Too many 20-somethings are delaying some of the most personally satisfying pursuits. It doesn't have to be that way.
The last relationship I was in skidded to a halt seemingly before it began. After getting to know a great Christian guy from my church for about three months, I sat stunned as he delivered the verdict: "I'm probably not ready to date." This seemed like a strange statement — considering he's 29.
While I realized he may have meant, "I'm probably not ready to date you," I also noticed evidence of his self-diagnosis. Like many single 20-something men I know, this guy has a college degree, rents a small apartment, and works a relatively low-paying job with little opportunity for advancement. A frustrating place to be when you're nearing 30 — especially when you expected to have more by now.
Generation in Crisis
I've recently been hearing a lot about the "Quarterlife Crisis." Coined in the late '90s and made popular in the John Mayer song, "Why Georgia," the term already has books, web sites and message boards devoted to it. The Quarterlife Crisis strikes those in their mid- to late-20s and is acknowledged by mental health professionals.
Symptoms of the crisis include: anxiety about finding a job that uses one's education, dissatisfaction with career choice, loneliness, nostalgia for college life, insecurity regarding present accomplishments, and a desire for children. According to Wikipedia, a root cause of the crisis is financial stress:
Real wages for most people have been dropping since the 1970s, and most professions have become highly competitive. Positions of relative security — such as tenured positions at universities and 'partner' status at law firms — have dwindled in number. This, combined with excessive downsizing, means that many people will never experience occupational security in their lives, and this is doubly unlikely in young adulthood.
As a woman, I view this instability differently than my male counterparts. I do not bear the expectation of being the provider for my someday-family. A man, however, recognizes this as one of his main responsibilities, which lends validity to the "not ready" argument. Unfortunately, the readiness we desire is not easy to come by.
According to the American Sociological Association, the number of 20-somethings reaching traditional marks of adulthood by age 30 — graduation, leaving home, getting a full-time job, marriage, having a baby — has dropped from 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men in 1960 to 46 percent of women and 31 percent of men in 2000. Additionally, 40 percent of those in their late 20s still receive economic support from their parents, while close to 50 percent still live at home.
A lack of decisiveness regarding career choices coupled with anxiety over achieving financial success is paralyzing young adults. And it's costing them something. Wikipedia reports:
The era when a professional career meant a life of occupational security — thus allowing an individual to proceed to establish an 'inner life' — is coming to a crashing end.
It is troubling that young adults have lost something as valuable as an "inner life." They are delaying some of the most personally satisfying pursuits — getting married, committing to a church, establishing a home and having children.
While financial security is certainly a consideration, the 20-something generation seems to have developed an unrealistic ideal of readiness. Their "quality of life" standard includes a nice house, two cars, cable TV, Internet and plentiful disposable income for movies, eating out, lattes and the latest "toys."
In their article "Addicted to Adultescence," Alex and Brett Harris address the trap young adults fall into when they refuse the responsibilities of adulthood:
Everything is a means to feed their own selfish desires, whether it's college, parents, a job, a girlfriend/boyfriend, or even a church. If something threatens to get in the way, like marriage, family or other responsibilities, they just avoid it.
Self-indulgence, while a trademark of our generation, is only part of the problem. Many of my friends desperately desire an "inner life" but simply feel stuck. The not-ready-to-date guy recently asked me, "Do you think there is a plan in the lack of a plan?" At times, perhaps; everyone experiences seasons of uncertainty. But when it plagues a whole generation, you have to wonder.
I've grown up hearing, "Ready. Set. Go!" But I'm learning that getting unstuck may require relinquishing "ready" and starting at "set."
Make a financial plan. With expectations of financial security crashing down, a person in crisis can take steps to improve his financial situation. Several of my friends have succeeded in sticking to a budget and paying off debt. Others have begun investing.
Five years ago, my friend Krista was amazed that she and her husband, both Christian schoolteachers, could live on $19,000 a year and still purchase a town home. The secret to their success was a strict budget that excluded luxuries. They ate hot cereal for breakfast, packed lunches and cooked their own dinners. They "went to the movies" at home, watching DVDs they'd checked out from the library. By the time they had their first child, they had saved enough to build their own home.
Get real. My generation has been raised to want both success and self-fulfillment. Speaking of the current 20-something generation, developmental psychologist Jeffrey Arnett says:
They have grown up as the most affluent generation in American [or world] history, so they have high expectations for life. They all expect to find a job that not only pays well, but is enjoyable, and they all expect to find their 'soul mate.'
When my dad entered college, he was advised to pursue something he was good at. When I entered college, I was encouraged to choose something I enjoyed. Many of my friends invested four years and thousands of dollars in degrees that turned up useless when they tried to enter the workforce.
Choosing a fulfilling career is a good idea. In college I went through an in-depth career aptitude program. Analyzing my 10 favorite life experiences, the program confirmed that I would be fulfilled in a writing career. This guided me to work I would be good at and also enjoy.
Don't stall. The tendency for 20-somethings facing a crisis is to come to a halt until the issue magically resolves. But the Bible never commands us to stop moving forward (unless we're moving toward sin). Proverbs 16:9 says, "In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps." In order for God to determine a person's steps, she must be walking.
When the Israelites were exiled to Babylon, the Lord urged them to: "Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters" (Jeremiah 29:5-6). In spite of the utter upheaval of being captives in a strange land, God's people were instructed not to abandon their personal lives. They were to continue establishing families and homes. God's instructions reveal His heart for people: that they surround themselves with loving community, even — and perhaps especially — in challenging times.
Reclaim an inner life. It may be that the thing you're avoiding is the very thing that would move you past the crisis. Many biblical heroes did not feel ready for the tasks God called them to: Moses. Ruth. David. Often it turned out that everyday tasks and people prepared them for greatness.
If you find yourself in crisis, don't abandon your inner life. Invest in meaningful relationships. Explore the range of your skills. Seek help with your finances. Get set and go ... you're probably more ready than you think.
Copyright © 2007 Suzanne Hadley. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.