Stop worrying that your twentysomething is lost
Here is an open letter to all the parents, aunts and uncles who write to me asking for advice about the twentysomething in their life who is an incorrigible underachiever:
Lighten up! No one should be labeled an underachiever in their twenties! The first thing you should ask yourself is whose standards are you using? This is not the same workplace that existed ten years ago. There are new rules, and you need to stop applying the old rules to someone who has no need for them.
The people who know exactly what they want to do when they are 22 are called, in the land of sociology, “fast starters.” And today that is only 12% of the workforce. In general, these people are conservative, taking paths their parents took, and do not ask a lot of questions. The majority of twentysomethings today move back home with their parents , job hop every 18 months, and refuse to pay their dues.
And you know what? These are all good decisions. To you, these decisions might look like decisions that losers make, but the world is different. Do you know what a loser is today? A loser is someone who doesn’t take the time to get to know herself. A loser is someone who saw his parents earn a lot of money and not get happiness from it and still deludes himself that money will make him happy. A loser is someone who looks for fame or prestige. A loser is someone who lets someone else tell them what success looks like.
Today success is personal. It’s about using the years of emerging adulthood to figure out what works for you. This is time to experiment – try things and quit them and try other things. This is a time to have gaps in resumes, red in bank accounts, and a suitcase packed, ready to go at a moment’s notice. These are symptoms of someone who is learning a lot and growing a lot.
Personal growth looks a lot like being lost. Lost is okay. Who wouldn’t be with twenty years of schooling and no preparation for adult life? People grow more when they are lost then when they are on a straight path with a clear view of where they are going.
Don’t tell me that your kid is a bartender and will never grow up. Bar tenders have some of the best social skills in the workforce, and social skills are what matters. Bar tenders are not underachievers. Also, did you ever stop to ask your bar-tender kid what he does during the day when he’s not pouring drinks? He’s probably doing something fun and cool and a little risky that you didn’t have the guts to try til you had a midlife crisis.
And don’t tell me about your kid who isn’t finishing college. No one said college has to happen right away. No one has research to show that if you do college right after high school you will be a happier person. But people do have research to show that if you take time to find yourself during your twenties then you will avoid a quarterlife crisis. So maybe it’s okay that your niece is taking a year off of college to travel in Thailand. Or knit sweaters.
Stop judging the twentysomethings. Instead, look at yourself. Why is it so important for your twentysomething to make choices that you like? In fact, the most successful people in today’s workplace are making choices that would have seemed absurd ten years ago. And things that are true today were not true ten years ago.
And have a heart. It’s not easy to be a twentysomething today. These young people grew up with tons of structure, tons of adults watching over them, tons of accolades. It’s a hard adjustment to go into the adult world where there is none of this. The most successful transitions happen when the person making the change receives time to adjust, space to grow, and support for tough decisions.
Have some patience. Most people find what they want to do with their life by the time they are 30. Really. And they are already putting so much pressure on themselves to find a good life. They don’t need more pressure from you.
I love your column. You have one of the most contemporary and interesting blogs on the web. Thank you!!! for delving, for not being status quo and for being INTERESTING!! for a change! I think the world is sick of status quo boring
Love your blogs…I am 50 plus, but, your articules are very interesting to say the least.
Thank You Thank You Thank You,
I just sent this to both of my parents. This is almost exactly where I am at in life and explains in perfect form what I have wanted to say. Most parents don’t trust it coming from their “lost” child. But I am sure they will trust it coming from a journalist.
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Katie, I’m happy to hear you sent it to your parents. This post would have applied to me in my twenties as well. And I would have given anything to be able to tell people that I was going to be okay. But I wasn’t sure of myself. And there was no one saying that being lost was okay. So I’m really happy that I can be the one to say it today, for the next round of twentysomethings. It’s my favorite part of my job.
what about when all this “being lost” gets a young person hooked on drugs or alcohol? what then?
Many “successful” people are drug and alcohol abusers. (Rob Ford, anyone?) So what’s your point?
You wrote, “Lost is okay.” Or another way, “Not all who wander are lost.” You’d think more of today’s parents would have read Tolkien. :)
Yeah, but. People still need to get a job to pay the bills and get in the habit of working. Lounging around isn’t a lifestyle people should emulate.
What about when most of the world’s labour is automated and mechanised? What about when the large majority of work is knowledge work?
Some people grew up in a time where society judged manual labour to be “good, honest work” and the idea of automating anything was both unrealistic and met with a chorus of screaming luddites. “But what about the JOBS! How can I go on in the world without moving rocks from A to B all day?!”
The “lost generation” of twenty-somethings have a real world concern for where the world is going, since as trite as it sounds, they’ll be the ones living in it and taking care of it when you oldies are long dead. It’s good sense to spend a little extra time learning something that won’t be mostly obsolete in 5 years — and it takes more critical thinking than just blindly following what society deems a good, respectable job right now, because even many of those are being killed by technology.
Accountancy is seen today as a skilled and professional career. Yet as a small business owner, I find the idea of paying a person to manually “balance my books” farcical. Why would I spend time searching for a competent, reliable (and expensive) accountant, when a computer and some software can do 95% of their work in a few microseconds? I can audit the other 5% myself. No doubt corporate accountancy and other paper-shuffling activities will continue, but not in their current form.
Another good example is the military. Being shot at from the front-line is being replaced with long range missiles and drones, which are mostly staffed by highly trained researchers and engineers.The front-line military get a huge amount of “glory” in the media, because being glorified is what it takes to convince a young man to throw himself on a grenade but everyone with a shred of sense knows this kind of “glory” is just a pep talk with a shit-eating grin. An increasingly independent media shows the real story and people aren’t buying it any more.
Luddites will keep extolling the virtues of “good, honest work”, and young people will keep rolling their eyes. We can’t go around taking advice from corpses, otherwise we’d be hauling coal out of a f*cking mine shaft and naively accepting society’s smirking “appreciation”.
I think many twenty-somethings will agree with you, but this 46 year old does not. In your 20’s, you should be building the foundation for your career, which includes learning, getting good job experience, and starting to build a reputation. You can’t make up that lost time later. You should also start investing money. You are giving baaaaad advice on this one.
(By the way – I really enjoy your articles, even though I am disagreeing with this one.)
What the author is trying to tell the readers is that a lot of people in their 20s (notice no apostrophe) do not yet know which career to settle for, and that is okay because having an open mind and not settling for something for the sake of settling is much more beneficial to your future. The fact that she mentions that people in their 20s change jobs every 18 months implies that they are getting job experience, and exploring your options will also come in handy later. She also tells us that some people in their 20s are “red in bank accounts”, meaning they are not in the financial position to invest. Given that you are 46, the author states that your expectations and experiences are outdated, and there are new rules to play by. Success is personal, which means there is no standard definition for it. What may or may not have worked for should not apply to everyone.
It’s difficult to “build a foundation for a career” when all the jobs out there require 5 years of experience and people aren’t hiring 20somethings because they can get 30somethings for the same price. It’s difficult to “start investing money” when you live in a city with soaring rents but you are making a salary that is stuck in the 1970s. What kind of reputation can you build when a lot of the jobs that are left for us involve getting other people’s coffee and copying the paper for today’s conference for the bigwigs? Just like the article says…you were in your 20s in the 1980s and the realities of life are different for 20somethings now. The economy is different; there are a glut of BS holders on the job market and it’s not as easy to get a job and begin building that foundation. People increasingly want language skills, programming skills, statistics skills, whatever – specialized knowledge that sometimes you need to get by jumping around, taking a year in Thailand or whatever else.
The “rules” may have changed but the facts of money have not. People who choose to blow all their money in their youth are condemning themselves to poverty when they are retired. And if jobs are scarce in your city maybe you should move to a different city. It’s what my parents did, what their parents did, heck, what I did. And I’m only in my 30s, not even a geezer yet.
Giving baaaaaad advice on this one? History seems to be the result of several pieces of bad advice. I apologize for ‘my’ generation not wanting to rush into the fray of a world that is the result of a chronic refusal to GENUINELY pursue a sustainable solution to the blessing/problem of existing.
Maybe some of us, wanna slow down and see what’s going on before we are pressured in to having children, pressured into thinking we are failures for not having a degree, pressured into accepting that this simply just is the way IT is.
Maybe some of us would rather be heretics.
Maybe we’re busy sorting out the the stresses on society caused by the perpetual flow of ‘artists’, ‘polymaths’, ‘freethinkers’ and those ‘ahead of their time’ when they meet a world unwilling to let go of the byproducts of an ancient struggle for survival. A struggle that is only perpetuated by blindly ‘paying our dues’. Continuing to make enemies out of various peoples of the world. Making enemies out of our own citizens. So you let go of your outdated ideosphere and we’ll let go of our ‘non-conformity’ to your ideas about the way it should be done. Hmmm seems like there is a paradox somewhere in there, can you find it?
Maybe we as the human race represent the holistic picture of ‘self’, and as the wonderfully nice lady said in her blog “A loser is someone who doesn’t take the time to get to know herself”. Do you want the rest of the universe to see us as some sort of inter-galactic losers?
Maybe the best inheritance you can give your children TODAY is something we haven’t had the means to facilitate in our short history, a chance to breathe and as we were told ‘To THINK, before we ACT’. So I ask you was that nonsense or do we really want our children to genuinely think before they spend a lifetime acting?
That being said, a larger thanks than you could ever imagine goes out to ALL who have sacrificed all that has been sacrificed in the pursuit of getting humanity to this narrow edge we find ourselves on. In other words, namaste. <3
This is an interesting conversation. I do think it is important for 20 somethings to explore a bit and be permitted to endure a failure that they can learn and grow from as a person. The problem I seem to consistently see from my peers who have children at this age is that there seems to be an expectation from their 20 something children to financially support them during this period of self exploration. Meaning that while you do the job hopping and sweater knitting and traveling to Thailand many of this group have an expectation that their parents foot the bill in a variety of ways. Many of these kids are living with their parents and not paying or contributing to the expense of the household, not paying for major neccesities such as car insurance etc. While I support a little self exploration and applaud it on some level I have to laugh. The 80’s were not a different time…just a diffferent attititude by the parents that booted us out of the nest. If I thought for a moment that I could move home after college and not pay rent, have my parents pay for my major neccesities…perhaps I would be deworming children in Somalia or knitting sweaters in thailand…the problem is it would have been on the back of someone else financially and there is NO chance my parents would have picked up the tab for all of this self expression and self growth.
At some point lifes harsh realities have to settle in and the truth is that you are not independent if you are relying on other people to support your basic life needs. (rent, food, car etc)
All that is happening with 20 somethings that think they are entitiled to the self exploration. Entitiled being the operative word.
If you can be completely independent and do not ask for parental support from 20-30 for all of this self expression/growth/exploration then I think that is great….few seem to be doing it on their own.
I think this is very important. My question to both 20-somethings and 40-somethings as a high schooler is, why do we all feel entitlement off of one an other? We seem to live in a time of a self-entitled youth who will roam with their parents credit cards until they expire. The vice versa, something I think the elders here could listen to, is the fact that we have been raised this way. We’ve had ideas put into out mouths our whole lives, we’ve had “cash put in our hands” so to speak. This creates a two way defect. The younger generation is used to the coffers being full, while the parents are surprised that the kids cant be weened off this support. There’s a sociological issue in which parents are expected to protect their kids and put up a wall and a fenced in path, that lets them see failure but never experience a mistake. Then all of a sudden that wall comes down. This releases the kid to a world he cant deal with and so s/he runs back “home” behind that fence.
My point is that maybe if the older generations let kids outside the fence into the world a little they would have a sense of it for later on. Let us make our own money, the reverse is I expect not to be policed 100% when I spend my own money (for any concerned parents I don’t entirely mean drugs). This is my take, I apologize if I bumped into any stereotypical views!
“The last theme to look at is how one really identifies what would make that person happy career-wise? And how does the money aspect work into that happiness? Sometimes, following your dream makes you a ton of money and you feel guilty for making so much at doing what you love to do (sports stars, actors/actresses)”
Yeah, that old myth again. I can’t imagine anything worse that being in the spotlight. Just because those who have it are forced (by nature of the industry) to always *act* happy doesn’t mean they are. I think the media-saturation a lot of “20-somethings” have grown up with has made them realise that, contrary to Hollywood’s own portayal of itself, fame is just a (mostly unpleasant) means to an end. The fortune may be envyable, but for most people the fame (read: shallow, fake self-esteem) isn’t.
“and others do what they love doing but it doesn’t pay squat (teachers, volunteers, ministry).”
…and yet, if they have all they *need*, who cares how it compares? We all end up 6 feet under eventually. How many hours of wage slavery did it take to afford that slightly more prestiguous car? How many days did it take for the novelty to wear off?
“It’s no surprise that only half of us are happy with our careers”
Whereever that figure came from, it’s a practical certainty that it suffers self-assessment bias. It’s probably way higher. Almost all work sucks, no matter how it compares *relatively* to other work or how many trumped up titles you put on it.
“…the pressure is so heavy on our youth”
Mostly because the older generation are absolutely obsessed with bombarding and distracting them with materialistic crap, in order to make their own retirements more confortable. “hey kid, buy our $5000 watch — this attractive lady we hired *definitely* endorses it and the Indian guy who manufactured it will really appreciate his $12 cut.”. Let’s face it, a lot of the garbage that passes for “happiness” these days is just thinly-veiled materialism espoused by the not-so-happy actors you mention. Maybe 20-somethings are just better at knowing what they want and better at realising how much bullshit is out there.
I wish I could send this post back to my 20-year-old self and tell her to take a lot more risks.
I had the kind of parents that held a professional future and college tuition over my head in exchange for
a) declaring a major before I entered college — journalism — and sticking with it. They wanted an insurance plan that I wouldn’t stay in school for 6 years
b) sweat/bottle equity (coming back home on the weekends to watch my brother and sister so my parents could work).
At the time, I was scared to death of having to pay back a bank loan after college so I took my parents up on their offer.
It’s been 10 years since I graduated from college and I regret not having the guts to take more of a financial stake.
I not only got the job I went to school for, but I also have been doing the same thing for 10 years now. I’m now in a job that is facing a lot of not-necessarily-good transition and I have no idea how to segue into a new position without risking any financial contribution I have to my new family (husband, two kids).
I could have endured a few “lost” comments coming my way in my 20s if it meant that I was taking a risk and figuring things out without much consequence. Now, I just feel like a lost 31 year old who has to deal with her 20-something choices.
I applaud your honesty.
I feel most of those who disagree with this post, are simply those unable to be this honest, or think that because they and everyone else who came before them had to struggle and suffer and sacrifice , that we should all continue to do so.
Best of luck in your segue. Though I don’t think you will need it.
I’m interested in your disagreeing comment since the things you value (learning, getting good job experience, and starting to build a rep) are generally done during this so-called “lost” period. As Penelope’s written before, job hopping is how a lot of people are learning and gaining job experience. And when they go to a new job, their rep follows them and continues to build with each job. Yeah, it’s in a slew of different jobs, but so what? Unless you’re a chef, an electrician, or a designer, a job isn’t exactly a sort of medieval fostering arrangement or apprenticeship. As for investing money, as long as they’re investing *something* does it matter whether it comes from one job or 10? All anyone has to do is start early and stick to it. Besides, isn’t learning and gaining experience an investment?
I’m not a twentysomething (I’m 38), but in this case the only difference between me and the twentysomethings is age. Since no one was there to rattle boomers’ cages about this stuff when I was a twentysomething, I can only be thankful that it’s happening now.
Indeed, it’s about frickin’ time. Thanks, Penelope, for making me feel like avant garde. You rock.
I usually agree with your articles and enjoy your writing a great deal, but here I have to beg to differ.
I’m a twenty-something who has a job, pays bills, and does not live with her parents. I have debt, I have regular paychecks, I live comfortably enough. I travel and experiment with different jobs when I can afford to. It’s not an exciting life and I’m not always content with what I’m doing, but I am a heck of a lot happier than my fellow twenty-something sibling.
He dropped out of school and consequently has worked (and been fired from) a string of monotonous dead-end minimum wage jobs. In his search for life’s meaning he has wracked up a lot of debt, destroyed his credit, and participated in less than savory “extra-curricular” activities. After a several-year-long stint in which he lived in the middle of a forest with no electricity and no running water (I do not exaggerate), he experienced a personal crisis. He moved back home, where he mooches off of parents who have run out of ideas and motivational statements.
We were both raised in the same way and household.
There is a difference between searching for meaning and purpose in your life, and lounging around at one’s parent’s expense white waiting for something interesting to happen.
I imagine your post sounds very harsh to a parent who sees no “end” in sight for a child who refuses to grow up and accept responsibility–to a parent who is staring down the possibility of their child living with them for the next 30 years, unwilling to survive on their own.
“Lost is okay”–absolutely. Making mistakes–that too. But remaining lost at the expense of someone else IS underachieving.
I disagree with you in this instance but please do keep up the excellent–and controversial–writing. :-)
I’m also going to have to disagree with this one. I’m on the cusp of X/Y (much more Y than X) and know someone who is “lost.” He’s only able to do it because his parents are willing to support him. That doesn’t mean the rest of us aren’t growing and trying different things, whether it be going back to school, traveling, switching to a new career, or moving to a new city, but we’re doing it in a more responsible way than just willy-nilly following our hearts. You can make choices that are your own but are still responsible decisions. It just means that sometimes you have to wait a little bit until the decision is practical – no instant gratification.
I don’t think the resume gaps are good, despite what you and Ryan say; I just moved and was questioned about the one-month gap that resulted while I was looking for a job! Just because it’s okay with our generation doesn’t mean its okay with the people hiring us. It’s also not a time to have red in the bank account. We need to have money to fall back on and pay for that year of knitting sweaters. It would not have been responsible of me to move without having any money saved up for that month or so that it took me to find a new job. You can still travel to Thailand or knit sweaters while holding down a job to pay for it all.
For example, one of my friends took a month off her job and went to Africa to do AIDS work. Three months later she quit her job and went back to Africa for four months, getting a job there and securing one in the States for when she returned. She waited until she had money in the bank and a job to come back to, which seems a lot smarter to me. Sure, she wanders, but I would never consider her lost.
I guess the difference is whether you are wandering and being irresponsible, or not. In some cases, that’s in the eyes of the beholder. I see nothing wrong with being lost while still being responsible for yourself, but making decisions that are too impulsive and to the detriment of others is not cool.
I couldn’t agree more. At 22, I was more concerned with tattoos and punk rock that my 401(k) plan and career networking. Luckily, I had parents who supported me (without enabling) until I got some experience and figured out what the heck to do without the stress of “getting on track”.
I invested when I was 18. My first year in college I put 2500 into a money market account. Money is great. It doesn’t buy you happiness. My father told me when I was starting college 50% or more of the people I know do not like their job, they do it for the money. I don’t want to be in that 50%. Security is great, but living a life of true happiness is sooo much better.
I graduated from college last year, I could and still can get a nice comfy job living in Chicago, instead of barely paying rent and my bills. The job market is not that bad, if you want it you will get it. I personally would rather live out my dreams while working my butt off at a job that I love that doesn’t pay me 75,000 a year but half that.
There are different people in this world, those who are sheep and those who are not sheep. I am not a sheep :)
The only thing that is not right on with me in this article is that I live at home. I would never move back home, too many people back in my hometown believe that money makes happiness. It helps but it alone does not rock my world.
Most of your posts are spot on but this one does seem to be a bit mixed. It sounds like you are very defensive of twentysomethings’ existential angst and you’re venting at parents a bit. Are gaps in resumes and red in bank accounts really symptoms of someone learning & growing? I’m not advocating people be overly sensible and responsible but I think twentysomethings do need to try and at least weave a path with some sort of long term theme, even if its a broad one.
From bitter experience I would also encourage twentysomethings not to redline bank accounts. I took on too much debt for various reasons at an early age and digging out of that debt limited my flexibility to take some other business risks.
I think you always need to be able to at least give an elevator pitch of where you have been in life and where you are going. I think a pitch that says “relax, I’m finding myself” won’t work. Certainly run your own race in life, don’t run other people’s life race, but life is short so don’t let the existential angst drag on for too long….
Anyway I love the posts and there is always something fresh and inspiring to read here.
Unless, of course, it’s the hard work and sacrifice of self realization and oneness with the whales of the parents of the 20 somethings that allows said 20 somethings to laze around wondering what tattoo to get next.
It’s funny to read how people think that success comes from money, I am currently reading Walt Disney’s Biography.
In his 20’s he was in debt to a lot of people. He had an idea of what he wanted to do but it still wasn’t fully established. He had no idea of what he would be some day.
I think that most people in their 20’s have an idea of what they want to do but it may not be fully established.
I dont think that this article is meant to say, goof off, get high, drink a ton and sleep around. I think it is saying, most people don’t know what they want at 20 years old. We were schooled for 20 years to want what the general population wants. Now its our turn to decide and its soo confusing.
I have finally decided what I want to do with my life at 24. It is not going to be easy at all. I first have to get out of debt, pay my bills on a regular basis and figure out a plan on how this is going to happen.
If I take that high paying job where I can be comfy, that is all that I will be. I am not satisfied with a comfy job.
I think a lot of people out there that settle for a comfy job are selling themselves short. My parents always ask me : “are you happy?”, i turn around and go “are you happy?”.
Last post.. i think.
I really enjoy your column! Great post!
I am 26 and I feel this kind of pressure frequently with my family. This is very encouraging to read.
I am very hard on myself sometimes because I have not found the career path that I want. I want so badly to know what I will be doing, and what I would enjoy doing.
It is great to hear affirmation that it is okay to search, and try different things.
Once again, the living-with-parents thing is one this GenXer really has a hard time relating to. When I was in my 20s, in a worse economy than we have today, I had no idea what career I wanted to pursue. I quit my first (good) job to travel for a year, did my share of experimenting and self-discovery (and am still doing it) – but the predicate for all of it was independence. My folks were supportive but somewhat controlling, and the only way to really find myself was to get as far away from them and the childhood home as I could. That meant making some lifestyle sacrifices to achieve financial self-sufficiency, but they were ones I was happy to make because of the payoff in freedom and self-confidence that they brought. I have to think it is doing 20-somethings a disservice to suggest that self-discovery should be subsidized by parents, rather than something you fight for and do on your own.
Finally, I was motivated in part by consideration for my parents. They did their part for 21 years, 18 of which I lived under their roof. But they’re people too, just hitting their primes in their late 40s-early 50s, and they deserved to have a life again, without me hanging around. This may be the generational divide speaking again, but it’s just baffling to me that anyone could find authentic self-fulfillment by treating their parents like hotel-keepers and ATM machines long past the point when they were able to make their way on their own.
“but it's just baffling to me that anyone could find authentic self-fulfillment by treating their parents like hotel-keepers and ATM machines long past the point when they were able to make their way on their own.”
–quote of the month
I think that exploring the world around you and getting to know yourself are great goals for your twenties, but I don’t think that means you have to live with your parents or avoid getting a profitable job.
I’m a twenty-something with an older twenty-something brother. My brother is currently living with my mom, without paying rent and without a job.
While he may be “finding himself,” from the results I’ve seen, his choices haven’t given him any greater direction in life or increased his confidence or happiness.
A little discipline and responsibility won’t kill a person, even in their twenties.
I have a mortgage, a spouse, bills, volunteer responsibilities, a full-time corporate job, etc. and yet I still feel that I’m happier and more content with my life than my brother.
I’m going to graduate from college in the spring and I must say I’m kind of disappointed that so many people take “being lost” to mean loafing around, mooching off parents, getting tattoos (come on!), and sleeping in all day. i’m very lost in my life right now and the way i’m going to try to figure things out is by moving back home, working a full-time paying job for 6 months (and cooking dinner every night when my mom comes home from work), and saving up to travel on MY dime for a few months before making some big life choices. does that really make me a lazy mooch? i agree, some people can be lazy moches, but taking a well-paying job and paying all your bills on time right out of college is NOT the only way to avoid moochdom. i’m being financially responsible by making enough money to finance my travels, and i’m being personally responsible by not putting myself in an unhappy situation. we’re the twentysomethings that penelope is talking about.
I believe we all learn a little by making mistakes, taking chances and stumbling around for a while. Hopefully that doesn’t last most /all of one’s lifetime. I don’t believe that children should hang around home for many years waiting to find themselves without some sort of contribution to the household they are living in. Getting some sort of job is important not only to contribute to the bottom line of the expenses of the household they are living in, but also to discover what it is like to participate in the workplace world with all of its problems. Learn how to solve problems and how to get along in the workplace. Staying at home won’t educate anyone nor prepare them for what they will need to face someday. I don’t believe in the sink or swim mentality with my kids – rather I think more along the lines of swim, but I’ll have a life preserver handy before you sink.
I have seen many who were not ready for college. I was one who was extremely bored with the grind. High school was so easy I did not know how to study which caught up with me in college. After a short stint in the Army, I had a better focus on what I would like to do and I returned to college, got a master’s degree in 15 months and began my next phase. Twenty years later I am finally in a job that appears to suit me well (but only after job hopping for the first 12 of those 20 years). I did not have the luxury of staying with my parents and with a wife and later on kids, it was difficult to accomodate looking for the right job while also being relied upon to be the major breadwinner.
Be willing to take chances. Take a job you may not like and do your best at it regardless of your intention of staying or not. Learn how to get along with others of all ages and personalities in the workplace. You will find that although a person may be completely competent to hold a job, often times it’s whether that person fits in with the others in that organization (the personalities, ethics, climate..) that will determine if you will like to work there or if they will like you working there. It’s not bad to be lost, just don’t waste time staying lost. Do something to make things happen for yourself rather than waiting for it to come to you.
I enjoy your posts but I agree with several on this board who suggest you’ve gone a bit too far on this one.
I’m 30 on the dot. I have job hopped (4 jobs in 6 years), am technologically literate (I was tooling around on computers before most people even knew what a modem was – and I mean 1200 baud). I played competitive sports my whole life, while maintaining top grades and getting into (and graduating from) a top college. I held a part time job since the age of 16, even though I didn’t have to.
At 30, my career is just now starting to take off. This is because I put in the sweat necessary from the day I graduated until this day. I’m not going to say my 20’s were lost – but it wasn’t that fun. I moved to a big city where I didn’t have a single friend, earned the crappy starting salary and spent many nights playing video games at home while all my new “at home with their parents” friends discovered themselves and went to $12 martini bars. To wit, I did smuggle beers out of the office on Fridays when they wheeled out complimentary carts.
Now guess what? I hit 30, my career is finally moving, and the money is coming in. My curious ‘other’ 30 year old friends – the ones who were finding themselves – have instead found themselves in debt, and without the necessary skills to pull in enough income to climb out of it. They are what’s known today as “wage slaves”. It’s paycheck to paycheck, and if they can shovel $50 a month into their 401k, they’re lucky (I took the old peoples’ advice and started on day 1).
Sure, I think it would have been a blast to “find” myself in my 20’s. What I found, however, was that I had the ability to tough it out when things sucked (and they sucked, bad), to put in my face time, to earn my stripes, and earn my place in the herd.
So now guess what? I read these blogs, just like our new 23 year old hires do. They think they’re fantastic, wonderful souls who don’t really have to do what I did. However…I’m better with computers than they are. In fact, I’m better with technology in general…and I can afford to buy most of it to boot. I can afford to go to the $12 martini bar…and pay in cash. The sad fact is that none of them will have my job, while I gun for the guy’s job ahead of me. Arrogant? Yes. But like you said, Penelope – I “deserve” to say stuff like this.
By encouraging actual “smart”, “hardworking” and “risk-taking go getters” who happen to be in their 20’s to take it easy, what you’re really doing is setting them up for a not-so-laid back kid in his 20’s to walk in and eat their lunch. You’re encouraging kids who sprinted through life to suddenly look back and cut the pace to a jog, right when they should be punching through the proverbial wall. Even in your 20’s Penelope, to get ahead in your job at least half of your new hire class has to be in the bottom half (just like high school and college).
That’s the recipe for failure.
I actually work now with a bunch of “kids” (23 year olds) who are essentially useless. You wouldn’t know it from their attitudes, however. You’d think their names were secretly Penelope Trunk, to be quite honest. I do have one kid though – a young go getter. He took out loans to go to tough school, and has graduated in debt. he stays late, and budgets his money in Excel. I feel bad when he can’t come out with us for a drink after work, so I cover his part. He’s respectful, hard working, and certainly doesn’t know it all. He’ll be here in 18 months when the rest of the kids jump ship to find themselves again. I’m not exaggerating when I say he’s worth 10 of the people you describe in this post.
Anyways, keep up the writing (as if you needed prompting). Though this is my first response, I’ve read the vast majority of your work and I enjoy it immensely. Good luck going forward –
P.S. It is entirely possible to finish college in 4 years. If you want a 5th year, have enough class to get a job to pay for it.
Big fan of Penelope’s, but not too much of this post. I don’t get the living at home thing either-it’s natural to want independence along with all of this self-discovery, and most people will just not foster that in their childhood bedrooms, even if they are paying their parents nominal rent.
agree except on the point of “red in the bank accounts”
0 is ok, but I definitely do not believe debt is ever, ever good (except to acheive something like education, a house, and maybe, maybe, a car. though I push back on that too and think people should save for a car vs. on payments).
The people I respect — twenty-something or not — bounce from career to career and are good at all of them. They seemingly have ADD, but simply excel too much for their own good. They became the VP by thirty and then got bored and started making organic soap for a living. And then sold the business for a few million to go start something else. They spend all their free time reading or doing something active; they are dynamic and unknowable, even to themselves.
I’d juxtapose the above profile with the stereotypically “lost” individual — he didn’t finish college. He changed majors four times. He was doing his paper the night before. You get the picture.
One final note — bartenders have no place in this discussion. They work hard. ’nuff said.
Many of the commenters misunderstand Penelope’s point. Her point is that parents shouldn’t worry about their twenty-something children or try to make them feel bad because they haven’t pledged their souls to a corporation/law firm/medical practice.
She NEVER advocates not working hard at your job, even if you plan on quitting. Of course you have to work hard so that you’ll get a good reputation and expand your network.
She doesn’t suggest that parents have to bankroll a twenty-something while they find themselves. She doesn’t say that the parent must pay for this trip to Thailand. Yeah, parents can let them stay at their house, but she doesn’t say that it is obligatory. And she never said that the twenty-something should not have to contribute to expenses!
Penelope doesn’t say that twenty-somethings should be irresponsible with their money. She just says that they are right for not chasing after the highest-paying jobs. Anyway, even financial expert Suze Orman says it is okay for young people getting into debt while they work towards their dream job.
Penelope definitely does not advocate substance abuse as a means to finding oneself. A pothead or alcoholic is not the same thing as an underachiever, contrary to what many commenters have suggested. Sure we all know of a twenty-something who stayed at home so he could get loaded every day, but that is not what Penelope is talking about.
She is justifying a twenty-something’s right to not have his entire career planned by his college graduation and to actively seek to find himself. She is not advocating being a couch potato until age 30.
Fantastic set of comments! I am 48 and all this talk of generations is amusing to me. I identify with the younger set in a lot of ways.
I got my BS in engineering in 82, went to grad school and left after two years burned out. Became a BARTENDER, driving my parents nuts! (Even though they hadn’t paid for any of my college.) Went to NYC and was so poor, living in the E Village on hot dogs and reading James Joyce in a cold-water flat. (My this sounds romantic.) I finally ended up in LA and started my career at 28 years of age, switching to urban planning and living off very little money for years. Now I live in SF area and own a tiny house, and am happy. I work in govt (am enganged in my work) and make a decent though not high salary.
My advice to the 20’s is to keep your eyes open! You never know when life will bring that next contact/opportunity/interest into your path. And always work at least a part time gig to keep you in the mix. I would not trade those James Joyce and Virginia Woolf days for anything.
It’s not about taking it easy, mooching off parents, or dropping out. It’s about a willingness to experiment, to take risks, and not letting the fear of failure control limit your options.
“Her point is that parents shouldn't worry about their twenty-something children or try to make them feel bad because they haven't pledged their souls to a corporation/law firm/medical practice.”
Is not. She explicitly says:
“So maybe it's okay that your niece is taking a year off of college to travel in Thailand. Or knit sweaters.”
OK — let’s play “when I was in college.”
When I was in college, I worked. Always. I had internships that led to very fruitful jobs. I also worked because I had to pay bills.
Everyone I ever knew who “took some time off” were seriously entitled, usually by their parents. Sure — it’s anecdotal. But you don’t need a sociology degree to see the intense correlation here.
Undergraduate study is pretty easy, especially compared to the real world. You don’t need to take a year off.
Now — if someone, say, took a year off to start a business or such … OK. But self-actualization? I thought that was the whole point of college to begin with (socially, at least)!
Jesus… you’ve got about 20 pages of comments here, so I’ll make this short.
There’s a big difference between the way different generations conceptualize success, and ours is no different. Speaking as a 25 year-old, I think we place less significance on having a huge house, getting lots of promotions, and building a big, happy family. For us, it’s more of a quest for meaning, of finding the congruence between what we have to offer and what the world has to give.
The only way parents are going to connect with “lost” children is if they understand that and help them get there. Realize that, no matter how well-intentioned your hopes are, your child is feeling their way down a long, dark hallway, and there’s nothing anyone can do to turn on the light, nor can they tell you which door to pick. Some kids just get there faster because they’re better at seeing in the dark, and they have the courage to open more doors, not really knowing what’s inside.
And no matter how much it tears them up inside, there’s nothing our parents can do except watch.
Penelope, I do agree with many things you’re saying, except that I take exception of her characterization 22 year olds who do know what they want to do as people who “don’t ask a lot of questions”. I was a starving artist until I was 27 and I had disapproving parents. But I will say that I wish I had a little better structure and opportunities in my life to finish my college schooling along with some post graduate education. I think that trying different things early in life is fine AFTER you finish college. I also think there is nothing wrong with people who aggressively peruse their careers early on.
I also agree very much with what Jenny above has to say.
I’m sorry, but I think this post is crap. There is no constitutional right to mooch off of your parents until you’re 30. And the fact there are a vast number of people who HAVE to get a paying job doing something other than bartending does not mean that they are boring drones — it means that they live in the real world and have to eat and have a roof over their head. This is not to say that the real world may not be a harsh adjustment for people who have been overly protected, scheduled, and had helicopter parents, but that points to a problem with how they were raised, and is not an excuse to continue to allow people to live in a coddled fantasy land of “emerging adulthood” until they feel ready to “stretch their wings” or some other Celine Dionne crap.
I’m 37, and while I can completely appreciate your point about trying new things and not letting your job stifle you, the sense of entitlement you feel for having kids mooch off their parents endlessly is simply breathtaking to me. If people want to live in poverty and pursue their dreams, really, truly, more power to them. Bartend as long as you want and live your dream. But 20-somethings are not emerging adults — they are adults, period, and as adults need to be responsible for their actions. We’ve got 18-year-old fighting wars, and you’re speaking of some bizarre subset that doesn’t really reach adulthood until a full decade later? I know I’m going to sound like some crotchety biddy here, but a couple hundred years ago people were getting married, working full time, and having babies at 16. It was a small miracle if you LIVED to 30! So this infantile notion that Gen Y/millenials can’t be expected to grow up and take full responsibility for themselves until their 30s is just the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard in my life.
And again, to clarify — living on your own, taking care of yourself, and taking responsibility for your life, even if that means living on minimum wage and sleeping in a tent — good for you. Wandering around “lost” and expecting someone else to support you while you “find” yourself because someone you can’t work and support yourself during your “who am I?” crisis — utter crap!
Um, “unincorrigible” is not a word.
* * * * * *
Yeah. Good point. I changed it. Thanks. Better usage: My proofreading is incorrigable :)
Unincorrigible? Is that the sort of sloppy writing that results from things being true today that were not true ten years ago?
As a twenty-something, I would like to express some of the confusion that I think Penelope is referring to in her blog. From the outside it looks like I have it together, and I have a good job, minimal debt and the potential for a great life, but the last 5 years have been tough.
I was a high achiever in high school, and have solid memories of my high school teachers telling me that I could be the first female President if I wanted. I came from a family of 4 high-achieving daughters, and the sky was the limit. I didn’t want to be President, but I assumed that I could be the next Condaleeza Rice fairly easily.
And so, faced with abilities, support and countless options, what happened? Not much. I’m just a ordinary person like anyone else. And that has been frustrating to understand. It has taken me 2 gap years and many months in lousy temp office jobs trying to figure out what I am supposed to be, and what “went wrong”.
I’m finally coming to accept it all, but I can fully support Penelope’s thesis in this blog – our generation has been faced with so much opportunity and so much media saturation, that it can be intensely confusing trying to find your way in a world where there is no path to follow and no right way to do things anymore.
combination of incorrigible and “un-encouragable”?
i’m beginning to think that your column is just a list of trolls to get more comments and increase your pageranks.
this is obviously untrue. If no one forced themselves on the road to self discovery and endless pursuit of excellence in their life then they would continue their slump well into their 20s.
What is the bartender doing during the day?
probably sleeping, lounging around, playing online games, watching youtube, spending money and living above their means.
The only way to get ahead is sweat, blood and tears, and by not encouraging this, you’re in fact doing a dis-service to your generation.
I’m sorry if this comment seems so acidic, but this sort of mentality affects the United States as a whole. We watch countries like China and India push their youth to excel and then they take our jobs and eat our lunches, while we sit back and mooch off the previous generation.
I am a 57 year old parent with one son at university -and through him I have my eyes opened to the changing world into which he is emerging – and I have another son fast approaching 30 years,living at home after 6 years (of ups -and -lots -of- downs)of experiencing an overwhelming adult world! I wouldn’t mind betting there may be the time (too)fast approaching when I find BOTH of them back on home turf fighting for space in our little semi. Yeah, it may be temporary….
Aint the whole of Life temporary? she groans……. That fact, life is only temporary, is all that propels this 57 year old through each unfolding week. Supporting children on one end, and supporting a remaining parent on the other, is something I have learned to accommodate. It sure aint easy for me in this changing world where all the rules have changed / are changing. Can I not claim ‘expectations’ for myself at some point in my life before I die?
Sure, I chose to have children, and I consider myself to be a listening (not always, I am no saint)and open parent, and emotionally supportive of their choices. Of course I want both my sons to explore the possibilities for their future, but where do I draw the line with all the financial assistance?
Yay, you rock Penelope! I wish I could send this to my parents, but I think they would be offended.
I’m 26. I had a lot of stress and anxiety when I was 17 trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I took a year off after high school to try to figure it out, then attended college for 2 years. I figured out college wasn’t getting me any closer to figuring out my goal and decided to take time off and moved to another country.
After moving, I finally found my calling and started my own business with my husband. I am extremely grateful now to be doing what I love to and feel proud that I took a lot of risks to do it.
My parents don’t understand this at all. It’s ok because I don’t need them to understand me in order to have a successful life, but it’s still difficult. I think we’d all like to feel that our parents are proud of us.
I’ve had the theory for a few years now that my parents and grandparents generations had the “work to live” mentality. This became very apparent to me when my mom stuck with a job for many, many years until she was vested, but came home and complained about how much she disliked it and the people she worked with every night.
When I was suddenly laid off from a job, I very soon after that interviewed for 2 positions. One that I had held for 2 years at another location (it was a franchise) and a new opportunity that had nothing to do with my degree. One night, my mom asked me which one offered more money. I told her that didn’t matter to me. Being happier in a job was much more inportant to me than the money. I ended up taking the new opportunity because I knew what the other one was like, which was the higher paying one. It was the best decision I’ve ever made as I’ve learned new things, have had a boss who has really taken time to allow me to grow and has challenged me in my work. It’s been the best 4 years, which has also been the longes time in one job for me. =)
I was bothered a few years ago that after only being out of college 8 years, I had already been in 4 professional, full-time jobs. I translated this as I didn’t know what I wanted to do and it was very frustrating until the final part of my theory came clear. Generation X/Y are “Living to work”. Sure I’ve moved from job to job, but honestly, it’s because I’m figuring out at each one what I like and what I don’t like. If I’m not happy in my job, I’m NOT staying there. Why do that? So much of our identity is in what we do for a job, not that I think that’s right…but that’s a whole other discussion…why do something you don’t enjoy? Another way to think about it is this, if I’m working full-time, menaning 45+ hours a week, that’s a good chunk of my life. Why would you want to dread that from week to week? Time’s too precious…move on and find something you enjoy.
I think that no 18 year old should go straight to college. I think they should take a year off, away from mom and dad (which could just mean getting a place in the same city, it doesn’t have to be another state), and have some time to figure themselves out–what do they like, try some new things, etc. Then go to college and start working towards a degree. I believe they’d come back with a much greater self-realization of what they’d like to be ‘when they grow up’.
I’ve thought for the longest time that if everyone in the world worked retail, childcare and as a waiter/waitress at some point in life, the world would be a much happier place as people will be nicer to each other. I may just add bartending to that list because it’s a great way to grow those social skills needed in everyday life!
Great post and great discussion! Keep ’em coming.
I think some people are mistaking Penelope's blog for a dissertation in the field of Philosophical Behaviorism. I think her points are valid, and meant to be broad-based. Certainly if a twentysomething's behaviour is detrimental to their well-being, incapable of holding down ANY job, or displays addictive behavior like drug usage or endless mooching off of others, her comments don't apply, period. These individuals need to visit another blog, or more likely, a psychologist. But those are extreme examples. Most twentysomething's are average and trying to become above-average in whatever niche they are finding. What Penelope is talking about is Finding The Niche. She's saying, take some chances, don't be so hard on yourself, there are other paths than linear climbing of corporate ladders. Chances are, the audience reading her blog and articles are people who are interested in making a difference in their lives and the lives of others and she is only making it easy to forgive themselves for not being perfect and doing things like our parents did. Lighten up everyone!
Speaking of bartenders, my current boss tended bar for her first few years out of college. Now she’s got a good position with excellent potential. I don’t know if it’s tied to the skills she learned bartending, but that certainly didn’t hurt her career.
Being someone who is in their twenties, I really identify with this post. When I graduated college in 2003 I went back to being a waitress, which is somthing I had done during summer breaks from school. I loved it!!! However, I constantly received the “What are you doing with your life”, “You have a college degree”, “it’s time to get serious” speeches from everyone I knew. Waiting tables allowed me to be free, make good money, and meet new people everyday.
Since I took the time to figure out what I liked and didn’t like, and also took the time to play and have fun, I feel much happier now. I know a lot of my friends (Also twenty somethings), that didn’t take the time to do so, and are now stuck in jobs they hate, with little confidence of it ever changing, and feel as though they are already having a mid-life crisis.
Thanks for the post. It’s nice to know that others relate. I have forwarded this on to a few of my twenty-something friends. Maybe it will give them some hope.
I didn’t bartend but I bagged groceries in a Military Grocery store called a commissary during my high school and college days. We worked for tips only (no hourly pay) so it was somewhat competitive. What I learned from that experience is that you can tell a lot from someone’s cover just by looking at them and observing their behavior. This was important because some people would tip well and some not so well. Basically, it was a great learning experience in meeting people of all levels of income, race, religious beliefs, etc. Personally, I never backed away from any customer even though I knew some would not tip well. I did have my favorites, however, who I knew would tip well and if I was available at the time, I would try to get their “business”.
Don’t minimize the importance of bartending or any other seemingly “lost” type of job. Just doing something, especially if it involves working with and getting along with other people will always be valuable.
There is a lot of truth in this article. The early 20s should be a time of discovering who you are and what you want to do. Not just in our careers but in our personal lives as well. It’s hard enough without undue parental pressure.
That said, I do feel sad when I’ve seen friends and acquaintances my own age (I’m now 31 but it’s something I’ve seen over the past decade) or younger, who seem trapped by inertia because they can’t decide what they want to do with the rest of their life. Most of my friends who spent a long time working in bars or cafes did so because it’s an easy option (they had the skills because they did it part time in school/college) but they were miserable doing it. If you truly love bar-tending then great, but most people don’t.
My best advice to someone just out of school/college who is trying to figure out what the hell they want to do with the rest of their life is to go and do something, anything. We’re all searching for the answers but the way to find it is through action then reflection. If it’s all action without reflection you get stuck in the rat race then have a midlife crisis. If it’s all reflection without action – or worse, neither – you miss the opportunity to grow and develop as a person and to try out different careers and lifestyles for real. Others might brand you as a loser but that’s not the point – the real tragedy is that if you are still living this way in their late 20s and beyond 30, you might start to think of yourself as a loser too.
Amid all this talk of generational identity and conflict, I came across this fascinating article from the archives of The Atlantic. Dated 1957, the best line is “parents who lived through the jazz age can’t very well forbid adventurousness …” See: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/195711/sex-college
Thank you so much for this article! I love reading your columns and this one could not have come at a better time. I’m 27 years old, in a job that I feel is dead-end, and just don’t know where I should be. I am the youngest in my department and that makes it hard as well. Keep the great articles coming!
To summarize Penelope’s article: IT’S RESPONSIBLE TO BE IRRESPONSIBLE. This advice is just plain wrong.
There are plenty of twentysomethings who are “lost” and/or living life, but that does not make them irresponsible. If that works, then good for them. I personally feel “lost”, but I am not at all irresponsible. So I have to disagree with you.
There are a couple of themes here worth exploring in more detail. The first is looking at how and when a young person in their twenties should have their act together career wise. From the look of the comments above, this happens early for some and later for others (actually for some, it never happens at all – the worst of the situation).
Secondly, the theme of living with parents seems to be a concern for a number of people. I lived with my folks until moving out in my late twenties. Had a chance to pay off bills and get my career going without getting too caught up in the full responsibilities of providing for oneself. But times have changed, and I think there is a totally different mindset from today’s generation towards living with your folks then there was 15-20 years ago. Further exploring in this area would be enlightening.
Lastly, you are always going to have people who know what they want to do early in life and others who don’t have a clue even into their 40’s. But time is not always on our side, and there seems to be a great deal of regret stories out there across all generations. The last theme to look at is how one really identifies what would make that person happy career-wise? And how does the money aspect work into that happiness? Sometimes, following your dream makes you a ton of money and you feel guilty for making so much at doing what you love to do (sports stars, actors/actresses) and others do what they love doing but it doesn’t pay squat (teachers, volunteers, ministry).
Life is tough enough for all of us. It’s no surprise that only half of us are happy with our careers, that the divorce rate is 50% and that the pressure is so heavy on our youth.
By the way, a good read for getting into the minds of young people would be a book titled “Hurt”. It’s a good read for any parent or person who works with youth in understanding the pressures put on adolescents.
I am 40 and keep seeing some repeating themes here.
I don’t believe this generation is basically different. While everyone is unique… Gen Y, like Gen X, and those before us: some individuals followed the path of parents and some did not. Some are “lost” and some are not.
What I do see is a basic lack of “leave the other person alone!”
Some parents want control, some parents want to spare pain, some want to share experience; this leads some parents to see their children as underachievers and to want to help them achieve for the future. Some children who are thought to be “lost”, either are or they are gaining valuable experience. Some may actually be lost AND gaining valuable experience. Either way, parents please leave your child alone. Let them find their way or lose their way on their own. Give them the opportunity to fail or succeed, save or spend, and gain experience all along the way.
How about the kids doing the same? Please, leave your parents alone. Move out! Find someone else to find your way or lose your way with. Create an opportunity to fail or succeed, save or spend, and gain experience all along the way towards a fulfilling life and career.
Let you parents do the same. They now have to find their way or lose their way on THEIR own. Give them the opportunity to fail or succeed, save or spend, and gain experience all along the way towards the end of their career and into retirement.
They did it for you, when they had to; they might be letting you do it for yourself; and they now have to do it for themselves.
“Leave the other person alone!”
A couple of points, all kidding aside:
1) We live in an affluent society. We can afford more indecision and pursuit of happiness than previous generations could. Until very recently, you could buy a house with a dog’s breakfast for a credit rating, even. When you don’t have to worry about survival itself, you start to worry about more trivial things. Am I happy? Am I popular? Do I have enough friends? How can I have a cottage in Tuscany and not have to work by the time I’m 30?
2) Starting a career path in one’s 20’s doesn’t preclude changing careers later. I got a suit and tie job with an international car rental company at 27. Didn’t know what I wanted to do in life, liked cars and travel, so what the heck? It’s a job, experience. I did it for four years, did well, and learned a lot. I decided to pursue computers and the Internet. So with no technical education or experience, I pitched myself freefall into computers. Worked at my cousins’ coffee house chain for a year, as their computer boy and driver. That got me enough knowledge to get an entry-level tech support job at an ISP. Within a year I was back in management, now working in the Internet, which I do now. It still doesn’t satisfy my every need, so that’s why I play the trumpet, and work on writing projects. I never stopped working all this time, though.
3) you can stay productive, and contribute to society and the economy and still pursue goals and dreams, without being irresponsible.