An article on Refinery29 introduced me to a TED Talk that’s apparently striking home with a lot of young adults. After watching the video, I couldn’t help but speak out in response to the slightly jarring take of clinical psychologist Meg Jay on 20-somethings.
To me, the problem faced by millennials starts with what I like to call the “wrong map” issue. What I mean is this: After graduation from college, you find yourself in the center of some new and unknown world. Naturally you intend to rely on the tools and directions you received throughout your education in order to navigate. Eager and confident, you unfold the map you packed and begin to use it to explore. Only, the farther you get out the door, the more obvious it becomes that this map isn’t accurate at all. In fact, it seems like it was drawn from a different city entirely. Even if you know your destination, it’s obvious that it will be a lot harder to find your way there.
The route described by parents, teachers, colleges, and communities (Get a BA, start an entry-level job immediately after, find what you like and progress while earning income) turned out to be unrealistic for many among us. Not only are most 20-somethings forced to completely rewrite the plan, but they’re also dealing with the weight of stress, disappointment, and confusion during the struggle to uncover opportunities. As much as I appreciate Dr. Jay’s tips for personal and professional growth, I do not appreciate feeling as though we are all the equivalent of a sad-faced girl coming into her office every week to discuss boy troubles. I feel like this image is just another unfortunate contribution to the “silly nicknames” phenomena she alludes to in the beginning of her talk, and I don’t believe it to be true.
Although I admit that it doesn’t take long to think of a handful of people who exacerbate Dr. Jay’s ‘sad girl’, there are even more people who have been pushing themselves extremely hard for many years with little to show for it—cue the sweaty palms, dwindling expectations, and anxiety.
Is it possible that the arrested development addressed by Dr. Jay has more to do with the economy than she would like to admit? I would argue yes. Perhaps, although they would like to, many 20-somethings do not feel as though they can credit themselves with the “maturity” of adulthood because this concept is so intricately and securely tied with the more traditional notion of professional and financial success (a “real” job, a nice home/car, no debt, health insurance, a savings account, a retirement fund).
What happens to the self-image when you are offered a wage today that is the same as you were earning more than a decade ago when you were 15? How does the inability to secure a full-time position with benefits affect the self-esteem of a 30-year-old man with a Master’s Degree? How does it feel to have your entire generation accused of being lazy, cheap, and selfish just because you have a liberal/studio arts degree, own a smart phone, work at a restaurant, live with your parents, are afraid of a mortgage, or don’t want to buy a new car? I’ll tell you how it feels: crappy and unfair.
In addition to negatively coloring self-image, the delay in career launch is stunting the establishment of relationships. Certainly the link between financial/career stability and readiness for family isn’t difficult to identify. The encumbering of professional growth naturally restyles expectations for the timing of family and settling down. Those determined to find career success have to be willing to move across the country, or even the world, in order to pursue opportunities.
The act of committing seriously to another person or place can possibly undermine your own success in a world where dedication and flexibility of time, location, and skill are valued above all when deciding who will earn the prestigious position of employed. And since it now requires the full-time income of both partners in order to make a living, it leaves little room for flexibility in relationships before and after marriage.
Instead of clinging to the impression that millennials are just drifting along until 30, at which point they will scramble (and fail) to meet the requirements for being grown up, I think that it’s worthwhile to focus our energy on rethinking our own expectations. What should adult life look like? Is it realistic for it to involve multiple children, car ownership, spring break vacations, or a large backyard? I believe that you can have what you really want—but you must know what that is, and you can no longer rely on the default definition for concepts like adulthood, career, family, home, success, and other related vocabulary. I think that the real challenge faced by the millennial generation is to learn how to overcome the expectation of achieving the same level of wealth as our parents, make do with less, and to reinstate joy and pride into life by actively producing a new and more realistic definition of successful adulthood.