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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Something about the Twentysomethings

Author CS Lewis once wrote that we read to know we are not alone. Sometimes, we listen instead.

Ryan Tubridy recently held the second of his 'My Generation' shows in the new 9-10am slot on Radio 1. The first Monday of every month is set aside for certain age groups to come into the studio and discuss issues that surround and affect their lives. This month (7th Nov) , it was the turn of the Twentysomethings.

Ryan's selection of listeners came from all backgrounds and experiences. One girl had become a mother in her late teens and was only now getting round to getting her career on track. One other speaker was a twentysomething priest. Another was the artist, Rasher, who has forged an extraordinarily successful career out of his wild, unhappy teenage years.

The majority of the speakers, however, were just ordinary young people, working in jobs they don't particularly care about but which are a necessity in order to survive. The general feeling from the studio that morning was that we are the first generation of Irish people to grow up in the Celtic Tiger golden age. We were teenagers when the boom began - we benefited from the rising tide and now we are adults struggling to find a ship in which to traverse that tide.

Is 'struggling' the right word to use? Yes, I think so.

Too much choice is nearly as bad as no choice at all. When I was in my Leaving Cert year, we were told we could be anything we wanted, do anything we wanted, study anything we wanted (the points race aside!). Even at that stage, trying to decide what to do with your life was an impossible decision to make. You try to choose the path that is truest to whatever nascent plan you have for your life. I chose Arts in UCC because the only things I was ever any good at were humanities. After three years, I was none the wiser so went into an MA in UCD for reasons I know longer remember. That year was the best thing to happen to me personally, certainly not professionally (or academically, shame on you UCD).

After that year, I went out into the big bad world to earn a living. I had no plan, just survival. I temped, working in a tourist information centre and later a bank. In between, I even managed to work for a few weeks in AOL Europe - farcical considering that I had trouble creating this blog, nevermind no anything more complicated.

I always wanted to be a journalist but was too afraid - too afraid of not being good enough, of not making it, of not ever having a job. But I got over it and now I love what I'm doing. I'm still absolutely terrified but it's a good terror that keeps me on my toes, keeps me hungry, ambitious and focused.

It's took me a long time to get this still-unfinished point - as it does for the vast majority of twentysomethings. Some are even older before realising who they are, what they want. Trying to find your professional orientation and trying to balance that with personal and familial matters would be enough to drive you to drink. And it does.

As one speaker on Tubridy's show said, he looks forward to going out as many nights as he can afford to just to forget all that pressure, that expectation, that sense that your life and your dreams are dangling in front of you but you can't seem to quite reach them.

You might see that as just an excuse for binge drinking but I see the guy's point. Last year, when I was working in jobs I could care less about, I went out about 4-5 nights a week just because I felt like I was entitled to some relief after college but mainly to forget that I seemed to have lost track of where I was going and what I wanted.

The so-called quarter-life crisis is increasingly becoming part of the cultural dialogue of society. Part of the reason for the success of Zach Braff's 2004 movie Garden State is that it struck a chord with this generation who are over-privileged by comparative historical standards but are directionless and overwhelmed by it all too. Whilst promoting the movie, Braff made an interesting remark. He said that your teenage years are for your physical adolescence but your twenties are for you mental adolescence.

Damian Barr, a freelance journalist, wrote a book two years ago entitled 'Get It Together: Surviving Your Quarter-Life Crisis'. In that book, he interviewed a number of twentysomethings and charted the struggles they had to find work and a career, pay rent, find love, save, have some kind of social life - and all on very little money and with not enough work or life experience to meet the crazy demands of employers who seemingly want 22-23 year olds to have 3-4 years work experience on top of a 3-4 year degree.

His book didn't offer any answers per se - but it fulfilled CS Lewis' maxim quoted at the start of this piece. What it did was show readers that nearly everyone their age, no matter where they lived, was going through the same thing. People seem to dismiss just how stressed many twentysomethings become as they try to figure out how to get started in adult life. A leitmotif in Barr's book is that today's twentysomethings are too young to be old and too old to be young - so where does that leave us? No, I don't know either so give us a break, ok?

What I do know is that more people in their twenties should talk about the stresses they are under - if not with friends, then in blogs, articles or web forums. It helps to know that you are most certainly not the only person your age who hates their job, knows they can do better, who is made to feel guilty for wanting to party instead of settling down or working 12-14 hours a day for crap pay just to get on the radar of some corporation, who thinks that everyone is a success but them.

Some might call it 'me-me-me' self indulgence. Write or talk about it folks - because whilst you or I might have caught some glimpse of a light at the end of it all, there are many others who have not. Sharing your experience may just ease their lonliness, their confusion, their fear -as well as keeping your own further at bay for at least another day.


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Genzer said...


Totally agree with this.

Felt similar fears about journalism and frustrations with my NGO job.

I had to take a risk, leave my job and security for a shot at my dream (ok I'm starting to sound like a diney movie now)

I finally feel I have the guts to go for it so I don't spend my 30s regretting my 20s!

Wayne Cronin said...

Good point Declan. There is immense pressure on this generation to "do well". Couple this with the Irish obsession of owning your own home and you have a recepie for a breakdown.

Could be another factor in the rate of suicide among young males.

Seán Kenny said...

There's real insight in that piece, Declan. I can empathise completely. I felt a rather unsettling empathy with Zach Braff's character in Garden State...You're right; people don't talk about this stuff. That makes it all the harder.

RG said...

Hi Declan,

Garden State struck such a chord with me I shut myself in a toilet cubicle after seeing it and cried for about 15 minutes. A woman waiting to go in next assumed I'd gone to see Downfall, a film about Nazi Germany. I couldn't bring myself to contradict her. It was an emotional week!

Good piece. Don't doubt yourself as a journalist, you're obviously made for it.