Jennifer L. Tanner

Jennifer L. Tanner Ph.D.

Becoming Adult

At weddings, ask twentysomethings--how is life going?

Well-meaning grown-ups, ask twentysomethings: how is life going?

Posted Jun 23, 2010

Well-meaning grown-up types are advised not to ask twentysomethings...what are you doing, rather, how is life going?

I joke with my husband that weddings are my opportunity to sequester unsuspecting
twentysomethings to talk about the transition to adulthood. But it's not a joke; I do it. This past weekend, I had some informal "sessions" with emerging adults about their lives at an amazing wedding in Woodstock, NY.

So, I ask: what's been going on since we saw you last, about three years ago, since you were wrapping-up college?

Taking the liberty to generalize-they are in flux. And they aren't necessarily happy about it. They are neither here, nor there. As they update us, they excitedly speak about the future; they are uncomfortable with the present. When our conversation takes us back in time, they sound much older, reminiscing about "the fun times that were had" when life was much more simple, easy, fun, and free.

One of them was apt to talk with me about his life. We talked for quite a while. And when cocktail hour chatter gave way to dancing and celebrating, we parted ways. As I enjoyed the loveliness of the evening, I thought about his experiences and the themes in twentysomethings' lives that his experiences reflect.

While I know that emerging adulthood is about laying down the bricks that a life will be built on, it appears that emerging adults, don't know that. This young man told me that he and his friends feel a great deal of pressure, guilt, and embarrassment because their lives are under construction. They are sensitive to the fact that they are not completed projects.

Oversimplifying my response, I tell him that even we academics are only on the verge of outlining and framing a modernized understanding of what it is like to be in your twenties in the 2000s. It's not hard to recognize that his interest is less global, more specific. Often, on these occasions, I find myself translating scientific theory and research to real-life twentysomethings.

And now...a brief interpretation of my conversation with a real-life twentysomething

Me: When you are at weddings and event like this, do people ask you "what are you doing with your life?"

R: Yes, and this causes me so much anxiety. I think about where my life is going every day. These same questions run through my head every day."

Me: It's normal, in your twenties, to feel and be neither here nor there, in flux. Because this is a stage of transition and change, life should feel more like swimming a current rather than treading still waters.

R: Really? It's normal? But I don't know what I'm doing with my life? The answer to that question constantly changes; it's something different every day."

Me: Requests for such self-assessments of how you are doing right now ask you to take a "snapshot, of a life that is more a film than a photograph. When well-meaning grown-up types ask you what you are doing with your life, you might translate the question into a process-oriented query, such as: 

  • is my life in motion?
  • am I thinking about, planning, investigating, examining, and planning my life?
  • am I questioning my beliefs about my who am I: my ideas about religion, politics, the meaning of life, do I want to get married, who do I want to marry, should I be a parent, what so I need to do with myself before I am ready to be a parent?..... 
  • am I accumulating experiences that should pay-off in financial independence?

Can you respond to those questions? Even if they make you think a little, those types of questions focus on your transition, your process, rather than the outcomes or the endpoints. The 20s are really about exploring and learning about yourself.

R: Yeah, I am going to go back to school...either next year, or the next. I liked being in school, I liked learning and being at a university.

Me: Have you "maxed-out" the value of your current education? If the answer is yes, then you want to go back to school to increase your financial fitness. If the answer is no, you may be a school "addict" and you may need to break the cycle. I explained: from age 5 or younger, through age 18 or older, your relationship to school can be summarized as this: you showed-up, someone else was responsible for providing you with useful information that you "should" know, and you were responsible for listening. (and, be honest, you only half-listened the majority of the time). At the end of some period of time (determined by someone other than you), you were assessed on some criteria (determined by someone other than you), which was added to some evaluation or report that you then transfer to your resume (to be evaluated by someone other than you).

Upon graduation, congratulations, you are now the teacher planning the lessons, assessing your progress, and evaluating your own success. You are now your own coach, guidance counselor, mentor, and advisor.

Becoming the director and producer of your own life requires you to (1) act in very different way, guiding your own life vs. responding to others' guidance, and (2) take on much more responsibility for yourself.

I am not an advocate of going back to school if the latter issue, delaying taking responsibility for oneself, is the reason for returning rather than the former, accumulating resources to advance your potential for financial self-sufficiency. In fact, I can make the argument that returning to school is regressive (undermines your development and adaptation) if you have yet to take-on the directorship of your own life.

As always, it was absolutely my pleasure to have had the opportunity to speak with "R" at the wedding. He thanked me for talking to him. He remarked that we talked about his life in a way that he hadn't thought about it before. I don't think he heard me when I told him "thank you," but I genuinely wanted to say it; I meant it. It's a pleasure to talk to people invested in figuring-out life. So, "R," the next time a wedding, family holiday, or reunion rolls around, perhaps "what are you doing with your life?" will sound more like "How are you coming along with laying a foundation for your life?"

About the Author

Jennifer L. Tanner

Jennifer L. Tanner, Ph.D., is an applied developmental psychologist at Rutgers University.

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