The future is fun, frightening, and positively non-existent: Idealizing tomorrow obscures the beauty of today

8 Feb

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An interesting piece on the difficulties facing young adults in the job market got me thinking about the way the world has changed since my parents were in their twenties. Recent college graduates are struggling mightily to land full-time jobs. As they do, idealized notions of the future, and of doing things their parents once did, slip further and further from grasp.

***

Why is it fun to think about the future? Is it because we’re dissatisfied with the present? Do we hope that our lives will get better in the years to come?

I’m 27-years-old. My late twenties have arrived. Young adulthood slides away. The opening phase of middle age approaches rapidly. I still feel like a kid.

When I was young, I considered 25 as squarely ensconced in adulthood, a point by which people had matured and “figured things out”. A big reason for this was my parents. By 25, they were married, had the means to buy a house, and were planning to have kids.

I’ve now passed that benchmark, and in many ways feel no closer to being an adult than when I was in college. I certainly don’t feel as responsible as I imagine my parents were at this age. Is this a product of my own lack of development, or has the world changed so dramatically that what constituted “normal” behavior and “normal” aspirations for our parents no longer represent feasible or desirable expectations for today’s young adults?

In reality, it’s probably a little bit of both.

If I had gotten married at 22, as my folks did, it would have proved a disaster. I couldn’t take care of myself at that point, let alone provide love, support, and stability for someone else.

Moreover, in a very practical sense, my financial situation – like those of so many young adults today – was tenuous, and prevented me from doing many of the things my parents did at that age. Saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, people I graduated from college with are focused on making student loan payments each month rather than saving for the future or making a down payment on a car. It’s gotten worse for recent graduates, who’ve entered the workforce during our country’s worst economic slump since the Great Recession. Far from looking for houses, today’s young adults are searching for jobs to make ends meet.

Professional motivation also shapes young people’s future goals more than it did for our parents. Like other people my age, particularly those who live in ambition-fueled cities like Washington and graduated from upper-tier universities, my career forms a big part of my identity. What I do professionally shapes to a large degree how I value my contribution to society. Work doesn’t stop when I go home from the office, as it did for my parents. There isn’t an “on-the-clock Daniel” and an “off-the-clock Daniel”. For better or worse, there’s one Daniel, and – thru the rapid march of information technology – he’s always on call. Constant responsiveness represents a necessity for career advancement. That’s just the way the game is played these days. You snooze, you lose.

In this context, fewer and fewer people are getting married directly out of college. They are putting that off, and waiting to have kids, buy a house, and get a car until their career is in a good enough place – to wit, a high and upwardly moving salary, promotions under the belt, and middle or senior management in-hand or in-sight – for them to feel comfortable doing so. Today’s world differs dramatically from the world my parents inhabited as young adults.

Still, young people continue to find utility in idealizing the future. It gives them comfort and excitement to imagine themselves doing things their parents did: naming children, mowing lawns, taking family trips, or playing catch in the backyard. They like to imagine themselves in roles of responsibility, providing knowledge to, and sharing wisdom with, their young ones, while enjoying quiet moments of satisfaction and unspoken joy with their spouse or partner.

But the thing is, the more we wait for some future point, when all of these dreams and ambitions will come true, and when the myriad uncertainties of youth will melt away, the more we lose sight of the raw excitement of today. Perhaps more importantly, we lose sight of the fact that our parents as young adults – those stoic creatures we remember, who could do no wrong and who provided unceasing support and love as we grew – grappled with the same type of self-doubt, anxiety, and, yes, lack of maturity that colours the lives of twenty-somethings today.

This is a fun conversation to have with my parents now that my brother and I have left the house. Empty nesters, they feel they can be more open and take us inside what they were feeling during those heady years. My main take-away is that there simply does not exist some point at which one suddenly feels like an adult, that the internal unsteadiness we feel as scrappy youngsters trying to make our way in “the real world” (which is apparently still airing?) isn’t going away.

The implication is that we’re never going to become those unshakable adults we thought our parents were and dreamt of becoming ourselves. Instead, we should embrace the uneasiness of today, that queasiness that keeps you hungry to improve, to become a better friend, partner, and professional. Self-doubt is the gift that keeps on giving.

***

Addendum

It’s possible that I’m not like many of my peers, and that the scenarios, hopes, and mental ruminations I’ve outlined above don’t describe well my contemporaries. Indeed, plenty of people I grew up with in Southern New Mexico stuck around our hometown, married their high school, and popped out a few kids before 25. Not saddled with student loans, they’re now making mortgage payments, have two cars in the yard, and have their sights fixed firmly on retirement three decades hence. To these folks, I apologize. Enjoy your steadiness and internal tranquility!

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