Sunday, January 30, 2005
A couple of weeks ago Time Magazine ran a fantastic cover story entitled Grow Up? Not So Fast attempting to dissect the life of what it somewhat absurdly labels the “twixter”. (For Time non-subscribers like myself, Mike Yaconelli and Paul Swartz have taken the liberty of borrowing the article in full.) I strongly recommend reading the story to get a more complete picture, but here’s the twixter defined in brief:
Everybody knows a few of them—full-grown men and women who still live with their parents, who dress and talk and party as they did in their teens, hopping from job to job and date to date, having fun but seemingly going nowhere. Ten years ago, we might have called them Generation X, or slackers, but those labels don’t quite fit anymore….
In the past, people moved from childhood to adolescence and from adolescence to adulthood, but today there is a new, intermediate phase along the way. The years from 18 until 25 and even beyond have become a distinct and separate life stage, a strange, transitional never-never land between adolescence and adulthood in which people stall for a few extra years, putting off the iron cage of adult responsibility that constantly threatens to crash down on them. They’re betwixt and between. You could call them twixters.
The story goes on to play with two competing hypothesis: the possibility that postgraduates are reaping the benefit of generations of progress by taking a few additional years to enjoy and discover themselves, and the fear that society has made the transition to adulthood too difficult and leaving postgraduates overwhelmed by indecision and anxiety. I might concede that generations of progress have made it — for some of us — economically feasible to stall a bit. However, I entrench myself firmly in the camp that believes we’ve somehow managed to resocialize ourselves from realists to idealists, and I’ll further contend that we’re worse off for it.
You might recall hearing the term Quarterlife Crisis, a phenomenon popularized by Alexandra Robbins in her book of the same name. I can’t recommend the book because I haven’t actually read it, but from what I understand it attempts to flesh out (albeit fails to offer any solution for) the reasons why twentysomethings seem poised to succeed and instead find themselves plagued by flightiness, emotional distress, and indecision.
This and similar topics of conversation have come up often — perhaps too often — among friends in recent weeks as myself and others continue to reassess where we are and where we’re going in life. One friend astutely pointed out that this is a uniquely middle-class problem, that the egregiously rich face few real consequences of indecision and the poor can’t afford such a luxury. I’ll agree: it is the middle class along that possesses the capability of finding itself simultaneously relieved and tormented by parent-sponsored insurance policies like prepaid college degrees, co-signed leases and limitless room and board in the event of “emergencies” like transience or self-reflection.
In more than one instance the Time story presents twixters as overwhelmingly selfish: irresponsibly and image-consciously embedding themselves in debt in order to have the latest cars, fashion, and furniture, partying as if money were no object, and refusing to accept any work believed to be “beneath them” in spite of mounting bills that often force continued parental reliance. But the article also affords twentysomethings a generous measure of deference to the nobility of their cause:
But whatever the cause, twixters are looking for a sense of purpose and importance in their work, something that will add meaning to their lives, and many don’t want to rest until they find it. “They’re not just looking for a job,” Arnett says. “They want something that’s more like a calling, that’s going to be an expression of their identity.” Hedonistic nomads, the twixters may seem, but there’s a serious core of idealism in them.
So is this primarily an internal or external quandry, or is it both? I’ll contend that it can easily be both, wrapped in a blanket of excess idealism. It’s true that many of us are enjoying ourselves to some extent, but how many twentysomethings claim they’re just living life to the fullest when really they’d settle down in a heartbeat if only they found the perfect job and/or the perfect someone. Key word: perfect. And not just perfect in a localized sense; now it’s perfect as perfection is defined globally by mass communication. We aren’t just proving ourselves to our hometown anymore. Moreover, we’ve somehow become socially adjusted that anything less than perfect is “settling”. When did idealism shift from something we aspire to approach and become something we expect nothing less than to achieve?
We’ve all but resigned ourselves to the fact that collectively our generation can’t hope to exceed our parents’ economic success, and most of us hold out only a glimmer of hope that we’ll be among the lucky few who beat the bell curve. Instead we’ve chosen to redefine our vision of success to capture a comparative advantage over our parents. We may not find ourselves as successful financially but at least, we hope, we can engineer our lives to be happier and healthier. But in focusing on whether society is better off for these efforts the Time authors breeze past an equally important question: do twentysomethings even have a chance of realizing these newfound goals? Are they truly happier by and large, or do they simply wait longer to realize what they should have realized a decade or more earlier: that making the best decision you can make at the time in spite of the possibility of limiting options is not settling; it’s merely living life as it happens.
Picture Sex in the City sans Carrie’s last-episode reward: seven seasons of four women with success, money, and friendship who remain perpetually unsettled because perfect happiness continues to elude them. Time is right: 30 is the new 20. Maybe it’s because a college degree is the new high school degree, and soon a postgraduate degree will be the new college degree. Whose bright idea was it to tell 40% of the population that a lucrative white-collar job would await them if only they continued their education — but who could in good conscience discourage education? What rocket scientist sold so many students on law as the path to success that the number of current law students exceeds the total number of practicing lawyers — but what pessimist would tell an aspiring young professional not to follow her dream?
Whatever their faults, twentysomethings or twixters or whatever one wants to call them aren’t ambivalent. It’s not that we don’t care, and as a group we aren’t necessarily irresponsible. Perhaps we’ve seen our parents incur so much debt to finance our futures that it seems all to appropriate for us to live on financial and social credit until we discover a way to repay the investment with dividends. It’s not that we’re just waiting around for something to happen to us. We’re just slow to adjust to the reality that, as Lucius Beebe puts it, “all I want is the best of everything and there’s very little of that left.”