There’s a certain position that I can take in my puke-yellow, cat-scratched couch. If I sink real deep into the corner, somehow I connect with the swirl of worries in my head. The thoughts usually spiral like this: I need to get started on my career. I need to start wising up, making money, paying off my loans, figuring out how to act like an adult, figuring out life.
Last fall, my anxiety attacks were so paralyzing that I called a therapist. But I was so preoccupied, I lost my wallet on the day of the appointment. So I skipped it. Almost a year later, I feel just as worried, just as immature and just as helpless.
Sound familiar? In your 20s? Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner have diagnosed this as the quarterlife crisis. It’s the title of their book, subtitled The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties.
Hosiery and heels
My twentysomething identity crisis began during my freshman year at Michigan State University, when I was 19. I was sick of people asking me what my major was, and having to respond unenthusiastically, “I’m undecided.” So I had long, stoned talks with friends and a few confusing conversations with graduate advisers. After unwillingly accepting the fact that MSU could not offer me a liberal arts program in which I could read poetry, draw the occasional nude and maybe watch some Godard films, I decided to be a studio art major — with no experience in studio art.
Then during one of my casually analytical midnight-hour dormitory philosophical chats, this guy said to me, “You should be an English major.” So I switched. But I think I was the only English major who didn’t read. I read, but just barely often enough to say I “completed” my English classes without heavily working the bullshit factor. I minored in advertising because it seemed wise and adult, and the summer after my junior year I got an internship at an international advertising firm based in Southfield.
I hated the fact that I had to go to work in hosiery and heels and actually believe in what I was doing while my feet were on fire. And while I made enough money to buy the nylons and pumps, at the end of the day I couldn’t help but remember all the smoky collegiate conversations about not taking part in consumerism.
That’s something that plagues twentysomethings in America. We all hate admitting we’ve gone corporate. When did working for a corporation turn into a prison sentence? Maybe it really took hold when John Cusack’s character in Say Anything proclaimed: “I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed ... or buy anything sold or processed ... or process anything sold, bought or processed ... or repair anything sold, bought or processed.” He knew himself, and he was as un-self-aware as we all want to be. But I know that it was tough on me when my parents loved my high-paying internship as an account coordinator. They were so proud of my colored spreadsheets.
That means that if I wanted to make them happy, it seemed like I would be forever destined to playing dress-up.
‘What do you do?’
But it turned out that my thirtysomething big-business boss was also playing dress-up; in patent-leather shoes he was a smart-talker, but deep down he too loved the Cocteau Twins. Needless to say, I still felt like a traitor. It has something to do with the fact that twentysomethings feel like money-hungry men are out to get us. They know we are big spenders and they are hunting us to get their hands on the cash that we owe to credit-card companies, Ameritech or our parents. So the advertising track, like every other project in my life, ended after a few months.
A friend of mine recently went to a party in Chicago, and said that everyone there was buzzing to each other: “So what do you do? What do you do?” She said, “Since I had recently lost my job, I had to keep responding to people ‘I don’t do anything’ and it made me think, I must be nobody.”
It’s the same panic I felt after graduation from college. I was scared out of my wits that I didn’t have the foggiest clue what I wanted to do with my life. I just knew it shouldn’t involve test tubes or manual labor. My dad kept reminding me that I had 40 years of work ahead of me, and I should take my time. Since it was all the experience I had, I headed straight for an advertising sales job. But while I loved talking to people and getting to know Detroit, I hated selling. And as some of my friends were skipping off to grad schools, I too wanted someone or something to guide me toward finding myself.
Fun and fulfilling?
My friend Suzanne, a 24-year-old grad student at Yale University, says it seems like young adults are developing professionally in a time when the media is telling you to find your own “real identity.” With the hordes of talk shows and self-help books, Suzanne says, “you’re taught you can be whatever and whoever you want. You have Oprah telling you to remember your spirit. So in my constant comparison to others my age and what they’re doing, I feel constant pressure to live deeply and suck the marrow out of life. What if I feel contented to just go grocery shopping and watch TV?”
Freedom is a huge burden. In your 20s you have freedom to make decisions — good ones and bad ones — about careers and convictions. In my free time, I took classes in PhotoShop, Quark and Illustrator (increasing my debt), and abruptly decided to go into graphic design. That lasted about a month before the eye strain got to me. Then one lucky day, an entry-level position at a newspaper opened up. And I was on my way into journalism, my third career choice in a matter of a year.
I worked through that for a year, and developed an interest in my current career path — art history. So I signed up for a class at Wayne State University. This time, I hit the jackpot. So this fall I begin graduate work in Modern Art History at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Although I have no idea what I will do with an art history degree, I know I absolutely love going to class. I get chills when I walk out of a four-hour lecture, and I swear school’s never been like that for me. Young adults need to give themselves room to experiment with interests. And more important, we need to accept anxiety as a natural part of life.
I recently met Amy, a 25-year-old Chicagoan, who works a full-time job as an editor and somehow manages to publish her increasingly popular nationally distributed zine, Venus. Hearing about all that she has already accomplished really made me feel lazy. And competition against all of the talented twentysomethings out there really does apply pressure. It’s why one girl recently declared this about herself in an online entry on diaryland.com: “Can’t face a great many things that an adult should have no problem with. Smart, but not remarkably so. Creative, but not remarkably so. Funny, but not remarkably so. Mediocre, but not remarkably so.”
She must know she’s up against girls like Amy. But even Amy has her internal conflicts. She recently admitted: “Most of it is fun and very fulfilling work for me. I’m lucky to have found something that I enjoy doing. But I have to admit that I’m pretty much always wired, and I kind of think to myself, I’m working really hard now so that one day I can learn how to relax. I was wondering the other day whether I would ever stop being wired. Will I ever watch TV? Will I ever have time to have a family? That latter thought is probably the strangest for me, because as a teenager and college student, I always dissed the idea of getting married or having kids. Now I’m actually considering it.”
The only interesting thing that kept me preoccupied last year from my overwhelmingly indecisive two-steps-forward-one-step-back career-as-life dance, was a burgeoning e-mail romance with an acquaintance from college. It struck me recently when I read one female’s statement of self-description: “Spent much of her life talking online, and has met most of the important people in her life that way.”
Feeling and faking
I’m in Chicago now. And although my life is planned out for the next two years, I’ve instinctively replaced some fears with others (I’ll never find a job opening within that career). I still have many of the old fears, like I’ll never make my parents proud, I’ll never get hitched, and I’ll never ever make money — but, wow, I sure do know how to spend it.
But I’ll be happy, right? It still feels like a hoax, like I’m faking the adult life. I’m spending a ton of money on grad school and decided to cancel all my credit cards because I know I’m not mature enough to pay off all the bills. And frankly, I first picked out the institute I’m headed for based on the aesthetic appeal of the catalog. It was just so big and glossy and blue-water clean, and I really wanted to be one of those ponytailed girls working earnestly in a computer lab, engrossed in some sort of all-consuming enterprise or working on my “thesis.”
Chances are I will not grow a ponytail — rather, I might end up shaving my head and using my hosiery as a bandana, much to my parents’ chagrin.
I’ve recently developed a new neurosis related to my “big move.” It’s easy to define yourself in Detroit. The community is so small, you can set yourself apart just a little bit and you’ll be recognized. But in Chicago I’ll have to define myself against the hordes of young professionals trooping down the street with their attachés and jet-setter lives. It just won’t do to identify myself according to the heap of sources I’ve collected for a trillion-page research paper.
But the school regimen will allow me to focus on something I love to think about. Every time I start thinking about what I’ll do after I graduate, and every time I start hyperventilating from thinking about the ungodly sum of money I will have to pay back (on a waitress salary, I’m certain), I remember that my life could end tomorrow. As James Dean as that may seem, the only important thing to remember is right now I want to be really good at what I love to do, and I want to be able to share happiness with other people. I know it sounds hokey.
Thinking about who you are and who you could or should be in the future can paralyze you from being at all. It seems to require exhaustive effort to just teach yourself to slow down all the worrying at this age. It’s probably why so many young people take so many naps. But it’s so, so true.Rebecca Mazzei is a freelance writer from Chicago. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org