The Twenties: A Rush to Judgment Would Be Premature

In ‘Semi-Charmed Life: The Twentysomethings Are Allright’, (The New Yorker, January 14 2013) Nathan Heller writes:

Recently, many books have been written about the state of people in their twenties….Few decades of experience command such dazzled interest (the teen-age years are usually written up in a spirit of damage control; the literature of fiftysomethings is a grim conspectus of temperate gatherings and winded adultery), and yet few comprise such varied kinds of life. Twentysomethings spend their days rearing children, living hand to mouth in Asia, and working sixty-hour weeks on Wall Street. They are moved by dreams of adult happiness, but the form of those dreams is as serendipitous as ripples in a dune of sand. Maybe your life gained its focus in college. Maybe a Wisconsin factory is where the route took shape. Or maybe your idea of adulthood got its polish on a feckless trip to Iceland. Where you start out—rich or poor, rustic or urbane—won’t determine where you end up, perhaps, but it will determine how you get there. The twenties are when we turn what Frank O’Hara called “sharp corners.”

A few months after I turned twenty, I left India and moved to the US for graduate school. Three years later, armed with a graduate degree in computer science, I began my first serious nine-to-five job. My place of employment was glamorous; my work was not. I grew bored and despondent; I wanted out. I left for graduate school again, changing majors from computer science to philosophy. I began my doctoral program at the age of twenty-six, and when my thirtieth birthday rolled around, I was in that curious no-man’s land that is situated between the written qualifiers and the oral examination. Thus ended my twenties.

So, one transcontinental move, one graduate degree, one full-time job, sixty credits of doctoral coursework. That’s one way of jotting up the twenties’ achievements. Or I could list travel: a few trips back to India, some brief visits to Europe. Perhaps girlfriends? That’d be too crass. Perhaps I could list some losses, but those would be too painful to recount here. Or I could talk about lessons learned, but to be painfully honest, I would have to talk about lessons that I started to learn in the twenties; I don’t think I’m done learning them. There was a journey in there somewhere, of course. I started my twenties in a place called ‘home’, left it, and ended them in a city I had started to call home; I started them with imagined focus, and ended them with no illusions of any.

It’s hard to know how to assess a decade, how to rank it among the decades that make up one’s life. Were the twenties more important, more formative, than the thirties or the still-ticking forties? Dunno. I don’t quite know how I could make that determination now. Susan Sontag once said the best way to write an autobiography was when life was complete, from beyond the grave. I doubt I’ll be able to pull that off, but at the very least, I’m going to resist the temptation to make any hasty judgments about the formativeness of a particular time-span.  Especially as I’m not done becoming just quite yet.

One comment on “The Twenties: A Rush to Judgment Would Be Premature

  1. elkement says:

    Great post – I can relate. Recalling my twenties I can say a large of number of important changes had been stuffed into a rather small period of time. I was an undergraduate student, worked on my PhD and had a number of quite different jobs in academia, the global corporate world as an an owner of my own small business. The next decade was less “dense”.

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