The Great 20-Something Debate

Many of you have probably gotten wind of the current discussion that has the media all a-buzz, the one about people in their twenties? About why we're taking so long to become "adults"?

Almost two weeks ago, a New York Times magazine contributor tried to answer the question "What Is It About 20-Somethings?" in a lengthy article that got people talking. The next day, Jessie Rosen of the  blog 20-Nothings wrote a great response, "Dear NY Times, Here's Why I Haven't 'Grown Up." Love, a 20-Something". You can hear them both discuss the issue further on NPR here.

Rosen decided that we actual 20-somethings should join the conversation, explain ourselves, let people know exactly where we fit into this whole phenomenon, and how we got there. She asked her readers to respond to the prompt, "At twenty-[blank], I feel [blank]." I decided to contribute my two cents. Here's the little essay I sent her.

At twenty-four, I feel on the verge of something big.

Since graduating from college two years ago, I’ve spent a year living and traveling in Europe, two months on a 5,714-mile road trip around the American West, five months interning for no pay at an exciting literary nonprofit in San Francisco, and another six weeks in Europe.

Now, age 24 and freshly returned to California from my most recent travels, I’m living at my parents’ house with no job, no savings, and no boyfriend. I am, essentially, starting from square one. I’m proud of the choices I’ve made and the things I’ve done, and yet embarrassed by where they’ve landed me.

I'm not in a hurry to reach society’s prescribed model of “adulthood,” and I'm optimistic that things will eventually work out and fall into place. I’ll build a fulfilling and meaningful career, maybe go back to school, meet someone I want to marry, have smart and healthy children, and make a nice home.

I’m optimistic, but I’m also terrified. I realize that all those things, unlike what many of us have always thought, are not a given. In fact, from my vantage point, they seem largely unattainable. I feel like I’m standing in front of a locked door and I can’t find the key. I can just barely hear the music and noise of all the things I think I’m supposed to have, all the things I’m supposed to be, on the other side, but I can’t figure out what they look like or how to get to them.

I know I’m not alone on this side of the locked door. And with the way our generation was raised, it’s understandable how we’ve ended up here, nothing but impressive college transcripts and unanswerable questions in hand. All our lives, we’ve been spoon fed sentiments like “follow your dreams” and “do what you love and the money will follow.” We’re taught that we can be anything we want, so is it any wonder that it’s taking us a while to narrow it down?

I remember the frustration I felt as a 17-year-old finishing up high school and being asked left and right what I wanted to do with my life. I remember thinking, how the hell am I, a teenage kid brought up in sheltered suburbia and educated at a less-than-stellar public school with limited resources, supposed to know what I want to do with the rest of my life? Why can’t it be enough to know what I’m going to do with the next year, even the next month? The thing is, when I finished college, I still felt that way, and now, at 24? You guessed it.

The unprecedented wealth of opportunity and choices facing today’s 20-somethings is both a blessing and a curse. We’re situated in a strange paradox, one in which we’re encouraged to reach for nothing less than the stars, but once we finally figure out what that means to us, we can’t actually get the right job. In other words, the values instilled in us from the beginning don’t exactly line up with what’s available in today’s job market. We’re taught not to settle, and after seeing so many of our parents realize the mistakes of a youth cut short, the value of waiting until we truly know ourselves (given the means) is all the more vital.

What I don’t understand is why everybody seems so surprised. Is it really news to anyone that the times they are a-changin’? I mean, as Robin Marantz Henig points out in her NY Times magazine piece, we’re not even the first generation to take this more meandering path toward adulthood. Anyone remember the ’60s and ’70s? Take my father, for example. Now a successful business man, but before he found something that stuck, he explored various professional avenues until age 30, including higher education administration, carpet sales, the turquoise trade, and beer-drinking, pot-smoking, white water-rafting mountain life (that last one maybe not so much a career path as general debauchery). The point is, he turned out OK. He’s your proverbial self-made man. He put three kids through college, has a big house in the suburbs of San Francisco, and is on track for a comfortable retirement with his wife of over 30 years. While this is a common story, it’s also common for these same wandering hippies to grow up, turn around and shake their fingers at their wandering children (not my parents, of course). Like Henig says, “It’s reassuring, actually, to think of it as recursive, to imagine that there must always be a cohort of 20-somethings who take their time settling down, just as there must always be a cohort of 50-somethings who worry about it.”

For me, though, much of that pressure comes not from my parents’ generation, but from my own peers who have taken a more traditional path. I often sense in them an attitude that says “I’m working a 9-5, paying the bills and putting away savings, and you should be too.” But what I hear again and again from people who have already been settled for a while, when they hear about how I’ve spent the last year or two, is this: “I wish I had done that.” Call me crazy, but I think that’s worth listening to.

I sometimes think I’m imagining the peer pressure because maybe I actually do wish I were a little more like my traditional counterparts. But then I realize how much I love the thrill of not knowing exactly where I’ll be living in five years, one year, or even a month, not knowing what I’ll be doing or who I’ll be with. I feel good about the person I’m becoming, and while I’ll admit that the future is a scary thing, I have to trust that I’m gonna turn out OK. I have my whole life for certainty and stability, but this? This is just one little decade.

Join the conversation, leave a comment! I'd love to hear thoughts from anyone and everyone - fellow 20-somethings, baby boomers, or even actual babies.


  1. I'm interested in the whole kids doing the opposite of their parents paradigm. While that's been so cyclical these last few generations, I think all the confusion comes from, this time around, more 20-somethings are doing what their hippie parents did: take their time.

    Lives are long and are meant to be lived.

    Also: great post, Shan :)

  2. As a teenager in the 60s I remember feeling just the way you feel now and thinking that I can't wait to grow up....and do what? Meeting and marrying Steve at age 20 was the direction I chose. I can't say it was an option, because I don't remember weighing any other options. Years later, after I had my kids and we bought a house and had steady jobs, I looked back at the road I took and couldn't imagine a life any different. A different turn and I wouldn't have the babies and grandbabies that I have now. Could I give them up for a different timeline? Not on your life! Until we have the option of those different timelines, the choices we make are the choices we are meant to make. Aunt Donna

  3. Oh how I wish I was sitting next to you talking rapidly and incoherently yet you totally following my thought process and engaging discussion.

    I press on and will struggle to put my thoughts into this tiny comment box. Who is making 20 somethings feel this way? What generation? I imagine my grandmother and middle aged people. But for whatever reason I can't imagine our parents generation. Because we're their babies and they feel responsible? Or they simply understand that recession is a bitch because they too are feeling the affects hard and unexpectedly?

    I think of my mother who at age 61 is still working and claims she will be working until she is 80. At the young age of 14 she was a candy striper, by 17 she was a registered nurse, was a young gun at UCLA by 19 and working in the hospital setting for over 30 years and now visiting patients in their homes. My point is she has been working a damn long time. She demanded I not get a job until college. "I worked since I was 14 because I had to. You don't have to." So why isn't she retired? She can't. Times are a changin. Long gone are the days of companies paying fat retirement plans and health insurance. My heart breaks for her. She too faces the judgement of prior generations who don't quite understand the dramatically changed landscape.

    I think of my dad who left the mortgage industry right before the economic meltdown. To find he could not compete in a lackluster job market. He now is employed but working a job that does not utilize his skill level. Times are a changin. My dad is one of many people facing this situation.

    So maybe thats why my parents specifically wouldn't judge. They get it.

    And as for me. I'm 24 and employed and on a very exciting career path. It was truly divine intervention that I landed where I did. I get that I am extremely fortunate to stumble upon this opportunity. I shamefully admit I did not truly grasp what I was opening myself up to when I applied, interviewed and got the job. I was simply desperate for an internship to validate my very lacking resume at the time.

    I have a "to each their own" attitude in regards to the employed, unemployed and nomadic. I encourage my friends to move about and try new things so I can live vicariously through them and have nice places to visit. I can't say I have close friends who have been job hunting incessantly with no luck. I have plenty of friends in professions they can't stand but they are also the most fun to hang out with. They truly make their weekends matter and oh the decadent indulgences that are available with salaried income. I'm blessed to have a variety of lives to engage with.

    I'll catch up on these articles now. My head will spin I'm sure.

  4. Bahahaha! I would LOVE to hear from babies regarding this topic.... but they're so lazy, all they do is sit there and make weird shapes with their face. They're the ones we should REALLY be concerned about - get a job, lazy baby!

    In more serious news, maybe I will take your invitation to join the conversation... to my own blog!

  5. thank you so much for sharing this, shannon. it had me thinking about it all night, and inspired a blog post of my own. perhaps i'm biased as one of these irresponsible 20-somethings avoiding growing up, but i tend to think we're all on to something that will make us much happier once we find ourselves at 35 years old, 40 years old, and so on.