Things were easier in some ways for older generations than they are for today’s young adults. It used to be that if you were a man, you’d find a job right out of high school that you’d stay in for the next 35 years, or maybe you’d be lucky enough to go to college, or you’d join the military (either voluntarily or not). If you were a woman, after high school you married whomever you happened to be dating. You might go to secretarial college so that you could work for a powerful man. Or if you went to a 4-year college, you went just to find a husband. (Are you cringing? Me too.) (Side note: This is of course from a very heteronormative perspective. Back then, if you were anything other than heteronormative, you had to be invisible or pretend to be something that you’re not. Things were not easier for these folks.) When I say that things were easier back then, I don’t mean that they were better. People had very limited options back then, but they knew what those options were. That made things easier for them.
Today, young adults graduate from high school and either go to college or find a job.
Let’s look at both of these options, starting with the college option. Did you know what you wanted to do as a career when you were 18? Neither did I. Some people do, and that’s great, but for most of us, deciding on a major can be extremely anxiety-provoking. I knew I liked to read, so I majored in English, but I didn’t know what kind of job I’d be able to get with an English degree. The jobs in which someone pays you to sit around and read Shakespeare and celebrity memoirs all day are few and far between. (If you can get used to the writing style, Shakespeare can be hilarious.) When I was 18, I signed up for a meteorology class because I thought clouds were kind of cool. I later had to drop that class to preserve my GPA. Who knew there would be so much science and math involved? The point is: I had no idea what I wanted to do as a career when I was 18.
Not only do we not know what we want to do as a career when we start college, but we also feel immense pressure to choose a major quickly so that we don’t waste time (the immense pressure to graduate in 4 years or less) or money (either our parents’ money or the student loans that we’ll be saddled with after graduation.) We have to choose something that can earn us a good paycheck. We have to choose something that we’re good at or could become good at. And bonus if the major we pick is something we actually like to learn about!
And then we graduate. And. . .then what? Now we have to find a job not just to cover our living expenses, but to start paying down those student loans that accompany most of us into life after graduation. Can we even get a good job with just a Bachelor’s degree? Should we go to grad school? What kind of job should we even look for? How do we afford to live while we’re job searching? If we have a lot of student loan debt, we may need more than what an entry level position pays. When will we be able to eat ramen as a choice and not as a necessity?
Let’s pause there and visit our friend who didn’t go to college, but who decided to get a job right out of high school. What kind of jobs do you think are available to young adults who only have a high school diploma? More than likely, our friend is a non-white young person who can’t afford college, so the cards are really stacked against them. The only jobs open to them are the unskilled labor jobs with long hours and very little pay. The system is set up to keep these kids in these jobs for a lifetime. My father didn’t go to college. He was good at math and so he found a job right out of high school as an accounting assistant and worked his way up to Chief Financial Officer of the company. Nowadays, there’s no way you’ll land an accounting assistant job without at least a Bachelor’s degree in Accounting. The opportunities like my father had no longer exist in our workforce without a college education.
Young folks today have all of these choices to make in education and career and a lot of pressure to make the right choices.
And these are the same folks who watched their “we-got-married-right-out-of-high-school” parents go through divorces that at best merely interrupted the family structure and at worst were brutal and traumatizing. These young people don’t want to make the same mistakes their parents made. In addition, young women are going to college (for an education) or entering the workforce just as young men are, instead of starting families right out of high school. The unwritten mandate to get married young doesn’t exist anymore. Most young people are waiting longer to start families. Some are choosing to never get married. Some are choosing not to have kids. Also, ideas about what’s an acceptable family structure have changed. Families no longer have to be a mom and a dad and 2.5 kids. And while expanding the definition of family is a big step forward for our society, for our young folks it means that this part of their lives is no longer prescribed. The options are wide open for them. This is great! And confusing. And sometimes terrifying.
It’s no wonder that young adults are experiencing high levels of anxiety.
Having all of this freedom and all of these choices is both amazing and incredibly daunting. There’s no road map for most of them. Even those who are taking this time to explore their options feel the immense pressure to make these life choices – and to make the right ones. Education, career, family – they even have more choices now about where to live. People aren’t necessarily staying close to their parents and extended family anymore. It’s now quite common to choose to move away from home. The possibilities feel endless.
Young adults have all of these choices to make and at the same time may not feel qualified to make them. They may not feel like full-fledged adults yet. Many of them may still be reliant on parents for financial support and housing. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, in his article on emerging adulthood (the name he coined for this time of life) says that folks in this age group, “have left adolescence but have not yet completely entered young adulthood” (2000) and goes on to say that most people in today’s society don’t consider themselves adults until their late 20s and early 30s.
If you’re in this age group and you’re feeling both excited and terrified by all of your choices, you’re not alone. We’ve left you with all of these options and very little guidance. We didn’t give you classes on life skills in high school. This can be a really scary time. It can be hard to know what the right choices are to make. You may feel lost. It may feel like you’ll never be able to move out of your parents’ house. It may feel like you’ll never get a good job. It may feel like you’ll never get out from under your debt – debt that you shouldn’t even have at this age.
Talk to someone who understands.
Maybe that’s a therapist, maybe it’s your parents or another trusted adult, or maybe it’s other emerging adults who are going through what you are. Portland can be a hard place to make friends, but luckily has a lot of meetups for young adults. Talking through your anxieties and exploring them can help relieve some of your distress. Find a place where you can let your guard down and where you can be honest about the challenges you’re experiencing. A place where you don’t have to act like you have everything figured out when you still have so many questions and so much is still unknown for you. And a place where you can take a break from worrying about the future and where you can have space to breathe.
Self-care during this time is also very important.
We put so much pressure on ourselves every day and our bodies aren’t meant to have this much constant stress. Find things that are relaxing for you (and that aren’t ultimately detrimental to your health). Rediscover an activity that was fun for you when you were a kid. Reconnect with old friends who you may have lost touch with. Visit an animal shelter and hang out with the dogs and cats for an afternoon. Watch old movies that you loved growing up. Play old songs that you grew up with. Make sure to take care of yourself during this time. While it can be a really exciting time, it can also be a very stressful time. And you’re worth taking care of.
Arnett, J. J. (2000). Emerging adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. American psychologist, 55(5), 469-480.