own space.

I've been fortunate to have had a great job for the last several years, and although the pay is probably a fraction of what some of my masters-degree, law degree, or B.S. in chemical engineering friends are pulling in, I have everything I need. But what about all that other stuff? I just turned 31, and I'm still single, never been married and without kids. Earlier this year I was seeing someone and I thought those rosy things might be in sight, but she ended up having a 20-something crisis of her own. With every failed relationship or even every spark that ends up leading nowhere, I have to readjust my expectations a bit. I'm not exactly in a rush to get married or have kids, but I also don't want to be like "Mystery" from VH1's The Pickup Artist, late into my 30s and wearing goofy hats while trying to pick up chicks at clubs. I want to think there's a happy medium.

I've found that it's often really difficult to have stable relationships with 20-something women, precisely because they are similarly struggling through that tumultuous decade. Many of the women I've dated are in similar predicaments as described by the Times above: one of my exes moved in with her parents while we were dating, and went back to school. Others, while living independently, have not been financially independent, regularly receiving money from their parents for important bills. Others find themselves back in school after a four-year-degree can barely produce a passable entry-level job, or they agonize in frustration at how unfulfilling their careers have turned out to be.

So, I know I poked fun at "Mystery", a.k.a. Erik Von Markovich. But I've read his book The Mystery Method, and at the beginning of the book there's something that resonated with me. He says that there are essentially three major areas of our lives – health, wealth, and relationships. Deficiency in any one of them will adversely affect the other two. I'm reminded of someone I was close to who, a couple of weeks after losing her job, fought back tears as she said to me, "I don't know who I am." I think that young people are still raised with some degree of traditional expectations. We expect to leave for college, get our degree, find a job, and become financially stable. We expect along the way to meet someone special, to tie the knot, and maybe even start a family.

The problem though is that we grew up in a credit-card, inflationary economy, and the other shoe had to drop eventually. Just as many of our parents lived in debt, many young people are taking on tens of thousands of dollars in debt in student loans, car loans, etc., with the expectation that their college degree will place them in a meaningful job that allows them to pay it off without too much hassle. But like any other form of currency, higher education degrees become less valuable as they become more commonplace. Even entry-level jobs become more difficult to find. Some of my 20-something friends are fortunate to have strong careers, but it seems that most of them view their current jobs as pivot points – something to pay the bills while they figure out what they really want to do. 

But there's a more personal side to it as well. Previous generations worked to live; they didn't live to work. People in the 30s and 40s took whatever shitty industrial job they could find. The point wasn't to find themselves – the point was to give them the means to live a happy life. But in our culture today, careers are extraordinarily diverse, and we've been raised in a culture that tells us we deserve a fulfilling career doing something we are passionate about. Moreover, we're taught to associate financial independence with personal self-worth, and when a dry job market forces us to borrow money and/or living space from mom & dad, it's accompanied by feelings of inferiority, shame and failure. (I should know... I've been there!)

Our careers and financial independence are so intricately tied to our identity that it's no wonder romances are so tumultuous in our 20s. When our wealth suffers, our relationships suffer too. We yearn to feel like our careers allow us to express and share our talents, and feel like we're unable to bring our true selves to a relationship until we achieve that lofty dream. And when it comes to kids, well – if we still have one foot in the nest, we certainly can't be thinking about starting nests of our own. We're barely figuring out who we are in our 20s, much less how that identity is supposed to tie into an intimate relationship. The Times article mentions that our brains, particularly to parts that regulate emotions, undergo significant physiological developmental changes well into our 20s, dooming many young relationships to frustration and failure at the feet of biology alone.

So how do 20-somethings weather this mess? I wish I had the answers. Perhaps we ought to start by managing expectations. We ought to recognize that the copacetic life we're conditioned to strive for is something of an illusion. We ought to stop pretending that our careers define us – they don't, and I think I'm a good example of that: while I'm lucky to have a job I enjoy, my real passion is music, and the best part of my day is when I get home from work and plug in my guitar. I am lucky that I greatly enjoy my job, but I view it as a means to an end, something that ultimately allows me to indulge a greater passion. And if someday I can make a living from music, I certainly will. Until then, I'm willing to accept that who I am is more than the path I take.

Similarly, we're conditioned with certain expectations toward relationships, and these too must be let go. If I've learned anything from my failed relationships (which is obviously all of them, since I'm single), it's that it's not enough to simply feel a connection with someone; you have to be on the same page in the bigger picture. Sexual and emotional chemistry have their place, but in our 20s we're too easily consumed by passion and infatuation. It's fleeting, and it's not enough. You have to feel as though you are moving through life in a true partnership. When one (or both) of you is struggling in your health and/or financial independence, it will inevitably affect your relationship adversely. We ought to have some patience, and spend more time focusing on "us", so that when we do find love, we're able to give to it our best selves; and as we tend to it patiently, words like "I love you" or "I miss you" are spoken with a sincerity that expresses more than fleeting passions.

I'm finally out of my 20s, and the honest truth is, I have no desire to turn back the clock. My 30s have been accompanied by a strong sense of identity I lacked in my 20s, and my failures in love and in the workplace have given me valuable perspective on what in my life is truly important. Maybe the our culture is changing so rapidly and ruthlessly that there's not much we can do to stop it; instead, we ought to reconsider how we think about our lives, how we define ourselves and our self-worth, and learn to be happy through the journey rather than awaiting a rosy pasture that always seems just out of reach.


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