The Uncertain Decade

I was reading Esquire on the flight home to visit friends and family last week when I came across this bit of insight from the actress Helen Mirren:

The hardest period in life is one's twenties. It's a shame because you're your most gorgeous and you're physically in peak condition. But it's actually when you're most insecure and full of self-doubt. When you don't know what's going to happen, it's frightening.


The quote provided interesting foreshadowing to the rest of the trip, where I was fortunate to reconnect with many friends, some I’ve known since childhood and others I met in college and grad school. While our relationships vary widely, we were all in the middle of navigating life in our twenties, a topic that dominated much of the week.

A vast array of lifestyle diversity exists among us. One friend is a married homeowner with a very young daughter and another child on the way. Another lives unemployed in a starter apartment with her boyfriend and talks of figuring out the next chapter of her life, whether that includes school or a new job.  One is single but owns a home that ties him to his fairly remote locale, while another unmarried couple purchased a sizable home together nearby. One put plans for single-parent adoption on hold while he readjusts to life with a partner, and another reconsiders his next step after ending a years-old relationship. One attended a house warming party for a childhood friend, as she moves back in with her parents for the summer before heading to graduate school in the fall. One feels tied down to a poor investment in a condo with her husband, while another reassess life after some false starts.

Certainly any age bracket will hold stories of lives in disparate places, but life in one’s twenties seems to be, so far, particularly jarring and unsettling.

Those who move for school and jobs may look to their friends with homes and children with a bit of envy, longing for that patina of stability and certainty. Of course, those with obligations tying them to homes or partners or children may feel they lack some of the freedom that their single, renting friends enjoy. What ties seemingly all twenty-somethings together is the uncertainty in our decisions, the second-guessing that we are on the right paths to adulthood.

One’s twenties feels as though the control over the future that was once taken for granted is gone, replaced by a series of choices that may have dramatic consequences on one’s life or may have no bearing on it whatsoever. It’s that uncertainty, the unknowing, that can make so many of the choices seem impossible. Ultimately, choices will be made and the consequences dealt with, and perspective will illuminate the path behind us. Until then, those of us living in our twenties make a deal with ourselves that we won’t worry too much about the choices we make, believe fiercely that most of the time things work out in some way, and enjoy the opportunities that we’ve earned for ourselves and those that have been given to us. If life is this complex in our 20s, who can imagine what 30 brings?

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Waldemar Gute
7 years 5 months ago
A few years ago, I would have agreed with this assessment, but I fear that the prolonging of adolescence has stretched the period of uncertainty and instability well into the 30s and 40s for far too many people today.

You mentioned grad school, which is a culprit in contributing to this trend. By taking (relatively) young adults off of a direct path into the workforce, graduate school increases uncertainty and tends to drag on much longer than anyone expects. You get a sense of this from insider blogs like ''100 reasons NOT to go to graduate school'':

There is something to be said for those who put down roots when they are young. If they have made sound decisions (in choosing a spouse, a career, etc.), then they are in a good position to weather storms. The importance of the choices we make when we are young becomes clearer as the years pass.
Brendan McGrath
7 years 5 months ago
This is all so, so true.  I'm 29 - though because I stayed back in kindergarten, I'm more like 28, having been out of college 6 years rather than 7.  While right now things are more stable for me, my 20s have been so full of uncertainty, constant needing to readjust to new situations, etc.

I graduated from Georgetown in 2005.  I remember all the stress during senior year (2004-2005) of trying to figure out what I was going to do after graduation.  I knew I wanted to go on to grad school - for lots of reasons, one of them being just that it's so fulfilling and enriching (though also often grueling), and... it's hard to explain, but I feel like going to grad school was as "natural" for me as going to college.  So anyway, during the beginning and midde of that senior year, I knew I wanted to go on to grad school (at a Catholic university), and by then I knew that I wanted to teach in a Catholic high school (preferably my own, St. Joe's Prep in Philly, a Jesuit school) - but I didn't know whether I wanted to go on to grad school for English (my major) or Theology (my minor, but with almost as many courses as my major), and - since at that point I really knew nothing about it all - I didn't know whether I wanted to pursue a Master's or Ph.D. 

Looking back, a lot of stress could have been avoided if I'd just known more about the nature of grad school - what a Master's is for, vs. what a Ph.D. is for, and how the relation or connection between them can vary depending on the program.  But anyway, I ended up applying to Ph.D. programs in English, but writing in the personal statements that I hoped to somehow pursue a course of study that would combine it with Theology - and writing that I wanted to teach in a Catholic high school.  You can imagine how that went.  I got into some Master's programs (and funding was a whole other issue), and rejected entirely from others - which was a traumatic shock to me: "why did I only get into their Master's programs?"  Of course I didn't understand that they were a lead-in to the Ph.D., really, or possible stand-alones, so it wasn't a rejection.  "Why did I get rejected from those other schools when my grades are so good?"  I didn't understand that when you're applying to grad school (at least the sorts of programs I was applying to, where the tuition is free in the sense that they only admit those to whom they're giving full scholarships), in contrast to when you're applying to high schools or colleges, they're not just interested in whether you'll do well as a student; they're interested in what your purpose and goal is.  And for the sorts of Ph.D. programs to which I was applying, teaching high school is not what they're looking for; that's what Master's programs would be for. 

I realize I'm getting swamped in explaining details here - but in a way, that's EXACTLY what your twenties are often like: being in the middle of transitions where you are constantly having to explain the details to people when they ask that terribly annoying question, "so what are you doing now?"  ...And in your explanations, you are (or I am/was) constantly trying to make sure people understood everything, as if to justify myself (and I do have in mind the theological connotations of that, with a dose of Tillich and the different anxieties), to keep prevent alarm bells and red flags in people's minds.

Graduating from college is really... I mean, if you're lucky like I am/was, you grow up in wonderful schools where there are people whose JOB it is to make sure you're OK, to give you a place and a role, etc. (of course that's done in different ways in grade school vs. high school vs. college).  That all changes when you graduate: suddenly there aren't all these people whose job it is to care for you; there's no nestling shell around you.  You (or I) find yourself without a place/role, and you have to make or find a place/role - you write resumes and cover letters, all the while being careful how you present yourself, "putting your best foot forward," trying to sound confident, etc., and you meet with such coldness, indifference, such impersonalness in the world - or, as it's called, "professionalism."  And once you find a place/role, it's all so precarious - it all depends on whether you're good enough, whether you meet expectations.

Particularly as a Theology person, it was all so alien to me - what do you mean I have to put my best foot forward and show how confident I am in these cover lettersa and interviews?  Of myself I'm nothing; it's only with God's grace I can do this!  I felt (and feel) a keen attachment to the saints, particularly St. Teresa of Avila.  No saint worth their relics would ever go around thinking, "Oh, yes, I'm the right person for the job; I'm confident I can do this; let me show you how competent I am."  The response of saints or biblical figures when called to do something is always, "You want me to do WHAT?!!" - "No, no, send Aaron, not me!"  ... Our modern "professional" world... it's so counter to all of this - and it's quite often counter to the values of the academic world, too.

...Anyway, I ultimately decided not to go to any of the English MA programs I'd gotten into, largely because I realized that it was Theology I really wanted to study and to teach (my interest in English was always primarily about creative writing, and that's not what grad school would be about unless it were an MFA program, and that wouldn't really be something that would be for teaching high school, etc.).  I decided to take a year off to work, and re-apply to Master's programs in Theology; I ended up going to Notre Dame for an MTS (two years, 48 credits).  But the absolute agony and depression of making those decisions, walking around Georgetown's campus feeling worthless, terrified of what would come next, depressed, breaking down on the phone to my parents - and the relief when they saw how borderlien suicidal I was and allowed me to just "let go" and come home for the next year.  I remember how incredibly and overwhelmingly loved I felt, when my Dad said he just cared about me, wanted me to be OK, that none of it mattered, "just come home," when he saw that that's what I needed.

This post is getting too long - so, to sum up, I went home, applied to Master's programs in Theology, got into Notre Dame where I ultimately went; during that 2005-2006 year I taught for the first time as a long-term sub in the spring 2006 semester at Bishop Shanahan High School (diocesan co-ed school in the Philly area) where I had freshman Theology and sophomore English.  Of course that year was also full of anxiety and uncertainty in terms of looking for a job, adjusting to all sorts of things.  After grad school, I taught Theology at Father Judge High School in 2008-2009; lost the position during the constriction process; in 2009-2010 went back to school for education and got to do student teaching for the first time; this past year and for this coming year I'm teaching Theology at Paul VI High School in NJ, which is going wonderfully: this past year was like, "finally, it's going well."  But all the adjusting, the uncertainty during all the transition periods... so, it's so true about your twenties.

A quote from the TV show Alias episode #2-01 (which I watched on DVD during that 2005-2006 year) really resonated with me - Sydney Bristow, who's in her 20s, said the following in eulogizing the wife of her boss (yes, she's a CIA double agent in a spy-fi story, and in fact the person she's eulogzing has not really died and has had her death faked, but the feeling still applies):

SYDNEY: I met Emily shortly after I started working at Credit Dauphine. Like many young women, I was intimidated... by the world. I was sort of desperate for a little guidance. As he had been for most of my life, my father was busy working. I had lost my mother when I was six so I didn't have anyone to go to. No role model. Arvin invited me for dinner one night. I remember after dinner was over, Emily walked me out to the car. I didn't know her at all and she said in this simple, reassuring voice... "You're going to be okay."

"You're going to be OK" - I think that is exactly what everyone in their 20s most wants to hear.  And for me, it was true.  :)
7 years 5 months ago
I once taught at Fordham, a seminar for interns that were working in the area and who had to report once a week for class time to discuss their experiences and its relevance to their education.  I would lecture for about 20 minutes and then we would have discussions. One of my lectures was about the nature of a job and their future life.

I said that while in college, they were sort of like prisoners  to their parents who were financing their education.  A job would release them from the dictates of their parents and they could be independent and feel free.  This would feel good for awhile but then more than likely they would meet someone from the other sex and they would get married and have children.  Then that job which was your ticket to freedom would become your new shackle as you had mortgate expenses, child costs etc.  You would be very limited in what you could do because of all these new committments.

But it does not just affect those in their 20's as those much older still have lots of uncertainties about their life and lots of committments, older kids, bigger mortgages, health issues, is my life going to be meaningful etc.  So it never ends.

As an aside, the current employment situation in addition to preventing people from getting the freedom I was talking about is stifling a lot in the country.  The norm for a long time was to move to a new job occasionally to get a better salary and a more interesting careet.  That is not happening today.  Of course a few are moving along and doing this but someone presented a statistic a couple months ago that about a million a month less job moves are happening since the financial crisis started and that means people are not trading up for a better job afraid that if something happens with the new job, it could be disasterous.  I know two people personally who are caught in this bind and would like to move up to something more demanding but afraid to because of the current job situation.
Bill Collier
7 years 5 months ago
Helen Mirren is an excellent actress, and certainly one's 20's can be angst-ridden (as can other decades in one's life for all sorts of reasons), but I wonder if Ms. Mirren's atheism, which I had read about previously and which she specifically mentioned in the Esquire piece, contributed to her comment that "[w]hen you don't know what's going to happen, it's frightening." For believers in a loving God, the availabilty of grace, and the promise of eternal life, I'm guessing that the unknown is at least somewhat less frightening than it might be for a non-believer.
Anne Chapman
7 years 5 months ago
The 20s probably have more of some kinds of ''angst'' for young people today because more young people have more choices than people had in earlier eras.  But, with the benefit of the hindsight of one who is now 60+, it seems to me that the angst for the 20-somethings may be less agonizing than the angst that often faces people in later decades. The angst of this generation revolves around choosing careers, grad school or no grad school, majors, which school,  and, for most, finding a marriage partner.  Important choices, especially that of a marriage partner, but also good choices. In earlier generations, being able to actually ''choose'' a profession was far more rare than it is today, especially for college graduates (many more graduate from college now as a percentage of the generation than in earlier generations). Choices were limited. Yes, the economy is bad now, but there have been many in previous generations who graduated from college (or maybe had only high school) during a downturn in the economy.  It's not a new challenge. The IT age has created an entire enormous industry of highly paid jobs that didn't even exist 40 years ago.  Instead of being limited to working to take over the family farm or small business, or to  the local factory jobs available (manufacturing is  the hardest hit sector in this recession, so those who are dependent on factory jobs are in even worst shape than others), young people have incredible choices.  Perhaps some need to put into perspective the rather enviable angst involved with deciding whether to go to grad school - go now, go later? What should I major in? Should I go for a PhD or a terminal Master's?  These ''problems'' and choices would have been the envy of their grandparents who would have looked at having these choices as a blessing.

This angst is real, but is actually pretty mild compared to what comes later.  I look back on my 20s in amazement and with some sadness that I did not fully appreciate what an amazing time of life it was.  I did choose grad school, after a few years in the workforce when I had better figured out where my strengths and interest really lay, and it was an easy decision after 4 years in the workforce after college. I did marry in my mid-20s, and am still happily married almost 40 years later. But, like most on their wedding day, I had no real understanding of what I was promising - few do. It's all a romantic, idealistic dream with a million possibilities. The true angst comes much later, as individuals and married couples and parents begin dealing with all the serious problems that life throws at just about everyone.  The angst so many of my peers now face are quite serious - losing jobs (and maybe homes they've already spent years paying for) and dealing with age discrimination, which is very, very real and very hard to prove when looking for new employment at 50+. Losing jobs often means losing health insurance and by the time people are in the 50s and 60s many have some kind of chronic health problem, or serious health history (that breast cancer surgery five years ago for example) that means insurance companies won't touch them, but they aren't eligible for medicare either. Many are still helping their kids and grandkids financially (helping to pay for college and grad school?), while also dealing with the care issues of their own elderly parents in their 80s and 90s who have many needs. No choosing which major at which grad school and which degree is a luxury that will only be appreciated after a few more decades have passed. Those in their 50s and 60s are often now burning through retirement funds (supposed to help take care of them when they are in their 80s and 90s!) built over decades and wonder what the future holds for them now, especially in the workforce - employers prefer younger people over their gray-haired parents.

Everyone has angst, at every stage of life (most look back on high school as somewhat of a survival test and would never willingly return to that age!).  It's simplistic advice, but advice that has served me well when agonizing over whatever causes whatever angst I am feeling - ''Let go and let God.''  I have learned (and I have to keep learning it over and over) that I have to do my best, and then surrender - trust in God even though at the time my vision is clouded and I am weighed down by anxiety.  I have had to force myself to deliberately put whatever problems are causing my angst into perspective (pretty easy to do when reading the headlines from around the world. What kind of angst do the people in Somalia feel right now? In countless countries?) and to realize that so many of my problems are problems only for the very rich who have so many choices. And that definition of ''rich'' includes most Americans.  Those in their 20s might as well begin learning this - they have choices and some control over some aspects of their lives. But, life will continuously challenge them at every age, they will have no control over many of these situations - perhaps no choices at all, and so my advice to the 20-somethings (I have children dealing with this same angst, and so it is quite current to me) is to continuously keep in mind what Julian of Norwich said - ''All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.''  Do what you can, but then let go and have faith, trust in God, and surrender.
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 5 months ago
When my husband and I were married (at age 22) almost 40 years ago, we were able to find ordinary jobs that allowed us to buy a house (price $22,500) and pay cash for 2 cars.  We were fully financially independent and have never carried any debt other than a mortgage.  Health insurance was affordable. The future was wide open for us and we basically felt like we could do anything we wanted to do.

It is very, very different for young people now.

I tend to think that 20 somethings face a very different world than we did.  None of us know what will happen with the economy and that puts everyone, all ages, on edge and afraid for the future.  But I would think that it would weigh especially heavy on young people.  Even the ones who can find good jobs are hardly able to buy houses or pay cash for cars.
Anne Chapman
7 years 5 months ago
Beth, you are right that everyone, all age groups, are on edge about the economy. And the young, like all of us, are facing a stagnant job market. But, these cycles do happen - some are worse and more prolonged than others (such as the current one), but over the long run, there will be a recovery. Many might be surprised to realize that young people just out of college (who get jobs!) have an average starting salary of $48,000+ - it is lower in humanities, where it is around $37,000 in 2011 dollars, higher in technical majors and engineering where it is closer to $60,000.  It of course varies dramatically by location. But, really not bad for new college graduates anyway - those with less education face a much tougher road.  A house that cost $22,000 in 1972 would be around $113,354 today adjusted for inflation - but most likely it was much smaller than the average ''starter'' home today (the average new home is now about 2100 sq ft, but was closer to 1200 sq ft 40 years ago).  When my friends and I got our first apartment together (we shared rooms even - few young people want to do that today) and jobs, the average starting salary in our city for liberal arts majors (entry level) was about $5000 - 6000 - about $25, 500 to $30,500 in 2011 dollars - considerably less than $37,000 average of today.  The average starter house price is probably higher than $113,353 in the more expensive metro areas (it sure is in ours, except for condos or going way, way out and commuting a long distance), but the average starting salary is also quite a bit higher in real terms than it was in 1972.

 The negatives impacting the current generation include debt and expectations. College costs have gone up at more than double the inflation rate, leaving many young people with considerable debt as soon as they graduate (more than $25K average).  Young people also have quite a lot of credit card debt in their 20s - something we didn't have because nobody had credit cards! We paid cash.  ''Starter'' homes did not have all the amenities common today - the air conditioning, garages, dishwashers and microwaves, the square footage, and did not house all the gadgets people have today (big screen TVs, computers, video games, ''man caves'' etc). I'm not sure it's really a lot harder for this generation - but perhaps expectations have inflated just as everything else has inflated.  We saved for our house and paid about a 1/3 down payment. We also saved for our cars and have always paid cash.  Easy credit has caused a lot of problems as we know - I don't think it's necessarily that much harder for young people - they are better off in terms of starting salaries as an average,  but they are also starting out with more debt, higher expectations as far as lifestyles go, and a propensity to spend rather than to save. Like you, we never carried debt except for our mortgage, which we paid off in due time. Perhaps the silver lining in the rocky economy we have now will be a return to some old-fashioned thrift values.


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