I read an article today in the New Yorker about “twentysomethings.” I read it in the print version while running on the elliptical at the gym, so between turning pages without breaking stride, keeping my head from bobbing too much (because then I got lost between the lines), and dealing with sweaty fingerprints, I may not have gotten as much out of the article as I otherwise would have. Still, I feel pretty confident I got the gist.
And the gist was…a lot of words about how the twenties are a decade to figure your life out and go with the flow before you have to settle into the business of being a real adult, which is overrated anyway. It’s a well-worn topic, and I won’t say this author brought anything to it we haven’t run into countless times before in some way or other (though it was the New Yorker, so he brought it off with a flourish). Still, he touched on an unsettling point I’ve been encountering more and more frequently in articles, conversations with my peers, and even in my own life. While it’s always been true that the twenties are an uncertain period in a person’s life, it seems that more than ever before it is a boundary-less time.
Not only do we lack the structure of commitment that seems to define full-fledged “adult” life, but we lack so many of the social and moral structures that existed for generations and sort of kept things in place. Of course for us young folk, the biggest missing boundary revolves around sex. We’ve swept aside the old where and when and with whom restrictions, and voila: we’re left with a tangled mess of bizarre encounters, broken relationships, and loneliness. Even those of us who live by Christian standards have to deal with the ramifications of a boundary-less and over-sexed culture. Our dating patterns are equally amorphous, we’re marrying later, and our sense of the proper roles of men and women suffer.
As a woman in the working world, I run into this constantly. Am I being less womanly than I should when I focus on doing my job and doing it well? Does that distract from the real business of focusing on findin’ me a good man and settlin’ down? Recently a guy friend jokingly told me (after I complained more than I should have about a particularly brutal week at work), “You shouldn’t be worrying about your career.” As in, you’re a chick, so just worry about finding a good man. And no, he wasn’t offering.
For men the challenges are different, and I can’t really begin to touch on them. (Guest post, anyone?) Still, it must be difficult to try to step into the leadership role when you’re faced with all sorts of women working in or striving after high-power jobs and focused on “advancing their careers.” And there’s a growing trend toward women taking the initiative in relationships because…well, why not? Saves the men the awkwardness of maybe being rejected and lets the women feel like they’re in control of the situation, and isn’t that how they both like it?
Besides, how can men be men when women hardly seem to be women? It’s tough.
Which brings us back to boundaries. When we’ve stepped over even the basic “gender roles” boundary, where does that leave us?
In another ten years, will we be reading articles about “thirtysomethings” and the continued protraction of adolescence? At a certain point, isn’t it limits and boundaries that give us the structures we need to grow up?