20-Somethings: You Are Free, And That is Why You Are Lost
Riding the top of the New York Times’ “Most Emailed” list the past week has been the article What Is It About 20-Somethings? Why are so many people in their 20s taking so long to grow up? It centers around the work of Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a Clark University psychology professor who believes that the 20s should be recognized as a distinct life stage between adolescence and adulthood, characterized by somewhat aimless wandering into and out of jobs, relationships, and locations. “Emerging adulthood,” as Arnett calls it, can also be marked by what Yale psychologist Kenneth Keniston called “youth” forty years ago: “pervasive ambivalence toward self and society,” “the feeling of absolute freedom, of living in a world of pure possibilities” and “the enormous value placed upon change, transformation and movement.” Possibly exacerbated by the terrible job market, or conversely encouraged by a life of privilege, it is easy to see “emerging adulthood,” or “youth” in more and more twenty-somethings who have one foot in adulthood and the other in their parents’ homes, as they continue to rely on them for emotional and financial support.
Now safely eight months out of my twenties, I can look back at the past decade – a decade during which I lived in rural Arizona, rural Pennsylvania, three towns in the Berkshires, four neighborhoods of Boston, and New York City; worked as a holistic health counselor, Hebrew teacher, journalist, mountain bike leader, yoga instructor, backpacking leader, health food store cashier, farmer, editor, staff writer, and writing instructor; and enjoyed a handful of committed relationships, and many more handfuls of non-committed ones – with grateful distance. But I can still smell the “the enormous value placed upon change, transformation and movement” on my clothes.
Each job, location, and lifestyle change offered an entirely new way of experiencing the world that I didn’t want to miss. No trip to the post office, dentist, Laundromat, university, or bank was without a voyeuristic scrutiny of the life of that profession and at least a few days’ fantasy about the merits of being a postal worker, a dental hygienist, a Laundromat owner, a professor, or a mortgage lender. I couldn’t drive through a trailer park without being overcome with the need to live alone in a double-wide, and I couldn’t pass through the suburbs without envisioning myself in an apron happily baking brownies for a backyard full of kids.
I wasn’t alone in my indecision about life choices, and my chronic envy of others in theirs. My best friend left Harvard Medical School to work on a farm, tapping metal stints into trees to collect maple sap when only a month before she’d been poking metal stints into the valves of human hearts. Another friend alternated between writing and modeling, spending half of her time interviewing peasants on the dirt floors of their straw huts in Cambodia and the other part in Union Square posing for a camera in thousand-dollar lingerie. Yet another ditched a Harvard BA and then a Princeton PhD in favor of moving to the country and studying esoteric healing with a shaman.
We always understood that most people in the world couldn’t afford to vacillate this way, that jobs were scarce and many were desperate to take any they could get. But this was not a dilemma of flakiness or ingratitude for the opportunities in our lives and the privilege of choosing between them. Rather, it was a dilemma of paralysis in the face of the sheer limitless array of possibilities before us, and the near-obssessive mantra we had grown up with – you can be anything you want to be, your work should be meaningful to you and good for the world, you can do anything you put your mind to. A friend in his fifties once commented, “If my mother ever heard the term ‘fulfilling job,’ she would have broken down laughing. Her family lived on a dairy farm during the depression collecting eggs in a basket and walking two miles to town to sell them.” His comment called to mind a favorite Franz Kafka quote I had written on the inside cover of my notebooks for years: “You are free and that is why you are lost.” I never didn’t want to be free, but was acutely aware of what a burden it could present. As more “emerging adults” are choosing to explore longer and waffle longer, often forgoing such practical virtues as financial stability and career advancement, I wonder what distinguishes a healthy period of experimentation from a disorder of rootlessness and confusion, an endless quest to emerge.
I’m now readying to leave New York City for a while. After three years of living in the city, writing and teaching and finishing a masters, the growing realization that I needed some more quiet, some slower folks, and less crowds around me, finally came to a head. When I was recently offered a job in the Berkshires, I took it.
The night I decided to leave New York, I went downtown with some friends to hear bluegrass. It was a spirited and ruckus open jam in the back of a bar. Minute by minute more people flooded the bar with banjos and mandolins strapped to their backs. They stood in an expanding circle playing, singing, and yehawing with refreshing abandon. Amidst the joy and revelry an extremely annoyed and persistent waitress harassed us about keeping up with the drink minimum, refusing to bring us water until we had each ordered the required amount. Unwanted glasses of beer and shots piled up on our table as we tried to focus our attention on our friends playing music and not the ever-ticking demand we open our wallets. On the way home I was crossing the street and looked up to point out the full moon to a friend. A taxi gunning it through a yellow light nearly ran me over. Rounding the corner to my apartment, I barely avoided colliding with a couple on the sidewalk. The woman was saying to the man, “the eye is a self-cleaning organ.” The sentence struck me as an auspicious sign, as I thought about all I’ve seen here that I would have preferred not to have seen – my neighbor across the street touching himself while staring into my window, the shoeless men sleeping on the steps of the church near my house, the fights on the subway, the weariness in peoples’ eyes – gradually draining from sight.
This move and change of jobs doesn’t feel like the moves of my twenties, when I was compelled to try on identities and locales and relationships like magical dresses that would transform all aspects of life and personhood. It feels like a change rooted in a solid knowing of who I am and what I want. If you asked Arnett, perhaps he’d be quite sure I’m still exhibiting the behaviors of an ‘emerging adult,’ dragging the questions of the twenties into my third decade. But if I were to judge from how I feel inside, I have emerged.
Photo: Tiferet Zimmern-Kahan
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