The other day I found a picture of my parents — an old grainy photo, I’m talking like pre-80s. It was enough to make me laugh out loud. There was my dad, sporting ridiculous sideburns and a mop of hair that would make a televangelist jealous. Mom was clad in a flowered dress, tilting her head and flashing a plastic smile at the camera — classic Stepford material. I’m guessing they were about my age at the time of the picture, somewhere in their 20s.
My parents were no hippies but the ’70s happened to everyone, even those of conservative stock. When I finished having a good laugh at their expense, I had a troubling realization: they may have looked silly in their disco-era getups but they were much more “mature” than me. In the shot a gaggle of kids vaguely resembling my older brothers adorned their laps and legs. As I gazed at the youthful visage of my folks and their burgeoning family I began to compare their lives to mine. Enter the unsettling revelations. For instance, by my age my father had a) established a career, b) purchased (no, actually built) a house and c) sired several children. What have I done?
Panicked, I did some quick inventory in those categories. How did I stack up against the old man in his younger days?
Career: Hmmm, that would be nice.
Turns out I matched my father in only one area — I’m married, which itself was kind of a miracle. Okay, so one-for-four is pretty good, right? Well, not if you care about the other three. And I do. I really, really do. I want a career — one of those jobs that last a long time and maybe even remotely relates to who I am and what I like to do. That sounds wonderful. And kids – they’re adorable (not to mention a blessing from God). Oh, and a house to put them in would be nice. I could live there too. But somehow these “life stages” keep eluding me.
I feel like I’m chasing the horizon. Instead of settling down I’m crawling through grad school, working part time — simultaneously longing for the “real world” and dreading the mountainesque sight of my student loan debt when the real world arrives. Many of my friends find themselves in similar circumstance. In the years after high school we felt that life would somehow just assemble itself. But now 30 is looming and our lives are still in limbo.
We’re not what journalists have dubbed, “Twixters” — victims of arrested adolescence, unwilling or unable to leave home. We have left our parents but have failed to become them. And in certain ways, becoming your parents isn’t all that bad. Careers can be fulfilling. Owning is better than renting. Having children and raising a family are noble pursuits, no matter what the surrounding culture might say. So what’s the cause of this trend? Why does my life feel like it’s stuck on pause or at least like it’s moving in slow motion? I could blame the way the world has changed. It tends to do that. Life has grown more complex.
Not that everything was peaches for my parents, but things are different now. And some of those differences seem to make it hard for young people — even talented beauties like myself — to get off to a quick start.
Delay factor No. 1: a demand for higher education. Some people say that today’s bachelor’s degree is equivalent to yesterday’s high school diploma. Whether it’s true, many college graduates feel like they’re just starting to crack the door on their future career. And lots of jobs require further education or specialized training.
Gone are the days when companies snapped up fresh graduates and kept them for an entire career, sending them into retirement with a gold watch and fat pension. In today’s global market corporations strive to be “weightless,” which means unloading employees the nanosecond they’re expendable. Add to this insecurity the challenge of landing a good job in the first place. Even a topnotch education isn’t a slam dunk. Like I told my friend with a Master’s after a Ph.D. applicant edged him out for a job, “Don’t worry man. Starbucks isn’t the only company out there.” He was inconsolable. “I knew I should have stayed in school.” Okay, I made that story up, but you get the point. Higher education may provide a career edge, but there are no guarantees.
Ironically the situation may not be quite so bleak for people who enter the work force early. Often those who pursue higher degrees realize only too late that they would have been further ahead and more fulfilled had they jumped into the real world rather than spending years (not to mention thousands of dollars) on advanced degrees. Given these conditions, enrolling in graduate or professional studies demands a sense of calling, not simply desire for advancement or a larger salary. Besides you can have more degrees than a thermometer and still struggle. Maybe you’ve heard some variation of this joke: Question: “How do you get a person with a Master’s degree off your porch? Answer: Pay for the Pizza!” Such jibes used to be funny to me. Now I can manage little more than a weak smile or nervous laugh, aware that there’s something all-too-true behind them.
Beyond the cold and competitive job market there’s another reason for my delay and it has little to do with my surroundings. My plight has a great deal to do with me. Settling down sounds scary. Call it existential restlessness but when people of my parents’ generation describe living in the same place for 30 years, my reaction is less than kind. “Wow, 30 years, eh? Could you please pass the Prozac?” Of course I should be careful not to confuse reaching traditional milestones with settling down geographically. The odds of me living in the same place for that long, even with kids, are about the same as my chances of becoming the next president. Demographic trends show that I will move and change jobs a lot more than my parents did. Today settling down doesn’t necessarily mean staying in the same place. Besides, starting a family and establishing a career can be the most exciting and challenging adventures in life.
Sure, taking the plunge can be daunting, but there’s something that frightens me much more: never settling down. It happens. Meet Dave — my friend and cautionary figure. Dave (not his real name) has a bad case of wanderlust. Seven years my senior, Dave still hasn’t managed to establish anything resembling a career or serious relationship. He has big dreams. They just never seem to materialize. A few years ago he came to live with me and I got a glimpse into his mindset. One week he would be planning a career in business. Impressed by his fervor I would bring it up a few days later, only to find I was talking to a different person. “Business? No, man that isn’t for me. I’m creative. I’m going to be a photographer.” The next week I’d ask him about the photography plan. “Oh, I couldn’t do that. I’m thinking of being a writer.” And on it went.
The pattern was the same in relationships. After multiple girlfriends he finally proposed to a young woman he met while traveling abroad. Lured by his promise of marriage, she left her country to join him. Then he changed his mind. “She was a good person,” he sighed. “But something about waking up to the same face for the rest of your life — nah, that’s not for me.” Disgusted by his noncommittal attitude I knew exactly what to do with his advice when he counseled me to break up with my-then fiancé.
I had a realization about Dave. I’m not sure when it dawned. Maybe as I stepped over his sleeping body on my way to work in the morning – or maybe as I stepped back over his still-sleeping body when I came home in the afternoon: Dave was lazy. He wasn’t just indecisive and idealistic. He was scared stiff by responsibility. And he knew nothing of being a man. I’m being hard on Dave, probably because I see a little of him in myself and it haunts me. There’s nothing wrong with some transition time. But a life stuck in limbo is no life at all. And it flies in the face of biblical teaching on maturity. The Bible has some harsh words for those who continually shirk responsibility. If you thought “tough love” started with Doctor Phil, check out these passages:
Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth. He who gathers crops in summer is a wise son, but he who sleeps during harvest is a disgraceful son (Proverbs 10:4, 5).
One who is slack in his work is brother to one who destroys (Proverbs 18:9).
For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘If a man will not work, he shall not eat.’ We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10-12).
Ultimately, fulfillment comes from commitment and responsibility, which brings me to something else I saw in the old photo of my parents: contentedness. It wasn’t just the bright and flowered patterns on their clothes either. They told me. They were young, poor, struggling — and some of the happiest people on planet earth. I felt a little of that happiness this week as I made a few steps in the right direction. I dredged up the old resume and applied for a more permanent position. I also came to a realization about children: you can’t budget for them. I will probably never be in the perfect position financially to start a family, but God’s grace always accompanies new challenges. And children are a blessing from Him. Maybe some day my kids will laugh when they look at old pictures of me … and hopefully learn the same lesson.
Copyright 2005 Drew Dyck. All rights reserved.