“A New Life Phase”

A few days ago a friend sent me The Odyssey Years, a Times op-ed piece by David Brooks about “the decade of wandering that frequently occurs between adolescence and adulthood. During this decade, 20-somethings go to school and take breaks from school. They live with friends and they live at home. They fall in and out of love. They try one career and then try another.” The Brooks piece resonated with my friend, a former student who graduated in 2006 and now works for an investment bank. He said “there’s just so much pressure to succeed for young people (and it’s such an obscure definition, it no longer involves forming a cohesive family unit and living a pleasant life.)” It spoke to me as a professor who spends hours talking with students about What Comes Next, and as a parent whose children do not spend hours talking with him and his wife about What Comes Next. I sent the op-ed to my sons, all in their 20s. One said “it fits a little too well.” Another said “good to know I’m not alone.” The third, a student on the verge of and a career, delivered his message by not responding.

If you are in college, a recent graduate, have friends who are in college or recent graduates, are moving from job to job with no clear plan, know someone who is moving from job to job with no clear plan, or are the parent of anyone in any of these categories–in other words, if you are anyone who is reading this post–read the op-ed piece.

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  • Claudio

    I think that the op-ed piece touches on something a bit deeper: the differences of culture. As an Angolan student who has studied in 4 different countries, including the US, I feel that in this country there is a much more intense pressure to succeed (however ambiguous the meaning of success is) and follow a preconceived, inflexible life path. Such life path does not leave room for gap years and the like, as Jesser has noted.
    Conversely, many of my friends in England have taken gap years; a lot of my cousins who now study in Cape Town are planning on taking some time off to travel after college. I feel like other cultures expressly encourage this sort of attitude, more so than in the US. As a result, you find people in other areas of the world that are more cultured and socially aware than the average American, as Zebra has mentioned above. I hear stories of my American friends going to Europe or Africa or wherever and saying that people there know just as much about their own country as they do about the US. Other cultures, particularly Western European and African, place more of an emphasis on enjoying life and the passage of time, than the average American. The evidence of this is everywhere – in Spain, Portugal, Angola, businesses close for lunchtime so that families can spend time together.

    However, it is also important to note that the pressure to succeed in America is what turned this country into the world’s only superpower. Even though globalization makes such terms as “superpower” obsolete, it is still true that America’s economy is the most powerful in the world, and I think it’s due to the positive effects of the pressure to succeed that Zebra has described above. So where do you draw the line? I think that finding a healthy balance between the different cultures and their way of living life is the key.

  • zebra

    There was one sentence in the NY Times piece that made me quite sad: “In 1970, 49 percent of adults in their 20’s read a daily paper; now it’s at 21 percent.” On the other hand there were some encouraging statistics: “Male wages have stagnated over the past decades, while female wages have risen.”

    I agree that kids—from elementary school to middle to high school to college aged students—are under a lot of pressure to be successful, but I think this pressure (but not always) has positive side effects. With increased competition, many people work harder, learn more, and get things done faster — all of which benefits the greater good of society and leads to more rapid innovation. Although I think this competition and self improvement is wonderful, I think it causes us to sometimes forget about other things we should be giving some of our time and energy to—such as giving back to others in the community and abroad who are less fortunate.

    JESSER brought up an important point regarding the gap year(s) taken by far more Europeans than Americans. It would be nice to see Americans encouraged to take one semester or one year off prior to or just after the completion of university to travel and explore life outside the States. Americans’ ignorance of other cultures is both sad and embarrassing. As globalization continues, this gap between the US and the rest of the world is likely to contract and knowledge of other cultures will be more and more important especially to those in the business world. While many Americans seem content staying on American soil I hope the next generation will encourage their children to go out into the world—beyond the US—to see how others live rather than accept the stereotypes presented by the media, politicians, and other public figures.

    This article reminded me of conversations I have had with alums, which I’d like to share. I asked several people the following 2 questions:

    1. “Do to the number of credits I have coming into college, I have the option to graduate college within 3 years. Should I take the full 4 years?”
    The resounding answer was YES! Why rush it? The college years are some of the best years of your life. Take your time and enjoy it. Go abroad, take random classes that have nothing to do with your major.

    2. “If you had the chance to change one aspect of your college years what would it be?”
    Time and time again, people I spoke with regretted not having gone abroad or taken a semester/year off to travel before working.

    To other students – be successful, achieve, be competitive, but don’t forget to stop and breathe, look around and take a moment to appreciate everything you have and explore the world we live in—both within and outside the US – and above all do what you enjoy, not what others tell you to do.

    (ps sorry for going on forever and taking up so much space with this post)

  • Student224

    But should we always know what’s next? From my standpoint as a student who has always been up for trying new things, I feel that not forcing myself into a fixed path isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We should be able to explore different opportunities till we find one we’re sure of. These odyssey years give us more flexibility. We should welcome this “new life phase.”

    In regards to the pressure to succeed (which I think everyone should define based on what they themselves believe to be success and not by what society thinks), I agree that there is a huge pressure to succeed. I feel it every day, especially now that the world is more competitive. However, I think there are now more opportunities for those who are truly driven and truly willing to put their all into these opportunities.

  • JesseR

    I also enjoyed that op-ed and share your son’s assessment that ‘it fits a little too well.’ I agree with the other student regarding the pressure to succeed, or at least pressure to not be living with your parents and paying your own bills, etc.
    Europeans have always had this concept of taking time off (read: years) to travel during -or after- university studies. This ‘gap year(s)’ is seen as a time to get in touch with other cultures if traveling, live on your own or with peers, and also learn some basic, yet practical, life skills. I hope ‘the odyssey years’ for American twenty-somethings will make my generation more worldly and cultured, we’re going to need it eventually…