As a fourth-year, you come to realize several important truths: a) You’re graduating in several months, b) you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing with your life, and c) that schmuck who wore a business suit every day to Sosc has a job lined up at Credit Suisse and will be making $300,000 next year. All of these points combine to create a sense of frustration. Weren’t you supposed to have figured out your life by the time you were ready to graduate?
There is a concrete reason for this frustration: Idle time has become the enemy of the modern college student. Pressure to build résumés by working jobs, getting internships, and taking part in extracurricular activities has greatly detracted from the time students used to have for introspection and self-discovery. College has made many of us too busy to think. We graduate with a full résumé and a plethora of experiences, but nary a clue.
And yet, fellow fourth-years, there is hope. Post-college cluelessness is actually becoming common and socially acceptable. William Galston of the Brookings Institute recently completed a study entitled “The Changing Twenties,” which focuses on this trend. In 2005, for example, 60 percent of 25-year-olds were unmarried, compared to 21 percent in 1970. Almost 20 percent of men and women in their late 20s live with their parents. Twenty-five percent of people surveyed between the ages of 26 and 35 expressed ambivalence about being referred to as an adult. While we may be unrivalled in our brilliance, U-of -C students are clearly not unique in being unsure about their post-graduation lives.
In an almost unacceptably obnoxious turn of phrase, New York Times columnist (and University of Chicago alum, which makes his obnoxiousness understandable, if not forgivable) David Brooks labeled the post-college period the “odyssey age” in a recent column. Brooks echoes the key points of the study—there is a growing recognition of a new stage of life, inserted between college and adulthood, in which people often (and are increasingly expected to) explore, experiment and fail to settle down. The growing popularity of programs such as Teach for America (TFA) and Peace Corps illustrate this principle. While each surely attracts its share of ambitious jerks who view the programs as steps to lucrative careers in consulting, these “life-delaying” programs represent alternatives to college graduates not yet ready to settle down.
Fourth-years should wholeheartedly embrace this trend and take comfort in the plethora of life-delaying programs such as TFA, as well as the growing expectation that they are not going to settle down or find their paths straight out of college. After all, the beauty of this trend is that it allows overworked students to extend their college experiences. This is not to suggest that life-delaying options are necessarily easy. Despite the typical U-of-C student’s extensive experience in dealing with difficult students in a classroom setting, TFA is a tremendously challenging program. However, TFA and other life-delaying options still allow college graduates to remain in the traditional college student mindset—knowing they have two more years to explore and live without firm future commitments. They have more time to entertain the possibility that they could do anything—and hopefully, in the inevitable destruction of this belief, come to realize what they would actually like to do. Our distracted college experiences may not have provided us with the answers we were looking for, but it’s less of a big deal when we’re allowed to keep searching after we graduate.
And so, I can proudly report that despite my B.A. adviser’s uncanny ability to regularly pronounce, “You’re making great progress—make sure to check out these additional 15 books,” I am, more or less, a happy fourth-year. Indeed, I see no reason not to be. I don’t know what I’m doing with my life, and the few concrete plans I do have depend on winning the lottery, gaining superpowers or inexplicably inheriting the Boston Red Sox (any combination of the above would be especially welcome). I have no idea how long I will be in the “odyssey age,” but if it helps me figure out what I’m doing with myself, it will be worth it. Of course, there’s the obvious fear that the “odyssey” will end with one being just as confused about life as ever. In that case, I suppose, there’s always grad school.
Zack Hill is a fourth-year in the College majoring in NELC. His column appears every other Friday.