Burg: Why I’m not ready to face adulthood

Madeline Burg, Columnist

I don’t know what the general consensus is on how we feel about Family Weekend, although I personally have opinions. This year, my brother is a freshman at Northwestern, and so my family descended this past Friday to help him do his laundry, attend the football game — Wolverine pride never dies — and ask me politely whether or not I’d be doing anything after graduation. In this way, Family Weekend engendered within me a volatile mixture of pleasure at being treated to so many restaurants and fairly bone-deep anxiety at being questioned about my future.

The feelings I have about being a senior are all cliches and can all be accounted for with one sentiment: I feel like I’m not ready for real life. College is not real life. For many at NU, college is blissful semi-dependency with just enough distance between you and your source of funds to make you feel invincibly autonomous. It’s a lovely, fake existence; a blurred region in which you’re neither an adolescent nor an adult. But in any other generation we would be considered adults, and therein lies my confusion or anxiety or general existential malaise. I don’t think of myself as an adult, and I’m pretty sure I don’t even know what being an adult entails.

One of the events of Family Weekend is a series of lectures given by faculty in each of NU’s schools. On Friday morning SESP Prof. Regina Logan gave a talk on adult development titled “Do We Ever ‘Grow Up?’” My mom attended, sang its praises and directed me to an article in the New York Times from four years ago about why twenty-somethings these days seem to resist becoming adults for a longer period than any generation before them. 

This feels true, at least for me. Our grandparents wouldn’t have been dismayed to find themselves doing manual labor; our parents didn’t have to, but retained the drive to find work straight out of college, whether or not it was in their field of choice. But I’ve been told my whole life that I don’t have to settle for anything less than my dream job, or whatever makes me happy. I should be able to do what I love, and I will be qualified for it, and it will be waiting for me as soon as I shed my cap and gown.

I’m discovering that none of this is realistic, but honestly I’ve labored under this delusion for the majority of my conscious life, so what am I supposed to do now? According to a 2010 article in The New York Times, 40 percent of twenty-somethings moved back into their parents’ houses at least once. The age at which people get married is getting later and later, and people cycle through more jobs in their twenties than during any other decade. 

If being an adult means becoming independent from your parents, finding a steady source of income, and settling down to start having children, what are twenty-somethings these days? We get our degrees and hope to jump right into our field, have a stellar career that gives us whatever disposable income we think we deserve (all of it), and then eventually get around starting a family, maybe. In the meantime I can just move back into my childhood bedroom and wait until the perfect job comes along.

I am firmly in favor of finding work that makes you happy, and of waiting until you’re ready to get married and to start a family. But these are the milestones of adulthood and my generation just isn’t reaching them, which is curious and slightly disturbing. The fact is that when I graduate there will be few jobs that I deem attractive available to me at all, and I might be overqualified for the other ones. Adulthood looks a lot to me like working very hard at something I don’t quite like, or else I’m condemned to sleep in a tiny bed under a pile of dusty stuffed animals at my parents’ house for the remainder of my 20s. And isn’t it sad that I think this way?

It’s nobody’s fault but my own, I’m sure. It’s pleasant to assume I’ll be able to earn money writing whatever I want straight out of undergrad. But the idea of adulthood remains a mystery to me, and I don’t think anybody else knows what being an adult means either. Half of the “adults” I meet have careers and maybe even families but appear to operate at the maturity level of my peers and me. On the Netflix original series “House of Cards,” extremely high-ranking politician Frank Underwood is shown playing “Call of Duty” while his wife talks at him. He is an “adult,” and I am not, and maybe we don’t ever grow up after all.

Madeline Burg is a Weinberg senior. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].