Making any choice denies the possibility of at least one other choice. When confronted with this truth, young people often find themselves unprepared for life’s big choices.
Young Rod Dreher clearly knew what he wanted to do in life. He was only 16 when he was offered the opportunity to move to a Louisiana boarding school, and he did not hesitate for one second to leave his home town, full of intolerant and narrow-minded people. He wanted to become a successful journalist, so he left, to the disappointment of Ruthie, his younger sister, who stayed. In her mind, leaving one’s family for a career in journalism most probably had to do with pride, and thinking that you were better than the ones who brought you into this world. Which explains why, as time went on, they grew apart.
His career brought Rod from Baton Rouge in Washington DC, to Fort Lauderdale and Dallas, which he then left for New York. He finally ended up in Philadelphia. “I was trapped in a culture of ambition”, says Rod in an interview for The Atlantic.
While Rod was moving from one city to another, advancing in his career, Ruthie kept on living a few houses away from her family and dedicated herself to her primary school pupils, becoming a teacher in her home town of Starhill.
Rod was still in Philadelphia when he got the news that Ruthie had terminal lung cancer and the doctors had given her just three more months left to live. Ruthie had never smoked, and so her diagnosis left people in Starhill reeling, Rod said. His 40-year-old sister was much loved by her pupils, her three daughters and husband.
In the 19-month period since Ruthie had received her diagnosis, Rod witnessed an amazing deployment of forces in the small Starhill community. “When Ruthie got sick”, he said “there were things her family could not do—they could not take the children to school without help, they could not set food on the table without help, they could not pay their bills without help.” Some of her friends organised a charity concert to help her with the expenses required for the medical treatment. Hundreds of people gathered together and collected $43 000 for their friend. “This is the way it’s supposed to be. This is how people should help each other,” someone told Rod that evening. “It really took an entire village to take care of my sister. The idea that we can count solely on ourselves is essentially a myth,” was Rod’s disquieting conclusion.
On the first New Year’s Eve after his sister’s death, Rod would see something that would make him decide to come back to Starhill, and bring his whole family along. Ruthie and her mother used to go to the village cemetery, on Christmas, and light candles on each of its two hundred graves. But, in the first New Year’s Eve after Ruthie’s death, her mother was not well enough to keep up the tradition. Passing by the cemetery that night, Rod saw sparkling lights on every grave. It seems that a Susan, a town neighbour, had continued the tradition of honoring the memory of the deceased.
The experience of Ruthie’s last months of life changed Rod deeply. It made him understand that life can challenge you in different ways, all of which can turn one’s breastplate of ambition into a pathetic plastic shield that is of no use.
The price we pay for the freedom to postpone
Emma did not need a real experience to realise this. She only needed a blank space in her address book, that she did not know how to fill: “In case of an emergency call…” The young 25-year-old American cried her heart out for almost an hour in the office of the therapist she visited for what she called an “identity crisis”, when realising she had no one to turn to in case of an emergency. Dr. Meg Jay, the therapist treating her, shared in a TED talk that Emma used to ask her desperately: “Who’s going to be there for me if I get in a car wreck? Who’s going to take care of me if I have cancer?” “In that moment”, said Jay, “it required enormous strength not to say ‘me’. Emma did not need a therapist who really cared. Emma needed a better life and I knew this was her opportunity. I told Emma three things that every twenty-something, male or female, deserves to hear.”
Young people need life lessons, especially because so often they are in love with freedom, but terrified by the responsibility that comes with it. At 25-30 years of age, many young people acutely feel that, although they love it, freedom inevitably pushes them into the arms of anxiety. So they fall back on the most accessible solution: postponement.
Sociologists rushed to give this trend a name, to identify its profile, and came up with multiple options: boomerang-children, “failure to launch” generation, bamboccioni, the “Peter-Pan” generation. “The Peter-Pan generation has pretty much all they want…and this kind of suffocates us”, wrote a well-known Romanian blogger, paraphrasing a Daily Mail feature.
“Many opportunities, many choices…but unfortunately few right paths. We are always faced with tough decisions. It’s hard with the job, the girlfriend, your friends. People are panicked. We are scared of concerns and we seek to escape them the best way we know. People do not wish to be grownups because a grownup has responsibilities. And this is not really okay. It seems that what lies at the basis of our refusal to grow up is fear. Fear of everything that comes with this grownup package deal.” This package deal has, however, been created by adults who are now complaining that their children would not leave the nest.
“Our cultural values are associated with youth”, said journalist Marianne Power for the Daily Mail. Therefore, it is no wonder that young people do not want to “grow up”: “They don’t see anything good coming from becoming an adult.” So they postpone buying a house, getting married, having children, making financial plans. An extreme example in this respect is that of an Italian couple who, exasperated by the fact that their 41-year-old son still lived under their roof, enlisted the services of a lawyer to evict their “child”. This is a representative case for the social phenomenon the Italians call bamboccioni—“big babies”. Almost 48% of Italians between the ages of 18 and 39 still live with their parents, according to a study published in 2011 and quoted by The Telegraph.
Young Italians are renowned for their unwillingness to leave home. Men were even given the nickname mammone, the Italian expression for a young person who “clings to his mother’s skirt”. The bambiccioni phenomenon is connected to finances. The Italian market suffers from a deficit in stable work places and most young people are forced to take up jobs with short-term contracts. This stops them from getting a loan to be able to buy their own apartment.
In July 2011, Postmedia News published an analysis which found that the belated leaving of the parental nest is a global phenomenon which characterises the Y generation (born between 1981 and 1990). Sociologists then explained that the members of this generation are more “conscious” than younger generations.
Accelerating the midlife crisis
But not all sociologists agree with this perspective. Some say many young people experience, around the quarter mark of their lives, the existential crisis their parents only went through when they were 50. This “quarter-life crisis” should be nothing but a temporary phase of existential anguish which all normal people need to go through. But youngsters from this hyperconnected reality are not ready to handle it. Developed societies nowadays are witnessing an acceleration of the existential crisis which adults used to experience after their most important goals had been attained (getting a good job, buying a house, marriage, children). At that point, the future can seem not as appealing as it used to be, or past achievements can seem insignificant. But young people today think this way even before actually attaining their goals.
Another explanation, as psychologist Barry Schwartz pointed out, could be that the multitude of options in life does not increase freedom, like one would think, but increases the pressure to make the “right” decision. This is why, when confronted with a diverse range of solutions to their problems, many people are often confused, not knowing what to choose. And this confusion frustrates them and causes a state of unhappiness.
It is, however, easy to anticipate that, as they age, young people do not rid themselves of this pressure. On the contrary. They will have to deal with a much more aggressive version of it. “When a lot has been pushed to your 30s, there is enormous thirty-something pressure to jump-start a career, pick a city, partner up, and have two or three kids in a much shorter period of time. Many of these things are incompatible, and as research is just starting to show, simply harder and more stressful to do all at once in our 30s,” said Dr Meg Jay.
What are the stakes?
Out of all these opinions, one can conclude that although young people are very tempted to see their twenties as an extension of their adolescence, they risk wasting this decisive period for the rest of their lives. “We know that 80 percent of life’s most defining moments take place by age 35. That means that eight out of 10 of the decisions and experiences and ‘Aha!’ moments that make your life what it is will have happened by your mid-30s,” said Jay in her TED talk. “We know that the brain caps off its second and last growth spurt in your 20s as it rewires itself for adulthood, which means that whatever it is you want to change about yourself, now is the time to change it.” She also added that “personality changes more during your 20s than at any other time in life, and we know that female fertility peaks at age 28, and things get tricky after age 35. So your 20s are the time to educate yourself about your body and your options.”
“You’re deciding your life right now”, said Jay in her talk, and presented the three principles she passed on to Emma to help her break the deadlock:
1. Investing in identity capital: find something that gives value to your person. Make an investment to become the person you want to be. “Now is the time for that cross-country job, that internship, that startup you want to try. I’m not discounting twenty-something exploration here, but I am discounting exploration that’s not supposed to count, which, by the way, is not exploration. That’s procrastination.”
2. Capitalising on your relationships: do not keep company only with people who think exactly like you, because, in this way, you will limit yourself. “New things come from what are called our weak ties, our friends of friends of friends. So yes, half of twenty-somethings are un- or under-employed. But half aren’t, and weak ties are how you get yourself into that group. Half of new jobs are never posted, so reaching out to your neighbour’s boss is how you get that unposted job. It’s not cheating. It’s the science of how information spreads.”
3. Planning a family: the best moment to work on your marriage is before you have it, which means taking love as serious as you do work. Choosing your family means choosing consciously who and what you want, and not struggling to make the relationship work or wasting time with whoever happens to choose you.
What to do, to be able to do it
For Emma, these pieces of advice were a lifeline which helped her not to sink. “We went through that address book,” Dr Jay said, “and she found an old roommate’s cousin who worked at an art museum in another state. That weak tie helped her get a job there. That job offer gave her the reason to leave that live-in boyfriend. Now, five years later, she’s a special events planner for museums. She’s married to a man she mindfully chose. She loves her new career, she loves her new family, and she sent me a card that said, ‘Now the emergency contact blanks don’t seem big enough.'”
Emma’s solution was not easy, or perfect. A part of its vulnerability was that it entailed making a commitment. For this reason, it might seem difficult to recommend it to those many youngsters who are paralysed when faced with a decision which implies excluding other options. Their fear of missing out on other opportunities, or perhaps the fear to simply fail and be forced to then live with their regrets, sets many young people against making firm decisions. Still, not making a decision is in fact a decision, and it is very possible that it might not have the most favourable outcomes. It is possible for the necessary self-discipline for any major decision to no longer look like an unrealistic ideal if it’s built on progressively making small commitments. Training our will in daily decisions which appear to be minor, will prove not only possible, but also easy.
The surest milestone
Perhaps the riskiest aspect of the strategy that worked for Emma is that, in the absence of solid milestones, its success may prove to be as limited as having transferred a career obsession into the personal life. Success, like failure, depends on the values in the three steps Dr Jay spoke about. I will successfully invest in identity capital when I have the guarantee that it’s worth becoming who I want to become. I will enjoy the direction in which I capitalise my secondary relationships only if I have the guarantee that that is the right direction to walk in. And I will be fulfilled in the family for which I planned, if I have the guarantee that I chose my partner according to criteria which are immune to the subjectivism and selfishness which might make it vulnerable. This is why I need a solid integrating principle to direct my choices and, ultimately, my emotional balance. This principle is the first that must be tested before any decision is taken. Because all that I will build in life depends on the stability of this principle.
Christianity offers an ultimate principle, which Jesus Christ guaranteed with His own life. The stakes of a wrong choice are higher than we can afford, He said in more shocking words—“for whoever wants to save their life will lose it” (Matthew 16:25).
What that might mean is that anyone who fights to ensure and enjoy reaching the goals that offer happiness and satisfaction from an exclusively human perspective, loses the capacity to enjoy life’s deeper and more essential worth. When He went on to say “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5), the One who created life warned that it is not enough to struggle with all your might, no matter how resilient you are, because fulfillment will always require something which is beyond our capacity to achieve.
It is not a coincidence that the evangelist John said about Jesus that “in him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind” (John 1:4). A direct meeting between man and Christ offers one both the milestones and the resources of a fulfilled life. As God in the flesh, Jesus brought with Him to earth the reality of a world which people had heard about only from the words of the prophets. Those listening to Him would see in Him an incarnation of their ideals. They would begin to long for the Kingdom He would so often recall, with the eloquence of One who had actually lived there.
“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). Christ promised then as He does today that the result of this quest will be the complete satisfaction that man was created for in the first place. And that people, as they try to understand the life principles of this kingdom, will get to enjoy the satisfaction which derives from beholding something which is an end in itself, not just a means which leaves you hungry for more. Embodying in Himself the perfection of the Kingdom ruled by self-sacrificing love, Jesus gave His life so that people who are blinded by selfishness—so much so that they can no longer see their purpose—have a chance to glimpse heaven.
When we think about these priorities, and focus on regaining the altruistic human essence, we will sometimes discover that we are out of tune with the most popular pleasures and thrills of our individualistic society. But we will also discover that, even so, we are more fulfilled than ever.
Alina Kartman is a senior editor at ST Network and Semnele timpului.