Requiem for young adulthood

As I approach age 37, it feels like an era in life is closing.

Both “young” and “old” are relative, at least for a big middle portion of life; I got used to being solidly in the overlap some time ago. The college seniors I interview at AIGA’s portfolio review, in recent years, have mostly been born since I started high school.

In Seth’s magnificent George Sprott: 1894-1975, much of the story consists of other figures from the titles character’s life summoning up memories of him. One revisits his adolescence, when an elderly Sprott occasionally dispensed observations about life. One in particular has stuck with me:

…one day, I looked around and there were all these “new” young people everywhere, and I wasn’t one of them. Once that happens, it all speeds up… One day you’re 30 years old, and the next, you look up and there’s an old man in the mirror.

I’ve sensed the truth of this for some time. But turning 37 feels a bit different. For several years I have been aware of the “new” young people and my exclusion from them. I suppose for a while it feels like they exist alongside rather than in place of one’s own youth. Now, however, I’m at the point where I’m not really part of any “young people” except by the broadest of relative definitions.

Perhaps there is a lexicographical gap, here. I mention that I’m writing about “getting old” and a peer denies that we’re old; I don’t disagree. As the Bloodhound Gang* expressed it, “I’m not old or new but middle school.” We don’t really have a term for that, though.

In any event, it certainly doesn’t seem like I’m meaningfully young any more. By my mid-20s, I suppose I knew enough people over 30 that it no longer seemed like such a dividing line as it may once have done. Up through 36 I’m still very realistically in my “mid-thirties.” It all seems, to me, to blend into one extended “post-college” phase.

Somehow, 37 does not. Thirty-seven is really more “late thirties” than “mid-thirties.” One might argue that point, feebly, but even if determined it would only put things off for one more year at most. Why bother? Basically, I will soon be “pushing 40.” And 40 is simply not “young” in any sense other than relative to the objectively old. Even if one expects to live to 90 (ye gods), 40 is solidly in the middle third of even such a long life.

So, while this is indeed somewhat arbitrary and perceptual, perception is part of the reality here, and… I’ve perceived that it’s over.

That extended “post-college” phase is ending (and has been for some time). “Young adulthood” is over, and that unnamed middle phase dawns. I think to society at large, this phase is primarily defined by the expectation that you work and pay taxes and perhaps run up some debt and mainly just stay out of the way and shut up until you qualify for the senior citizen lobby. That’s fine, sort of. For society at large. For me, though, I think not. What instead?

No idea.

In pondering this passing of an era, I’ve concluded that most of the somewhat automatic achievements of adult life are behind me. First job, first apartment of my own, first car purchased with neither parental funds nor parental direction. All the stuff of gradually setting up a life of one’s own. Through this phase I was painting-by-number up to a point.

By contrast this middle phase seems like a big blank canvas, at least to me. Homeownership, perhaps the career ladder, and probably children all provide something of a template for the “middle phase” for a lot of people. None really applies to me, nor seems likely to do so in the foreseeable future. “Career direction” promises to be some significant part of this phase, but I lost contact with any obvious “ladder” more than nine years ago.

Otherwise, ambitions are difficult to establish here. I have some sense that this transition to the middle phase of life is often marked by a realization that one has probably reached one’s station in life, and that while one might achieve more, achieving significant new status in life is long odds. The outlines of your life, probably, are what they’re going to remain; hope you’re comfortable with that, basically. Some people probably maintain a vicarious sense of growth and change through raising children, but again I don’t expect to be among them.

At the moment I can see maybe four, maybe five years out at most. Basically, I’m researching a third book, and I recently had an idea for a different type of large project to pursue whenever “Book Three” is finished. Hopefully it will pan out, because life seems kind of thin these days aside from such pursuits. (Seems kind of thin even with them, actually.)

I’m reminded of an xkcd that parodies stories like “The Chronicles of Narnia,” and ends with a child hero stuck back in ordinary life after an epic adventure, saying something like “oh, boy, this is going to be a fun 70 years now.”

Hm. It seems unfortunate that so much energy and enthusiasm were exhausted on a phase of life that doesn’t seem, now, like it needed them all that much.

* This is semi-intentional irony?

One Thought on “Requiem for young adulthood

  1. Pingback: That far shore | Matt Kuhns

Post Navigation