Life is inscribed with numbers that pressure us to hit certain achievements by certain ages, but adulthood doesn’t come with any trophies, says Chelsea Cristene.
When it comes to wasting time on the Internet, I’ve found that few things are more enjoyable than the webcomic Hyperbole and a Half. Not familiar? Hyperbole and a Half is the colorful brainchild of Allie Brosh, who, via exaggerated Paintbrush doodles and witty narratives, documents common experiences (everything from depression to dealing with rambunctious pets) in terrifyingly perfect detail.
One of my favorite blog posts by Allie, and one that I often return to in times of stress, is titled “This is Why I’ll Never be an Adult.” With her usual pinpoint accuracy, Allie describes the roller coaster of young adulthood—the thrill of feeling self-sufficient and productive followed by the unavoidable crash of overwhelming responsibility and subsequent procrastination and avoidance of Things That Need to be Done.
Shortly after the peak of her manic high, Allie realizes that accomplishment is fleeting and that adulthood is actually not “something that can be earned like a trophy in one monumental burst of effort.” In the accompanying drawing, cartoon-Allie points to an imaginary trophy and informs a friend, “That right there is my ability to be responsible. I won it when I was 25.”
When I first read this post, I was 22 and working my first post-college job. The age of 25 was still far enough down the road, glistening in the distance. It was the solid mark of a quarter-century, the magical age of promise when I would have everything figured out. I would have my master’s degree. I would be teaching English—my dream career. I would be moved into my own apartment.
I accomplished all three of these goals by age 25. But there is no golden trophy on my mantle, because the challenges and pressures of life haven’t ended there.
Just like Allie’s alternate cartoon universe, real life is inscribed with numbers that pressure us to hit certain achievements by certain ages. And we’re seeing more and more articles lately—more often than not, written by women—announcing the author’s age in conjunction with the coveted milestones they haven’t yet reached. Brooke Falvey, at 31, is told that she has “passed her prime as a bride.” Terona Seymore feels shamed for being single at 39. And then there’s Amanda Bast, self-proclaimed “26, unmarried, and childless.” (Amanda, come over to my apartment sometime. And bring your PJs. We’ll order pizza and marathon How I Met Your Mother on Netflix.)
Articles like these raise two major issues: one, that there is a fixed number by which all of us should finish the schooling, buy the house, marry, have the kids, or settle into the perfect job. And two, that happiness and fulfillment are contingent upon hitting these milestones in a predetermined order.
Consider the negative connotations of the words “unmarried” and “childless” used in the title of Amanda Bast’s article—the prefix “un” and suffix “less” literally mean not and without. The usage of these words when referring to someone who has never married or reproduced reflects a subliminal cultural attitude that a person is “less” without partners or children, when he or she may in fact be contentedly single or childfree. No matter how many studies report that more women (and men) are waiting later and later to settle down and start a family, the same pressures hang over us like a fog.
Don’t believe me? Log onto Facebook right now and scroll through the veritable smorgasbord of accomplishments—degrees, certifications, new jobs, promotions, engagements, marriages, babies—and see how you feel after a few minutes. Studies have shown that the more we poke around on social networking sites like Facebook, the more depressed we are. Why? Because people post the best of themselves online, not the worst, and our human nature is to want what we think we don’t have.
Marriage couldn’t be further from my mind at this point in life, and children are even further. But when Facebook suggests that I send a Starbucks gift card to each of the dozen former classmates who apparently put a ring on it last weekend? I can’t help but feel a little down.
Brooke, Terona, and Amanda acknowledge that women face tremendous pressure to “do it all.” But I’m able to identify with another group that has grown accustomed to similar hounding from the masses—Millennials, or “Generation Y,” the age cohort born sometime between the early 1980’s and the early 2000’s. Working in higher education means that I deal with younger Millennials on a daily basis, and having a birth year of 1987 means that I’m a Millennial myself.
Whether or not you buy into the negative stereotypes currently surrounding Millennials—lazy, self-obsessed, and entitled—there’s no denying that this generation faces a unique challenge: transitioning into adulthood during a prolonged economic recession. Between working only a part-time job through graduate school and wanting to build up a substantial cushion in my savings account, I was not financially able to move out of my parents’ house until I turned 25. And when I could finally afford health insurance after going months without, I was happy enough to throw my fist in the air a la Judd Nelson at the end of The Breakfast Club, for there are no employer benefits for adjunct professors. Heading into 2014, these seemingly small victories are very, very big.
So since I arrived at the whole financial stability thing later than previous generations did, am I left playing the catch-up game? Should I scramble to marry the guy, buy the dream house, and have the kids before it’s “too late”? The answer is an emphatic no.
No one receives a trophy at age 25 for having figured it all out. Those goals I met? They’ve been replaced with new ones: Get a doctorate, secure a full time professorship, and eventually reside in a place that doesn’t come with steel factory stairs. And whenever I worry that going back to school in the next few years may interfere with eventually meeting someone and settling down, I have to remind myself that obsessive preoccupation with the future robs us of joy in the present. Learning makes me happy, really happy, and that is worth more than any future that may or may not ultimately exist.
My adult students who return to college after years, sometimes decades, teach me every day that there is no right or wrong age to transition, start over, or simply stay where you are. As hard as it may be sometimes, as many of our friends may ask when we’re going to meet “that special someone,” as much as we may think that social media perception is reality, the Byrds tell us that to every thing there is a season. And that’s good enough advice for me.
Chelsea Cristene is a community college professor of English and communications living in central Maryland. She writes Gender on the Rocks, a blog about gender, relationships, culture, education, and the media. Find her on Twitter.