I finally got around to reading that New York Times Magazine article that everybody’s been buzzing about. It discusses the fact that my generation seems to be taking longer to grow up than any generation prior, and presents psychologist Jeff Arnett’s somewhat controversial movement to add a new stage to our understanding of human development. The proposed new stage, which Arnett calls “emerging adulthood,” applies to people in their late teens through their 20s, and is meant to give a definition and significance to what I’ve described here as “the in-between place.”
“Young people spend their lives lumped into age-related clusters – that’s the basis of K-12 schooling,” the article says. “But as they move through their 20s, they diverge. Some 25-year-olds are married homeowners with good jobs and a couple of kids; others are still living with their parents and working at transient jobs, or not working at all.”
Amongst other things, the article likens emerging adulthood to adolescence, in that the brain of the 20-something is still maturing, with the possibility that “when the limbic system is fully active but the cortex is still being built, emotions might outweigh rationality.” Which explains why we in-betweeners often seem to not have a clue as to what we want out of life, and simultaneously seem to want it all.
Although I’m not fully on board with all the theories and explanations the article presents (it would be hard to be fully on board with 18 printed pages worth of anything), the idea of divergence between the half of us who are “married homeowners” and the half who are apparent slackers explains a lot about the way I hold myself up against my peers these days. I measure my own self-worth against their apparent successes, which are really just the traditional milestone markers for adulthood mentioned in the article: “completing school [check], leaving home [check], becoming financially independent [check-minus], marrying [check-uncheck], and having a child [pointed blank stare].”
When did I start to confuse “success” with “proven adulthood”? I don’t want to grow up; I never have. I talk about getting a tattoo of Peter Pan’s shadow to remind me of this fact. In high school, I wrote a column for the school paper, which I called Both Sides of the Mushroom. The title was a reference to something the Caterpillar said in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (“One side will make you grow taller, and the other side will make you grow shorter”); the premise was that I was happily living in this in-between place, acting like a kid, making dumb mistakes, and having grand realizations about the way the world works. At the time, I saw life as a huge learning opportunity, and I wrote about topics such as a friend’s coming out, the first time I visited the home of a family who didn’t share my own family’s level of economic comfort, the time I accidentally overdosed on cold medicine, and the time I decided to go to Six Flags instead of prom.
My classmates, to my recollection anyway, loved these vignettes. People I barely knew would tell me that every month, when the paper came out, they would open to my column first – as though it was the comics! In no other time in my life have I felt like such a celebrity. And I loved doing it: making myself step back and think about my place in the world and the meaning of it all.
Last night, I went to a show with my dad and some longtime family friends, whom I refer to as the God-Aunt and God-Uncle, and as we were saying our goodbyes, the topic of my blog came up. The God-Aunt mentioned that her daughter, the God-Cousin, had been reading it.
“At first, [the God-Cousin] told me she didn’t want to continue,” she said. “She said it was too much for her, too personal. But then she said she couldn’t stop. She wants to know what happens next, and how it ends.”
I laughed. “Is it bad that I don’t know how it ends?” I asked.
My dad rarely discusses my writing in depth with me, preferring instead to show that he’s read it by making one-line comments (like when he walked into my apartment yesterday and greeted Doug with, “Why’d you open the cookies?”). In the car on the way home, however, when I brought up the God-Cousin’s reaction to this project, Dad thought for a minute, then said,
“It’s like Top of the Mushroom on steroids.”
We laughed long and hard at this, both because he’d gotten the name of my column mixed up with an Irish greeting, and because he was right.
And I think the response I’m getting from my peers who are reading this is similar to the response I got from my classmates back then. Only this time, I don’t feel like a celebrity so much as a voice for my generation. People whose personal experiences differ vastly from my own have told me they enjoy reading this blog because they can relate to it. It’s not about my divorce and my miscarriage (except when it is); it’s about the experience of emerging adulthood, or the in-between place, or whatever we’re calling it today… Life, I guess.
It’s about the fact that, underneath all those traditional milestones and imaginary Peter Pan tattoos, my peers and I really do still have a lot in common. The world is wonderful, and uncertain, and ripe for exploration and learning, even as we enter real adulthood and settle into careers and families and apparent stability.
And, hey guys? We’re all still in it together.