I was at a party recently where I spoke to a guy about his job. Having recently graduated college and settled into a rather prestigious career field, he mentioned that, though the money was good, the actual job itself was kind of draining. He wasn’t sure if it was for him, and had long since stopped enjoying it, but doubted he could do much better. It’s the kind of field where you work extremely long hours, especially when you’re new, and don’t get a whole lot in the way of recognition. As the party was beginning to heat up and we all decided to take some shots, he declined and said that he needed to go home — on a weekend, at just before midnight. When we teased him, he reminded us with a bit of a sigh, that “his crazy party days were behind him.” This is a guy who was once preceded by the reputation of being the life of every party, who now eschewed going out for the most part because he’s “too old for it.”
And this is far from being a unique case. Even a brief trip around Facebook to take a look at people you rarely talk to anymore can confirm that, in their early-to-mid twenties, people are already settling into careers they rather dislike, staying with the same person they’ve been with for years even though they’ve occasionally voiced their desire to see elsewhere, giving up on dreams of travel or adventure, and deciding that they are now “too old” to enjoy the occasional real party. There are even those who have transformed from party girl to sanctimonious mommy whose life is now “so meaningful,” all at the ripe old age of 24. Beyond giving up on the crucial time for experimentation, there are those who openly look down upon the people whose careers have yet to really be selected, who are traveling the world, who are remaining steadfastly single — essentially, anyone who is taking their twenties to make the mistakes they may not be able to make in the future.
Of course, we all know people who have been rather “serious” their entire lives, who have always gone home early from parties, turned down offers of travel and experimentation, and have chosen the straight-and-narrow. But what’s crucially different about them is that that is just who they are. They enjoy the safe, the familiar, the reliable — and frankly, we need people like that. There’s nothing wrong with those who have always been, in some way or another, an “old soul.” But the people to whom I am referring here are those who feel, whether through societal pressure or their own sense of competition, the need to grow up far too quickly. They have put some kind of social premium on keeping jobs they hate simply to say they are on a good career path, on cutting adventure nearly completely out of their lives, on settling down into a relationship that may not be right for them simply to avoid being alone at too “sad” an age.
As you begin to enter the world of social media and peer interaction where a huge amount of everything people your age have to say has to do with how much they love their significant other, how stressful their job is, how drinking is now too much for them, or the various dimensions of their children’s excrement, it can feel incredibly stifling. You have this sudden urge to yell at the top of your lungs, “Is this all we have left to talk about?!” And it is certain that behind these people who’ve chosen such “stable” life paths in their early-to-mid twenties, there are often parents and competitive peers who nod in approval and muse on how much more “adult” they are, but at what price? Do we not owe it to ourselves to make the decisions — and mistakes — that we want to, while we have the youth and the means with which to do it? Should we force ourselves into a job we dislike or a relationship that doesn’t fit us to fill out some model of adulthood we’re not even sure we want?
I have been to brunches and happy hours amongst acquaintances who, at the tender ages of 23-25, will spend the entire time talking about their problems at work and their desire find a bigger apartment. It’s almost like watching a bunch of children put on their parents’ clothes and shoes and shuffle around the house like grown-ups, a kind of caricature of boring adulthood. It’s hard not to see your life flashing before your eyes at moments like this, a chilling feeling that if, in the dawn of your adult life, you’ve already limited your conversation topics to the rigors of responsibility and commitment, things can’t get too much better from here. Not when the people who choose an alternative lifestyle or follow their dreams, even while clearly young enough to do so, are spurned and mocked by these peers as being “irresponsible,” or “immature.” Not when conversations of sex, politics, art, culture, or even the weather have been replaced by a comparing of notes about the varying degrees of adulthood one has attained.
We live in a world now where we can see our generation’s successes and failures in real time. We know what every friend and acquaintance is doing, we know where they live, we know how things are working out for them. And though we no longer have the intense societal pressure to marry and spawn, as well as have a good job and own a house all by your late twenties, we have an enormous amount of pressure we put on ourselves. In many ways, this constant comparison to those around us has replaced the traditional rules of becoming an adult, and now these restraints and objectives are ones we largely put on ourselves. “If my friends are all getting boring 9-5 jobs and settling down right now,” we think, “I’d better be doing it, too.” But few things are more disheartening than watching someone so young actively put aside the things they long to see and do in this world for a perfect, adult kind of happiness that they’re not even sure exists. Don’t we owe it to ourselves to live life, and above all, be young, on our own terms? Who is telling us what to do anymore, and more importantly, why are we listening?