Sunday, February 27, 2005

Apathy Jack writes:

In the lobby of the theatre my brother and I sat against a pillar waiting for the movie to start. A twenty-seven year old teacher and a twenty-six year old employment relations consultant, we sat wearing black band t-shirts, ripped jeans and self-modified military pants respectively, watching the knees of passersby. My brother turned to me: “You know, I always figured that there would be a certain point in my life when I stopped sitting on the floor at movie theatres.”

“In the past, people got married and got a job and had kids, but now there’s a new ten years that people are using to try and find out what kind of life they want to lead.”
-Zack Braff

It has different names in different countries: Canada calls them Boomerang Kids; Germany has Nesthocker, or Nest Squatters; in America they’re Twixters; England calls them KIPPERS, for Kids In Parents’ Pockets Eroding Retirement Savings; the French have named it Tanguy Syndrome, after a popular film highlighting the new trend. Twenty-somethings who haven’t grown up yet. Some sociologists say this new kidult stage is a positive one, allowing young people to be free of responsibilities for long enough to make some decisions about their lives, giving them more of a direction than, say, their parents. Other social scientists see it as a negative, pointing out that whatever piece of socio-cultural machinery that allows (or makes) kids turn into adults has been broken in the last generation.

Tom Smith, a social-surveyor from the US National Opinion Research Center, interviewed in a recent issue of Time magazine about this trend says “In another ten or twenty years we’re not going to be talking about this as a delay. We’re going to be talking about this as a normal trajectory.”

Seemed pretty natural to me a few years back (and by a few, I mean something like eight, which becomes “a few” when you’re not willing to admit how long you’ve been alive...) when I proactively resented the idea of being an adult.

There I was; nineteen or thereabouts, surrounded by beautiful aesthetes, drinking coke but getting drunk on name dropping poets and musicians I had never heard of, completely ignoring the idea that one day there might be such a thing as having to get up for work.

However, the trade off of leaving secondary education was that the social circle I had been a part of for my high school years were seeing each other less and less frequently. In school we had all lived within reasonable distance of each other, with the local movie theatre forming a convenient nexus between our houses. Hanging out on a Friday could be (and frequently was) organised as easily as getting on the phone an hour before the start of any movie that appealed, with various “wackiness”, “zaniness” and/or other youthful shenanigannery taking place after the watching thereof.

A year or two down the track, and between political activism, punk-gigs, poetry-readings, pub crawling and other social activities beginning with “p” we were all scattering, the way you do when you have little in common except going to the same school.

Being the obsessive type who worries about stupid things (thank god I grew out of that one, right? Right? Hello, is anyone there? Come on, I can hear you breathing...) I worried that if we didn’t hang out in casual violent-video-and-potato-chips youthful-type ways any more, we could become that most detested sign of upper-middle-class-waspism: Dinner-At-X’s-House-Every-Second-Thursday-I’ll-Bring-The-Potato-Salad.

What could be less Rock & Roll than that, for god’s sake? What sort of shining revolutionaries would we be if we engaged in that sort of carryon? The people who did that were all middle aged; they weren’t alternative icons of the counter culture. I mean, good lord, people talked about good wines and holidays they’d had at these dinners – with nary even a single mention of the structuralist relevance of the works of Henry Rollins in the context of post-colonial Marxism. Savages.

I was ranting to my brother about my fear of this dystopian future, when he replied with something completely unexpected: “Yeah, I hope so.”

See, my brother had figured out something that I hadn’t: if the only thing that connected us was “we went to school together” then, unless a new connection (to whit “potato salad every second Thursday”) was formed, then the disintegration of our social unit would continue unabated to it’s logical nadir.

I guess that’s when I realised that being an adult, while it was selling out and betraying all of your punk/socialist/alternative/whatever-the-hell-the-kids-were-doing-at-the-time principles, may not have been a bad thing per se.

Of course, wisdom gained or not, I don’t really see too many people from school anymore...

However, there do seem to have been a lot of dinner parties recently. And my “couple” friends, I notice, have been spending a lot of time with my other “couple” friends doing “couple” things.

It’s not a bad thing; it’s the new dynamic. Sure, it’s not very rock and roll, but frankly, neither am I. I work hard at my job, and very much enjoy meeting my friends for coffee at the end of the week, not in spite of, but because of, the reasonable certainty that I’ll be home well before dark to watch my stories and go to bed with something to read. Certainly, my “stories” consist of professional wrestling, and I’m usually curling up with that week’s purchases from the comic shop, so my life may not be an unassailable stronghold of maturity, but you know, there’s a new paradigm.

Personally, I think that feeling like a grown up has to do with expectations. I had my first mid-life crisis when I turned eighteen, because I had a clear mental picture of what an eighteen year old should look like, and I didn’t bear any resemblance to it. The crises followed every birthday for the next six years or so.

However, for the last few years, I’ve been a teacher. Over and above being a real job, it is a real job that sort of reinforces the ‘adulthood’ thing by having fifteen year olds call me sir every couple of minutes. (And trust me, it’s hard to feel youthful when you run into an ex-student you taught in fifth form and she tells you about the thesis she’s writing this year...)

Most of my friends haven’t come to grips with the idea that they’re hovering around either side of thirty (a number of times in the last few years I’ve been telling some teaching anecdote, and the person I’m talking to has paused and said “Wow, I just realised... We’re old enough to be teachers...”). However, most of them, when I think about it, don’t have a career. Oh sure, most of them have jobs (sadly, “most of them” means what it says – and let me tell you, in true crotchety old man why-don’t-they-just-go-down-the-mines-like-when-I-were-a-lad form, I’m actually getting proactively angry at my transient friends in my dotage; like an alcoholic whose buddies have called him up to go drinking at the local, I find myself needing to excise the negative elements and influences from my life...) but, off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single person I know with a career – one job that they’ll be at, or (with the exception of the computer jockeys) even one field they’ll necessarily be in, in five years.

I’ve read various experts saying that the days of having a career are over. Add to that the fact that people are getting married (hell, are settling into long term relationships) and/or having kids much later in life than they did a generation ago (my mother was married with two kids by the time she was my age) and we don’t look a lot like our parents did.

Which I guess is why all of this rejuvinalia stuff is happening. You expect to be at a certain place by the time you’re, say, in your late twenties, but these expectations come from the closest available model – your parents, who were probably working at the same job they have to this day and/or looking after you by this time in their lives. Of course these expectations are not met, so we feel ill at ease calling ourselves adults.

Hell, I don’t know. I guess I’m on the front line of a new stage of social evolution, but, as with most people at the coal face of history, I have other problems to occupy my time, mostly related to being hungry and wondering what’s on TV tonight. All I know is that I get called sir by a pack of kids who see me as a mature figure of responsibility and adulthood, then I come home to a room plastered with Christina Aguilera posters and channel surf until I hit Spongebob Squarepants or something with monkeys in it.

Which strikes me as what being a grown-up should be like.


Tinuviel said...

May I raise my hand and say, in a very small voice, 'I have a career'?

I mean, I've put far too much blood, sweat and tears into my profession to even entertain the idea that it might be something I grow out of.

I guess the "career' is the job you choose to make sacrifices for, because you know that it will ultimately result in your living a richer life.

Apathy Jack said...

Yeah, when I think about it for a while, the number of folk I know with a career goes up to... well, three or four, anyway.

The Hand of Morthos said...

I will raise my hand as well; I would say that nine years (four working towards it specifically) of being an academic has cemented me in it as a vocational career. Admittedly, my vocation is far more flexible as a descriptor as, say, being a teacher, seeing that I can do my career work in a greater variety of institutions, and my career requires me to entertain two working lifestyles, one as a teacher and another as a researcher, thus blurring the lines even further. But, I think you will find, that your notion of 'I'm the only person with a career' is a wee bit myopic (if not a tad arrogant; and I'm an expert in being arrogant...). The problem, I think, is that the notion of a career is a) much more amorphous than that of our parents and b) careers, despite their role in traditional Western society, are not the be all and end all of a person's working life. Once upon a time a person's worth was judged upon what they did in re income and providing for their family. Now the economy indicates that most workers will be transient for long periods, that we can take time to find out exactly what we want to do and that we can take some comfort now that we can be judged more on who we are than on what we do.

Apathy Jack said...

Working towards a career doesn't count as doing it - as the army of typists with MAs in Policial Studies can attest...

I don't think the idea of a career is any more or less amorphous than it used to be; it's a job that you do for the long term, that becomes a big part of your life, rather than a bill payer that you could drop tomorrow for an entirely different field of endeavor. However, as you said (and, indeed, I said) people are no longer chosing careers early in life, rather are flicking from job to job with no sense of the long term, to finance their self-discovery.

As to being judged on who you are, not what you do: While that is, of course, important, I've always been aware that "what you do" takes up most of your week - I've always thought that whole Tyler Durden "You Are Not Your Job" thing was basically apologetics on the part of people who didn't have the wherewithal to get a job they didn't hate.

The Hand of Morthos said...

Actually, working towards a career can count as doing it. It is called apprenticeship and it actually predates the system you seem to be espousing. I'm currently apprenticed to three academics research-wise; I am also, effectively, a full-time lecturer now (at hugely reduced salary), so whilst I don't have the term 'Doctor' attached to my name just yet I am in my chosen career (which makes sense; you don't have to have a doctorate to be a university scholar (but it helps)).

I suspect the difference we have here (well, aside from the one above) is that I don't think you need a career to finance self-discovery or to discover who you are. Being an academic is a perfectly good choice of lifestyle for me. Being a mechanic would have been perfect as well (no, honestly, it would have been; I like to rebuild things). The latter would have resulted in another me. Different friends, other interests, a more active sex life... The list goes on. In the same way I could have followed my 'virtues' and gone to Uni and done Economics, become employed as a consultant, yadda yadda yadda. There are a multitude of ways to 'become;' a career is one of these and is, increasingly, not the most popular, not necessarily the best, option.

Nor is there only one 'becoming' per person. I could have been a lot of different 'persons' and what I am today is the result of breeding, education and dumb luck.

I do agree that some people have made bad decisions and are in jobs completely unsuited to them (jobs which could be said to destroying them); I think we're probably citing the same people here, some of these self-same people are generating the necessary acts of becoming outside of work lifestyles. I don't think that makes their 'growing up' any less interesting than those of the world's population who have jobs they love.

We must also remember that a) not everyone knows what they want to do (a problem to which we could devote much time and achieve naught by finger-pointing), b) that we don't actually have to 'do' anything (it's not as if Fate is in operation and that by not finding our true calling we are somehow 'not living up to our end of the bargain') and c) it could take a lifetime to work towards getting that dream job, some of which might require working in pretty drab jobs along the way. Unless you have access to the inner workings of other minds you might never realise exactly what people are aiming towards. I certainly don't share my long term plans with many people.

span said...

i think i have a career. i think two jobs in the same industry, deliberately, and an intention to stick around, qualifies?

name names Jack, who are your three or four friends with careers? just because i'm curious and bored.

i think you are right though about the prolongment of youth for our cohort - perhaps it has to do with the concentration on youth culture eg most Hollywood films are aimed at an audience of around the 12yo mark, many models used for advertising are under 20 (even those selling anti-wrinkle cream), so much emphasis on remaining "young" in appearance and spirit.

Apathy Jack said...

"name names Jack, who are your three or four friends with careers?"

Oh, no one from the uni days - sundries that you don't know...

Anyhoo, that wasn't really the point of the rant...

span said...

grumble grumble i can think of at least three people from the good ol' days with careers :-P

and i did respond to other aspects of your post too!

*feeling strangely defensive*