“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both, And be one traveler, long I stood, And looked down one as far as I could, To where it bent in the undergrowth.”
From the age of roughly 20 until 26, a period I will call the “twenty somethings,” one is stuck in perpetual, 6-year transition period of self-obsession; an era of modest responsibility, patchy ups and downs, frequent existential crises, blurred lines between romance and friendship, and a white future full of empty promises.
I’ve used the term “twenty somethings” in reference to two articles I’ve read recently. The first, written by Robin Henig in the New York Times Magazine, poses the question: Why are so many people in their 20’s taking so long to grow up?
Henig redefines my generation’s delayed maturation period as a new life phase, calling it a “boomerang generation” that does everything possible—gap years, PeaceCorps, Teach for America, extended road trips, unpaid internships, erratic job-hopping—to dodge taking the real world seriously. It is an era of prolonged experimentation.
What I read next was a direct response to Henig’s article: Nathan Heller’s “Semi-Charmed Life” from The New Yorker. Heller recalls, with more than a hint of nostalgia, his 20’s as a time when he roamed Iceland feeling only “a thrilling sense of nowness,” living for the sake of meeting the unmet and doing the undone. The only task for the twenty something is to feel free, he argues, and to enjoy the feeling.
Henig’s article caused some introspection on my part; Heller’s threw me into a disconcerted daze. I unplugged myself from my present duties, which suddenly no longer felt like duties but time-filling distractions, and took a walk.
I was not so much struck by what Heller said, but by the implications of his words. As a twenty something, I am nothing but a ghost, tiptoeing the earth without leaving a footprint, claiming nothing to be my own save my experiences and the loose conviction that my footsteps will eventually lead me somewhere solid. Everything is an illusion: roads merely kaleidoscopic images that shift with every turn of the hand. All twenty somethings are either lost in the rat race or lost somewhere outside it.
What makes being twenty somethings harder is the knowledge that this period is irreplaceable; the most present, energetic, and developmental years of life. It is a paradoxical time, pondering different futures and the idea that I can one day make a difference in this world, yet knowing full well that my yearning is part of the luxury of being a twenty something. Once this time is over, I will only have my nostalgia.
The new HBO series, “Girls,” created by Lena Dunham masters the timbre of the twenty somethings in an intimate way. In the show, the characters wander haphazardly around New York, stuck teetering on a on seesaw between loneliness and numbness, having hapless sex, staring at Facebook and doing cocaine for the sake of youth. Her characters are consciously aware they are lost, but relish in it because they can. Until the 30-benchmark hits and the allure of the new seems to become less appealing, or perhaps less immediate, they are permitted to wander aimlessly.
What to do my fellow twenty somethings—do you really think you’re in control? There is no escaping this six-year roller coaster of empty dreaming, straddled between living in the present and fantasizing about the future.
Perhaps I won’t be able to connect the dots clearly until I am done creating them. Perhaps mistakes will cause setbacks and diverging roads will cause chaos. Perhaps, somehow, the beauty of the era is defined by its elusiveness.