“I’m not above moving back home after graduation.” One of my fellow graduate students said this to me recently. We were discussing our respective job hunts, and how we are going to survive our impending period of unemployment. My knee-jerk response to his statement was, “Wow, seriously?” Had he said, “I’m planning to move back home,” or “I’m thinking about moving back home,” perhaps my reaction would have been different. But the framing of “not being above” something, in turn, made the thing itself seem undesirable. Why is he “not above” moving home, versus just doing it? Because a grown person is not supposed to move back in with mom and dad.
Let’s have a look at two very different situations.
Situation A: A twenty-three year old guy, fresh from graduate school. He’s moved to a city of his choosing to pursue his career. Each morning, he wakes up in his 400 square foot apartment, shared with two other twenty-somethings, and prays that there will be enough hot water for a shower. He puts on a suit, and spends the day dropping off resume after resume across the city. When he gets home for dinner, he microwaves a pack of discounted Ramen noodles. Before he goes to bed, he takes out his checkbook and writes his monthly rent check—a dollar amount that barely fits in the allotted space, and will leave him with less than $25 in his account.
Situation B: Another twenty-three year old guy, also recently graduated. Only he wakes up in his childhood bedroom, Blink-182 posters and all. The smell of pancakes wafts through the house as he makes his way to the kitchen. His father is there to greet him: “Morning, son!” He sits down at the table with his mother and father, and enjoys a relaxing breakfast. Then he takes up his usual spot on the couch, flips on King of the Hill reruns, and opens his laptop. He trudges through job posting after job posting, tweaking his cover letter like Sisyphus. As he works, his mother disappears and returns an hour later with a freshly folded hamper of laundry and asks what he wants for dinner.
If this were a sitcom, we would cue the laugh track.
Ask yourself this: Which one of these post-grads is doing it right? Which is more successful? Situation B-Man is a character we are all too familiar with: The unemployed, helpless dude, still living with his parents. We’ve seen him before. He’s Will Ferrell in Step Brothers. He’s Matthew McConaughey in Failure to Launch. He’s Zack Galifianakis in The Hangover (I, II, and III). That laughable, (sometimes) loveable goofball who just never made it out on his own. A constant target of ridicule by us: the Grown-Ups, We Who Succeeded.
Think about it. Have you ever asked, “How’s Jim? Still living at home?” Or, “Has Jane moved out of her parents’ yet?” Why are we so quick to judge, internally or externally, the post-grad who moved back home? America, that’s why. The bigger issue here is one of Freedom. Freedom that is quantified by our ability to strike out on our own, reach for our dreams…and never move back in with our parents. Because if we go there? We don’t stand a chance at Adulthood: The ideal we’ve spent our entire lives training for. The goal. Ultimate success.
How often were we asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Sure, our answers then may have reflected our less developed minds: a racecar driver, a ballerina, an astronaut, the Tooth Fairy (my personal goal). Further, we were taught that we could be anything we wanted to be—anything we set our minds to. But how many racecar drivers could there be, really? So as Adulthood loomed closer, we swapped our lofty grown-up dreams for more practical ones. Our high school teachers encouraged us to really “think about our futures,” as what we did in high school would directly affect our ability to get into college, thus directly affecting our ability to get a job. We find out the beginnings of who we are: jocks, science geeks, theatre nerds, yearbook staffers, and auto-shop wizards. At this point in our Adulthood trajectory, we were given our first real taste of Freedom: the driver’s license.
The blessed learner’s permit. We could now meet our friends whenever we wanted…pending parental approval. Gone are the days of having to stay late at school because your mom had to work. The really lucky ones were the kids who got…*gasp*…their own cars. I can’t speak for all of America, but at my high school, owning one’s own car was a stronger symbol of Freedom than a bald eagle with a mullet carrying a Miller Lite. Of course, these cars were absolute pieces of shit—not-so-gently used Honda Civics with mismatched rear-view mirrors and half a bumper. But still, better than being tied to the neighborhood carpool, am I right? Embrace your 16-year-old Freedom. Blast your Yellowcard CD at full volume, you independent wo/man.
So four years of high school have gone by, and now we’ve all turned 18. Boy, did we think we were grown-ups when we got our licenses. Now we’re really Adults. I mean, we can vote, serve our country, watch NC-17 movies…and we’re in college. We officially don’t live with our parents anymore. Why is this different than being able to drive to Starbucks on our own? What more can we do now? Whatever we goddamn please, that’s what! Moving out: The ultimate symbol of Adulthood. We can smoke weed without worrying that we smell like The Dude! We can drink our asses off at nasty frat houses, because no one’s telling us when to be home! We can sleep until 2:00pm and not do our homework if we don’t feel like it! Because we’re ADULTS. Finally.
Let’s pause for a minute and simply think about the term “Adult.” We toss around phrases like, “You’re an Adult now,” or, “Time to grow up,” as if we have some sort of universal understanding of what, exactly, it means to be an Adult.
We have countless “news” outlets giving us their version of what it means. According to Buzzfeed, here are some symptoms of Adulthood:
“You set up your internet, gas, trash, electric, and water bills, by yourself.”
“You are morally against the idea of taking a shot.”
“You spend your weekends cleaning your apartment and running errands.”
“Sleeping in means 9 a.m.”
Well, yikes. If that’s what Adulthood means, it sounds pretty awful.
According to the dictionary, we are Adults “after an age (as 21) specified by law.” To the U.S. Department of State, that age is 18. The Motion Picture Association of America agrees, with its highest rating of NC-17 excluding anyone 17-years-old or younger. So it would seem we have some consensus: 18 = Adult.
However, the United States Department of Transportation allows 16-year-olds to drive on their own, an activity that certainly requires an “Adult” level of responsibility. Swinging the pendulum the other way, U.S. Congress picked 21 as the legal age that you can consume alcohol, i.e. “Adult beverages.” Not to mention, you can now stay on your parents’ health insurance plan until age 26.
On the other hand, we’ve got Walt Disney telling us that “growing up is optional.” Maybe, after all, age isn’t a marker of Adulthood. Adulthood comes in stages, and is something we are always training for. After each thing you reach that makes you feel like an Adult, a few years down the line you reach another. After college, there’s career. After career, there’s marriage. After marriage, there’s children. And eventually we’re cashing in our 401(k)s and moving to Florida. That’s a whole lot of “supposed-to” milestones that punctuate our journey through Adulthood.
To my fellow twenty-somethings in the house: Who here feels like they’re on a moving walkway? Only, this one has no end in sight. And rather than chugging along at an easy pace, complete with calming elevator music, it speeds up. Each minute, you’re going faster and faster toward the unknown black hole on the horizon. It’s like that horrid scene in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory when they’re on that candy boat, and the boat goes through the tunnel, and suddenly the lighting is all red, and there are videos of chickens being slaughtered, and that one kid throws up, and “there’s no earthly way of knowing which direction we are going,” and……phew. Why is Adulthood so terrifying?
It’s a fear of failure. A fear of not achieving Freedom. All because of that little word: “Adult.”
When we went to our college classes, we got the same lecture we did in high school about preparing for our future. We thought graduating high school was a big deal…until our college graduation rolled around. All of our relatives kept asking us, “Are you ready for the real world?” Wait, wasn’t college the “real world?” You know, when we became adults? Alas, the “real world” implies one thing: Employment. Unfortunately, for those of us graduating into the current job market, finding Employment may not be so easy. You’ve done everything you’re “supposed to” do to reach Adulthood, but now you can’t. You don’t have a job.
During my own post-grad job hunt, my mother was amazed at the sheer lack of available jobs. As a graduate herself in the 1980s, she remembers company recruiters lining up at colleges, basically throwing jobs out of t-shirt guns. But now here we are, entering into a depressed economic landscape with an even more depressing amount of jobs. In my current program of 30 people, just two of us have jobs lined up after graduation. Which is in one week. We’re on our way to achieving total Freedom, but are being hindered by the economy. Which brings us full-circle: What are we supposed to do in the in-between?
Remember our two guys, Situation A and Situation B? You could be like Situation A, and drop money you don’t have on an apartment you can’t afford, just so you don’t have to move back home. Thus “proving” your Adulthood. Or you could go the route of Situation B, who would rather move back into his childhood room and live with his parents. Enjoy the extra pocket money, buddy. You haven’t failed just because you can sit in your Laz-E-Boy, watching TruTV and drinking PBR all day.
Moving back home isn’t necessarily a sign of failure. In fact, it’s probably the most fiscally responsible decision. It just doesn’t fit into our culturally acceptable, pre-packaged ideas of Adulthood. So if you’re freaking out about whether or not you’ll actually become a fully functioning Adult? Don’t. Besides, if the Department of Transportation had it their way, the Adult ship sailed when we got our learner’s permits.