Saturday, April 25, 2009


In a group of my cohorts—all of whom are, as the French would say, d’un certain age—someone asked an interesting question: “Which decade of your life did you like the least?” Without hesitation, I said that I liked my twenties the least. Now that I have children in their twenties, I’ve been reflecting about why that might be.

Given good health and reasonably good fortune, it would seem, on the face of it, that the decade of one’s twenties should be as good as life gets. I’m sure it is for some. It’s the time when most people achieve long-awaited independence from their family of origin and—perhaps for the first time—respect for having mastered skills that are valuable in the work place. Most have a network of friends and family collected over the years that give them support and security when times get rough. Most have completed (or at least taken a hiatus) from formal schooling and may think, with some justification, “I’m finally free!”

But are they?

More than any other age group, twenty-somethings tend to be overworked and underpaid. Although their skills may match or exceed those of their bosses and coworkers, they’re likely to be exploited; lacking in seniority and with a fairly short resumé, they usually can’t complain. With the American dream tantalizingly close but still out of reach, they tend to work more and more hours and perhaps over-extend themselves financially. They rack up debts, mortgages, and obligations that feel like free choices in the beginning but can begin to weigh heavily in a hurry.

In terms of career, many have been sidetracked into a scheme to make money rather than a job that promises satisfaction and fulfillment. Aware of the danger of getting stuck, twenty-somethings begin to worry, justifiably, whether they will lose sight of the bridge from here to there.

In terms of social life, the decade of the twenties can be exhausting—at least it was for me. There are beloved relationships and social obligations, but for most, there’s also a perceived need—stated or implied—to make some sort of long-term commitment. Culture, society, and families may exert a great deal of pressure here, although typically, nobody talks about it openly.

The twenty-something may be sorting out all kinds of feelings and life-style options— single or committed, gay or straight, children or no children—trying to match need with opportunity and hoping to avoid irresolvable conflicts. For those who’ve emerged from certain religious backgrounds, there may be the additional question of a vocation to religious life. Who? How? When? In the twenties, there’s a biological and social urgency to these questions that can be painful and distracting. Constantly pushed to make choices, one may be excruciatingly aware of the situations of others who have made regrettable ones.

Children in this land of plenty are encouraged to dream. But by their mid-twenties, smart young people have realized the folly of magical thinking and know that dreams don’t just “come true.” Time, energy, and hard work will be needed to realize those dreams. But where, exactly, should that effort be placed? Which specific dream should they pursue? And most importantly, how—what with jobs, social commitments, and the time and effort required just to get through every day? Where is the time left over to pursue those illustrious, illusive dreams?

From a distance, the decade of the twenties appears to be a time of great promise and opportunity—and of course it is. But up close, it can also be a time of loneliness, confusion, and general disappointment. A landscape mined with mistakes to be avoided, it must be crossed to get to the other side—to that shining, tantalizing world of Life as It Ought to Be.

Twenty-somethings, you have my sympathy. Hang in there. And (to borrow a phrase from Star Wars), "May the Force be with you!"


The Tarquin said...

Interesting post. There's a great book on Happiness called Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile. It talks mostly about how happiness is studied and the problems with accurately measuring and guaging it.

It has an interesting graph in it, however, that shows the results of a battery of studies of happiness over time. In almost ever Western Civilization, happiness reaches a peak in the early 20s, then drops precipitously before starting to climb back up again for the rest of one's life.

The book on Amazon:

Citizen Jane said...

Very interesting! It seems that science supports my observations. Thanks for sharing that!

Anonymous said...

Interesting comments, Jane. I think the twenties is when we begin to face the disillusionments of "real life". I remember how disconcerting it was to move from an academic environment where one measures time and achievements by the end of the semester/school year to an environment where one works 50 weeks to get two weeks of vacation (with a very few holidays interspersed) and then finds out that the weeks you want for vacation aren't available because someone with more seniority has already spoken for them. Then next year you get to do it all over again. And while people come out of school with the expectation and desire to establish themselves in their chosen field, they find that the work environment is inclined to treat them as neophytes whose education counts for very little.

Added to this is the societal expectation that you will "find a proper mate" and establish yourself as an adult member of society. But while the dating expectations require a lot of socializing (partying), there is an objection to those same young people being "party animals." Ya can't win!

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