A friend of mine recently posted on his blog a list of things nobody warned him about for his 20s. And the thing is, he’s right. Nobody did warn us about this. Between his post and an article that came out in Atlantic magazine last year about the psychological state of my generation, I have to stop and wonder – for my generation, are the 20s a decade-long sophomore slump?
Freshman year of college was great, but sophomore year was a rude awakening, if only because of the sudden change in the attention given to our class and the expectations laid upon us. Freshmen got all kinds of special attention – the university staff and dorm staff at Stanford really make an effort to help the freshman class bond together and feel at home in the new experience of university life. They realize that most of us are living away from home for the first time (yes, I know, I was living within biking distance of my childhood home, but I was living on campus, so nyaaah). They acknowledge that academic life is different from anything we’ve experienced up to that point, and they made a concerted effort to ensure that the freshman class knew it belonged at Stanford. None of us were a mistake, they kept saying. So we sailed through freshman year on a sort of ego high, feeling special and savvy and very grown-up.
Then sophomore year happened. I should make it clear that my perceptions of the sophomore slump are fundamentally skewed by my personal life going to hell in a handbasket and leaving me in what can politely be described as a fragile emotional state. The thing is, though, it was clear within a week that the difference between freshman and sophomore was that we were suddenly expected to understand How It All Works. We were expected to know how to troubleshoot college life, from difficulty in registering for classes to paying bills and dealing with the social environment of college life. Freshman year at Stanford is all about proving to yourself that your admission was not a mistake. Sophomore year at Stanford is when that damned duck metaphor starts – Stanford students are like ducks: calm on the surface but paddling like mad underneath, just to stay afloat. I hate it, but it’s true. We all pretended we knew what we were doing, clinging to the old idea from “The King and I” that pretending to be brave will make you so.
I am 25 years old and I have no idea what I’m doing. This year I have to navigate filing tax returns in two countries, thanks to a scholarship I got for the Canadian university I currently attend. It’s not actually taxable, but I have to file a tax return, and thus have to figure it all out. There are people at the International Student Center who will help, but still. I have two and a half semesters left in my academic career, which is both a relief and bone-meltingly terrifying. I’ve interviewed for a job once, rather badly, and I have worked at the same place every chance I got for the past four years, meaning I have not successfully landed a job with people who don’t already know me since 2007. My student loans are piling up at a horrifying rate, and while I don’t have the amount a medical student or law student would have, my pay grade is also lower than theirs will be. The fear and anxiety makes my stomach cramp at the slightest provocation.
My friend’s post about 20s life is flippant at times, but the issues he brings up are real. We’re this strange generation, of an age to be directly responsible for taking care of the aging Boomer generation. The economy’s shot to hell, so the independence we expected from listening to parental stories and watching tv shows is harder to come by – how many of us will have our own housing, sans roommates and away from parents, when we leave college? A lecture I attended last term talked about the aging population. In Canada it’s a little bit more of a problem than at home, since the Boomers are some 25% of the national population. I’m not sure what the percentage is for the US, but I’m pretty sure it’s a bit lower. On the other hand, our total population is way bigger than Canada’s so the level of issue is probably relatively equivalent. One of the messages I got from the lecture is the cultural impact of the Boomers – as the largest single demographic group for their entire lives, they have shaped much of what is important to us, from music to movies to the laws that get passed. Perhaps we’re a caretaker generation. As the group that follows the Boomers, much of our careers will be dictated by their needs. I’m training to be a librarian. The Boomers are starting to retire, and as a group they are far more active than any other retired generation has been. Libraries already have dedicated children’s librarians – perhaps now they’ll start to need dedicated seniors’ librarians. For medical students and nursing students, geriatric care is a fabulous area of specialty to choose. I expect people who are involved in the stock market need to learn more about managing retirement portfolios than ever before. The list goes on and on.
Are the 20s our decade-long sophomore slump? We’re all a bit lost, feeling very young and inexperienced but pretending we know what we’re doing. We’re lonely in a crowd or we self-isolate and pretend that digital connections are an adequate substitute for actual human contact. Perhaps we’re all just incredibly narcissistic, spending all our time analyzing ourselves and our problems and not giving enough attention to taking care of each other. I can’t count the number of times I and my friends have watched some show or some movie and envied the friend-families shown onscreen. I’m told that real life isn’t like that. In real life, we don’t find those groups of friends that will do anything for us and notice when we’re sinking and reach out to hold us above the surface of the waves. Or so I’m told. But I can’t accept that, because then I’d drown in despair. Still, experience is showing me that what I’m told of real life is true. Loneliness seems to be an inevitable part of the package. Or maybe that’s just the sophomore slump talking.
I want to be clear that none of this is intended for blame of any kind. It’s just me, thinking and trying to work things out in my mind.
I would like to apologize for this verbal anxiety attack by sharing this clip from CRIMINAL MINDS. It’s been making me laugh all evening – I’ve watched it several times and it’s still just as funny.