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Procrastinating Life

Today’s twenty-somethings are in crisis

By Courtney A. Fiske

To my freshman self, four years felt like forever. College was an endlessly accelerating expanse of novelty—and I was a glutton for the new. New campus, new classes, new modes of awkward social interaction—the newness continued ad infinitum, a sugar-high without the attendant crash. College seemed less like a transitional phase, poised between teenage angst and adult awareness, and more like a permanent state of being. Thesis, graduation, the “real world”—these markers of finality existed only in a nebulous and asymptotic future. As new became my new old, the Harvard bubble assumed its own self-contained logic. Everything conspired to conceal the all-too-obvious reality: One day, this bubble would burst.

On some level, I had always known that the end would come. Diplomas would be awarded, caps would be thrown, and Cambridge would become fodder for photo albums and anecdotes. Still, graduation read like a grand cultural cliché: something that I had seen enacted in sitcoms but that would never quite happen to me.

Admittedly, my moment of realization was itself cliché—the case, it seems, with all youthful epiphanies. Perhaps it was the mosh of other twenty-somethings, the smell of grass muddied by spilled beer, or the combined haze of cigarette smoke and late-summer sun. Yet, projected from a Chicago soundstage, MGMT’s “Time to Pretend”—a fully ironic lament—struck me as intensely sincere. Graduation spelled the end of limitless choice and self-indulgent exploration. Pragmatic decision-making would have to supplant aimless fantasizing. I would have to finally decide what I was “doing with my life,” enter into “adulthood” (whatever that meant), and concern myself with real person things, like taxes and co-op boards. And, even if it did all work out, wouldn’t I just end up missing my mom?

All Harvard students grapple with these questions at some point during their undergraduate tenure. Christine Hassler, author and former twenty-year-old, calls it the “twenties triangle”: three nagging prompts—“Who am I? What do I want? How do I get it?”—that twenty-somethings universally confront. Psychologist Jeffrey J. Arnett, profiled in Robin M. Henig’s recent New York Times Magazine cover story, calls it “emerging adulthood”: a distinct developmental stage where everything seems vaguely possible, but nothing feels for certain. In 2005, Time Magazine coined a neologism of its own—“twixters”—to describe this post-college cohort, stuck in sociological limbo between adolescence and adulthood.

Such buzzwords, all striving to capture the twenty-something zeitgeist, abound. They span a continuum of absurdity, from the nondescript “youth” to the unfortunate portmanteau “adultescent.” Pair this with the semantic confusion over what to call kids these days—Millennials, Generation Y, Echo Boomers—and a headache ensues. Nobody seems to get what is going on or how the terminological noise might help to clarify it.

Commentators seem only able to agree that a change is occurring. As Henig’s article details, the “timetable for adulthood” is shifting; traditional “milestones” of career, family, and mortgage refuse to arrive as quickly as they once did. Henig offers several explanations: the Great Recession, more progressive cultural norms, and that eternal scapegoat, hyper-involved parents. Each falls short of a full accounting, and Henig ends at a moral impasse: Is this moratorium on “growing up” to be embraced or shunned?

Parsing this question has become a perennial media obsession. Adults appear forever concerned that today’s youth won’t live up to their expectations—or, at least, won’t work long enough to foot their Social Security bill. But while quarter-life crises may be relatively novel, existential dread has always been in vogue. The self-help section, the therapist’s couch, the cultural resonance of mid-life turmoil; each attests to the fact that, at some point, everyone’s lives—not just those of rising Harvard seniors—deserve some critical distance. Julia Roberts’ turn in “Eat, Pray, Love” confirmed my suspicions that searching self-doubt can happen to anyone. You’re never too old, too committed, or too scheduled to take a book advance, befriend a spiritual guru, and run away with Javier Bardem.

Considered in context, then, my revelation came softly. The song ended, and the next began, my wanderlust neither aroused nor dimmed. Seventy-odd years of unstructured time still stretched before me, waiting to be filled with milestones achieved and creative energies sated. This reality was terrifying, but wonderfully so. Deciding “what to do with my life” would not be the result of one gratuitous choice but a net accumulation of numerous resolves, each with its own opportunity for crisis and change.

Me, “grow up”? Not yet.

Courtney A. Fiske ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House.

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