politics of the hap

Being Twentysomething: The Question Mark Decade
May 19, 2011, 2:17 pm
Filed under: Subjectivities | Tags: , , , ,

As recent research has ‘revealed’, twenty-somethings are increasingly experiencing a ‘quarter-life crisis’. Leaving education and the relative security of home, young people are overwhelmed with concerns about money and debt and the pressures of building a ‘career’. This has resulted in a great deal of insecurity and a suffocating sense of disappointment as idealism has given way to monotony.

This isn’t how it was supposed to be. We are meant to be having the time of our lives, right? Somehow though the naive childish aspirations didn’t hold up to the experience of living in the ‘real world’ after all, dissipating to leave behind only exhaustion and indifference. Observing the twenty-somethings around me, this appears to be a relatively accurate description of the present phenomenon. I doubt however that this is specific to ‘my’ generation, despite having our own historically situated difficulties (i.e. cuts, cuts and cuts), but rather a far more universal story to do with the struggle to build/maintain what we define as our ‘identity’.

Some young people do of course appear to make the transition from child to adult well. This is evident through browsing the Facebook profile of people you went to school with; some are married, engaged, with children, working in ‘proper’ jobs. You have to remind yourself that they started off in life at the same point as you, yet somehow achieving things that remain elusive in your own life. Worse, I still remember when they wore shell suits and I played pogs with them in the playground, how and when did they grow up?

Generally though I think an increasing amount of young people, perhaps especially those in London or big cities, would identify with the experience of twentysomething Emma, a central character in David Nicholl’s current bestseller One Day – The one with an orange cover seen being read by multitudes on the Tube (I read it in private as a bit of post-Michel Foucault frivolity):

Emma’s mid-twenties had brought a second adolescence even more self-absorbed and doom-laden than the first one. ‘Why don’t you come home sweetheart?’ her mum had said on the phone last night, using her quavering, concerned voice, as if her daughter had been abducted. ‘Your room’s still here. There’s jobs at Debenhams’ and for the first time she had been tempted.
Once she had thought she could conquer London. She had imagined a whirl of literary salons, political engagement, larky parties, bittersweet romances conducted on Thames embarkments. She had intended to form a band, make short films, write novels, but two years on the slim volume of verse was no fatter, and nothing really good had happened to her since she’d been baton-charged at the Poll Tax Riots.
The city had defeated her, just like they said it would. Like some overcrowded party, no-one had noticed her arrival, and no-one would notice if she left.

Being a big fish in a small pond – as I was – you grow an inflated sense of purpose as you believe you are ‘too good’ for this pitiful town, and criticize others for their perceived lack of will or motivation to improve their lives. I want to go back and slap my old self-righteous self who simply could not comprehend people who ‘settled’ in that small town. I always wanted more, more, more. So I ended up in London, with whether I admitted it or not, fantasies similar to Emma only to realize that they were, and will remain, mere fantasies.

After you arrive, you find out the city is unsympathetic and uncompromising and relentless. It rewards only those who have authority in it. As an aimless wanderer it merely amplifies your non-descriptiveness, mirroring the central dilemma of being twenty-something: the lack of identifiable identity. As a twenty-something you have the fear of being inconsequential, whilst at the same time recognising that you are in fact unexceptional. It becomes a battle of sorts, the desire for external acknowledgement as strong as the desire to escape all types of confines.

I am reminded of something I wrote at 19 – I do believe 19 was my literary height – that describes this ambiguous phase well:

When one leaves that comfortable institution of education, of schooling, the final gates of childhood, they are let out into the world where once they were something now become nothing. Nobodies, trying desperately to salvage their old identity or piece together a new one but failing dismally for their purpose is no longer the same, nor is it anything in particular. Not a woman but not a child, not a wife, not a mother, not a daughter. Nameless and seemingly insignificant, life means nothing and is nothing, for the power, the strength to change, mould a direction; hope lies still out of grasp. And will remain so until patience finally wins over the convoluted mind and the bubbling desire for action eventually subsides.

Without purpose – a named category – life can appear meaningless, as we live in a world that demands and requires tangible meanings via established social categories. This meaninglessness must be overcome we tell ourselves, as we are told by others, the confusion quashed and normality once again established. Is this not the classic recovery narrative I in my academic brain so vehemently reject? Yet there appears to be an expectation that in personal matters some form of stability should (and will) be obtained. There are certain people I know that would be both relieved and happy (allegedly happy ‘for me’ but in truth happy their understanding of the world is again unchallenged) if I were to secure a well paid job, get married and follow the well-worn narrative. In One Day the characters have a dalliance with uncertainty in their twenties but ultimately manage to conform to the normative standards of middle-class blah: marriage, children, suburban home. While One Day is hardly trying to be a radical novel in any respect (though to be fair there are a few twists in the tale) the narrative reaffirms how insecurity belongs to the twenties – the question mark decade – and settling down belong to the latter years, with an erasure of radical tendencies along the way.

But what if this uncertainty goes on and on? In my current position of 26, the feelings of anxiety over the future are exacerbated by the fact I can not foresee how things will ever change. And if they don’t, then what? What are the options then? Subsuming into passivity – settling for second best, going back to my hometown and admitting defeat or a continuation of instability, confusion and the haphazard. Are these the options? Or is something missing in this?

Recently I watched Dustin Hoffman on the insightful Inside the Actors Studio series and he commented at the end of the programme on his own haphazard narrative, describing the twenties as the ‘question mark decade’. Watch from around 10.08 mins onwards:

Hoffman touches on the implicit obligation we all face, to know the answer to the questions ‘What do you want to do?’ ‘What do you want to be? Without answers – or answers that satisfy (e.g. being a part-time stickering machine* – how I consider my job description, which is not exactly a detail that helps build a meaningful identity) – how are you to reply to the burning and preoccupying proposition: who are you and what do you mean? And of course this is the wrong question, though the imperative to pose it remains as strong as ever, particularly when you can’t pay the rent, or the heating stops working again and when everything in your life seems to be falling apart.

And so how are we to ‘play’ as Hoffman suggests, surrounded by these limitations to time, money and energy? I recall a lecturer making similar comments in a first year lecture on identity. He told us we should play with our identities, try new things and if they don’t work then try something else, for this was the time to try and fail and explore. This was very inspiring to my 19/20 year old ears, and yet I could never quite embrace this self-conscious play of identities in practice. Rather I fell into things and fell out of them mostly with negative consequences, all the while wishing for recognition as something (and awful as it sounds, inclusion).

Not knowing what will become of yourself has never been a ‘luxury’ it has been oppressive and confusing. The twenties simply become a waiting game, and as nothing happens you observe your peers fulfilling different narratives and you anxiously anticipate what outcome will be yours. But as Dustin Hoffman also pointed out, if you simply wait, for the ideal job, or to fall in love, for whatever dreams to be realised, you will die. This is a death of the childish hopes and naive idealism that drove and shaped your choices and decisions. But at what cost must we cling to these? How many obstacles are too much? How can it be that to achieve some semblance of freedom we must undergo so many restrictions, so much non-living where everything is un-, un-happiness, un-certainty, everything the non-existence of feeling. There is a limit to ‘playing’ and if you are without the necessary safety-nets (namely money) you risk simply falling through the gaps – no-one noticing your arrival and no-one noticing when you leave.

But until then we have the constant re-iteration of the same, the re-newed attempts, the re-freshing of beliefs, the re-inforcing of perserverance, the re-doing of last week’s undoing, the neverending chase for something new.

She made a firm resolution, one of the resolutions she was making almost daily these days. No more sleepovers, no more writing poetry, no more wasting time. Time to tidy up your life. Time to start again. (One Day, p. 72)

*Involving the stickering and re-stickering of various items with various stickers


3 Comments so far
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Wow, that’s not my experience at all! I moved to London from a small Somerset village aged 18 & found it everything I thought it would be. I’m 27, I’m not married, don’t have kids & don’t have a steady well paid job, but I am successful by my own measures. What you’re writing about sounds like good old existential crisis to me… but all it takes to get over that is a bit of philosophising. There’s no need to feel oppressed of confused, if life isn’t offering you what you thought it would then go out & create some experience.

“After you arrive, you find out the city is unsympathetic and uncompromising and relentless. It rewards only those who have authority in it.”
Not even remotely true – there are so many opportunities & so many things to be involved in I find it hard to believe that people could find it unrewarding unless they could only be rewarded by being in charge of everything, in which case, yes, you probably need to start your own country.

“Not knowing what will become of yourself has never been a ‘luxury’ it has been oppressive and confusing. The twenties simply become a waiting game, and as nothing happens you observe your peers fulfilling different narratives and you anxiously anticipate what outcome will be yours.”
That’s the most depressing thing I’ve read all day! Oppressing & confusing are things that you could conjure up, sure, but it’s perfectly possible to see it as a luxury. I certainly did, & the people who do feel that way are far more appealing to be around. If you’re too sure of what you’re doing you’re probably bound for disappointment, and frankly, you’re probably very annoying to be around. Waiting to see what life throws at you makes you a passive liver & consequently you’re bound to feel buffeted around & like opportunities never come your way. The way to feel empowered is to get stuck in & make life happen! That last bit sounded like a massive self-help cliche but you get the gist 😉

Comment by Anon

Hi Anon, thanks for your comments. Yes I agree I was a tad gloomy when I wrote this! I like how you see the confusing part of being in your twenties as a luxury instead and I agree that thinking negatively will get you nowhere. Thing is when your life is in transition it does often feel bewildering but it is also important to remember it does not always stay that way – hence why I mentioned Dustin Hoffmann as I feel what he says captures this. In the end though I will never be a fan of London as much as I try, I am glad that you feel differently – and yes I may be the type of person that would quite enjoy having a country of her own, with her rules 🙂

Comment by politics of the hap

[…] B is; what it will look and feel and taste like. The 20s in their entirety are a space in between: the question mark decade. I am reminded of Helene Cixous’s concept ‘entre-deux’ – between-two. One […]

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