Friday, August 20, 2010

The Orphanage.

Every Friday is Improv Friday at Said Panties. On Facebook, X and J take a poll of their friends for a topic (any topic) to write on. The most popular, ridiculous, or random is selected, and both X. and J must write about it. This week's topic, Emerging Adulthood, comes from Erin Badillo.

Wow. Where to start?

Though today is the first time I've heard the term "emerging adulthood," I've been writing on this topic for years. Especially lately. Another blog of mine chronicles my move to New York and the ensuing struggles of looking for work, love, or sometimes just a cocktail to take the edge off for awhile. I have also co-written a TV pilot, based partially on that blog, about twentysomethings in New York City dealing with the same questions posed in this article. I have yet to move back in with my parents, but it's certainly been a possibility at time, and I've had to ask them for financial assistance more often than I'd like. I even began writing a song called "Kid" on my flight the other night, about growing up slower than your peers. "I see my friends having babies, but aren't we still kids?" it asks. So it's funny to see an article come out a few days later that puts a sociological spin on what, to me, were very personal and internalized feelings. Basically, this article could not be any more about me. They might as well have put my picture in it.

Paging Dr. Arnett: you just found your poster child.

Prior to reading, I certainly knew there were other people encountering struggles similar to mine, and I too thought of it as a widespread problem facing our generation. I was surprised to find that there were people studying to this degree, however, and that some were considering it a whole newly-created stage of life with its own term. "Emerging adulthood." This idea is a lot more appealing than the gnawing questions eating away at us, like, "What's wrong with me? Why is this happening? Am I fundamentally broken? Or am I just stubborn and/or lazy?"

I've certainly asked myself these questions in relation to why I'm nowhere near where I thought I'd be at this age. I don't think I'm lazy. I just don't see a lot of possibilities out there for at the moment. I'm educated, intelligent, and pretty capable in most environments. You could probably stick me behind a desk at just about any company and I'd be able to catch on pretty quickly. The trouble is, this is true of just about everyone at my age with my experiences. We've been raised to want to excel and be at our best, to not only meet expectations but exceed them. And then we are asked to take jobs that utilize not even half of our abilities, that require little of us besides a modicum of competence, or sometimes merely our physical presence. Many of these jobs pay less than what it takes to live comfortably, particularly in New York City. They may or may not offer benefits. They may or may not lead anywhere in terms of promotion or other opportunities. Strapped for cash, a lot of companies are offering internships to fulfill what was once a paid position. That's well and good, I guess, but then on whose dime are they living?

Is this temporary? Just a result of a poor economy? Will it reverse itself in a couple years? I doubt it. These problems existed before the recession and will probably continue long after. In fact, it may get even worse: so many twentysomethings are going back to school now in lieu of work. What happens when they all graduate with a master's (and thousands of dollars in the hole)? Entry-level jobs are going to be as low-paying and unfulfilling as ever, aren't they? Will we ever be able to turn this system around?

The "emerging adulthood" theory suggests that a post-college period of gestation before true adulthood might be healthy for twentysomethings. This could very well be. I've certainly had one, whether I needed it or not. Should society to be more accepting of twentysomethings who need to take time to "find" themselves? Or is coddling them in this way dangerous? The biggest issue here is not time, but money. Where I grew up, it was generally accepted that families financially support their children through high school and contribute toward paying for college, if not pay for it altogether. And after that, you're on your own. Being financially dependent on your parents after college is still very much frowned upon due to that old model with jobs being readily available to college graduates. But the rules have changed - so, should the model? Should we as a society build in a way for twentysomethings to live that is not necessarily dependent on a career that renders them financially secure? Should families prepare to extend their fiscal support beyond the college years?

I don't know. What I do know is that the current system is failing a lot of people right now. Certainly not just twentysomethings, but as the article states, this is the defining moment in our lives. I particularly enjoyed the line about "feeling a little sorry for the young people who had the misfortune to come of age in a recession," because I am not above being pitied. What the article doesn't specifically acknowledge is that the problem may not be that we're just not ready to take on adult responsibilities yet - a lot of us are trying, and just failing at it. The problem is not that I don't know what I want to do with my life. I know exactly. The problem is that this knowledge does not correspond with the current realities available to me.

Society is still structured for people to get married young, start a family, and follow a traditional career path. How do I know this? Because the people I know who have done this are having a much easier time of it than the rest of us. Good for them.

But this just isn't possible for everyone. Regardless of whether or not we'd even want it if it was. Not everyone meets the love of their life at 23. Not everyone feels responsible and stable enough to raise a child at 25. And with the job market what it is right now, it's hard to make a living doing anything, let alone get in on your desired career path. What's the alternative? Get on a path you don't want to be on? If you do, will you ever be able to get off? Or is that

It's awfully trendy to blame the economy for every little grievance, from understaffing to overcharging to a hangnail. But you could probably make logical arguments as to why just about everything is the economy's fault. "I've been so nervous about the economy I've been biting my nails - and now I have this hangnail!" See? I don't feel personally responsible for the recession, so why should I be punished for it? Why do the poor choices of people I've never met affect me at arguably the most crucial moment in my life? What happens now affects the entirety of my future, so I resent feeling like I had no say in the matter. How can I, just one small person, contend with such a huge force?

Of course, every generation has something to contend with. "It's not my fault Hitler decided to take over the world, boo-hoo." At least I haven't been shipped off to Vietnam. (Vietnam War-era Vietnam, that is. A government-sponsored trip to Vietnam now might be kind of nice.) Whining about the recession, or any other such obstacle, doesn't do anything to change the circumstances. The economy might just be a scapegoat - who's to say I wouldn't have the same problems anyway? Then again, who's to say I wouldn't be rolling around naked in a giant pile of money right now at my summer home in Tuscany, if not for that pesky recession?

Like many of my peers, I was an academic rockstar at early age. I was always one of the brightest in my class. Teachers always took note of me and liked me, not only because I did my work on time and correctly, but because of my creativity. In junior high one year I was voted "Most Creative" in the class. This greatly surprised me - not because I didn't think I was the most creative, but because I didn't think anyone but me and a few of my friends knew about it. It was nice to be acknowledged.

At some point in high school I realized there was a certain stigma against overachievers and decided it might be fun to be a slacker instead. Of course, my version of being a "slacker" still included doing all my work getting A's, but by procrastinating and appearing not to be as smart or dedicated as I was. This continued into college, where I could have excelled but chose instead to get by. I didn't mind doing minimal effort and getting a couple B's and C's in boring required classes, figuring I'd rather spend time outside of class enjoying my social life - something I never had much of in high school when I was too busy being a good student.

Throughout this, I was always told how smart and talented I was. Did I let this go to my head? Of course. I followed the plan that was set out for me and then expected that plan to actually work. Silly me! Of course no one knew we'd be facing hard economic times when we were being raised. It was the Reagan era, for Christ's sake. Still, it feels a little unfair that we raised to believe something that, once we grew up, was no longer true anymore. "Get good grades, go to college, and you'll be able to get a job, make enough money to live on, and win at life!" It seemed like a natural progression. Most of us succeeded at the "get good grades" and "go to college" part, but by the time an entire generation had been raised to accomplish the same goals, there were simply too many of us. A bachelor's degree doesn't do a whole lot for you anymore.

Now most of us are too smart and qualified for the jobs that are actually available to us (if we are so lucky to have any). Most of us would probably be better at running companies than we are at answering phones or making copies or whatever they have us doing, because that's how we were trained to think. As leaders, not followers. As people who thrive, not those who just get by. Our parents are not really prepared to support us financially though these hard times, and even their emotional support can be limited. They're used to the old model; they, too, thought that if we just went to college, we'd turn out all right. In this way, coming out into adulthood right now feels a bit like being orphaned. We've been abandoned - if not by our parents, than by our government, our educational institutions...the system itself. A hard-knock life indeed. Where do we turn for help?

Of course, there are plenty of exceptions. I know people who are happy and secure in their jobs, who are making enough money to live on, and who are reasonably happy with where they've landed. They haven't needed their "emerging adulthood" period. Maybe the difference between them and those who do is simply the opportunities available to us.

Maybe that's when we're ready. When we meet the right person, we're ready to settle down. When we're offered the right job, we're ready to start our career. There's only a certain extent to which you can pursue these things, and after that, it's dumb luck.

Though I do feel unfortunate to be where I am in the current economic climate, I am also grateful that I am still able to survive. I have family and friends to support me. I'm not homeless, dirty, and smoking crack on the subway, like the guy on the 6 train last night. I'm not just standing in the street shamelessly pissing in broad daylight, like the man I saw walking home today.

These are people with problems. I wonder if there's a term for it? Let's call it "receding adulthood."

Kicked instead of kissed,


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