Actually, I know I’m not. I eat too much sugar, I don’t rise at the crack of dawn, I own no Tupperware, I take three hours to leave the house in the mornings, I’ve never bought a car, I earn about $12,000 a year, I have a library book overdue, I had zero taxable income in FY 2003, I don’t have dental insurance, I’m several thousand dollars in debt to whomever Sallie Mae sold my student loan, I’ve never had a full-time job longer than nine months, and my father pays my cell phone bill, which means that I really should restrict my phone conversations to evenings, weekends, and about 10 minutes during the day. Oh yes, and I’m 26 and a half, and I’m still in school.
I began considering with more fear and trembling my status as an unproductive adult after listening to a radio interview with Dr. Mel Levine, M.D. and author of the 2005 Ready or Not, Here Life Comes. It was about 10:15 a.m. or so, and I was probably just stepping out of the shower, or something equally as slothful, when I heard a patient, thoughtful, rational-sounding voice say something like, “In recent years I have been stunned by the plight of individuals who seem unprepared for the crossover from education to work. Many individuals in and around their twenties come to feel abandoned and anguished. They start to question their own self-worth, and they are prone to some awful mistakes in their choice of career or in the ways they perform as novices on the job. They suffer from an affliction I call work-life unreadiness.” I turned up the volume so I could keep listening while I got ready to leave, but soon I found myself sitting right next to radio, cell phone in hand, poised to dial the call-in number and spend some of my precious daytime 10 minutes saying that I was in my twenties and I felt work-life unready too. In fact, I did call, but I never made it through. So to console myself, I promptly got on amazon.com and ordered his book (used, fortunately, and bought with a gift certificate. $12,000 a year doesn’t support many impulse purchases).
Actually, to tell the complete truth, I was going to call in and say that I had friends, colleagues, high school buddies, former home teachers, and a host of elders I served with who were work-life unready. Dr. Levine had described this phenomenon of 20-somethings moving back home, not knowing how to start a career, not knowing how to keep a job, feeling dissatisfied in menial positions, wondering where they went wrong, and still investing the bulk of their interest, passion, and energy in old college friends who got together for Alias nights or spontaneous road trips. He posited that this epidemic of work-life unreadiness is a result of an over-scheduled childhood in which kids rarely have to make independent decisions regarding their own activities, well-roundedness is valued over acquiring a specific skill set, and students feel responsible not for preparing for life but for preparing to get into college and do well on standardized tests. The outcome, he suggests, is that years of schooling and parenting miss their intended mark, and adolescents are profoundly underprepared to know what life is like and to develop the strategies to succeed in it. Enter from stage right societal breakdown, maladjustment, emotional instability, an emasculated workforce, and incompetent parents who continue perpetuating the cycle.
Okay, so I’m exaggerating his claims and extrapolations a little bit. But as I thought about this sociological peculiarity that he was pinning onto exactly my generation, a lot of his descriptions and analyses resonated to the social milieu of post-college, pre-marriage singles wards and populations. Does this phenomenon occur among Latter-day Saints? An unscientific survey of roommates and friends suggested that it does. Many of us have lived at home for a period during or following our undergraduate and graduate educations; many of us are in jobs that we know are not career-bound; many of us have not yet bought real furniture, purchased a starter home, or moved significantly beyond top ramen and corn flakes. Like Kip in Napoleon Dynamite, some of us even spend “I don’t know, three, four hours” talking to babes on-line (the lucky ones, that is). Indeed, the BYU joke about the 10-year bachelors degree may well point to this work-life unreadiness, this sticky transition from school to career.
Why does this happen? And is this necessarily a negative trend? Mel Levine suggests that it’s due to a fast-changing economy, recent trends in parenting, and not enough people buying his book; I’ve wondered if, within the LDS community, it’s due to a sense that life doesn’t start until marriage or a lack of narratives and patterns for this nebulous (and sometimes disapproved of) stage of life. Or on a more positive note, could it be due to our deep desire to be led by the Spirit in the major decisions of our lives and our reluctance to move drastically ahead without a strong sense of direction? Some of my friends who might seem the most work-life unready tell me that they actually felt inspired to live at home for a period during or after college, and that inspiration led to the blessings of tending to sick parents, spending time with troubled siblings, overcoming personal health problems, etc. Conversely, some of my friends who might seem to have jumped gracefully onto a success-bound train are now struggling with decisions that they didn’t take the time to commit to fully–including majors, career paths, even marriages. The failure of starter jobs, starter homes, and starter marriages leaves in its path a heart-breaking detritus of debt, discouragement, infidelity, and wasted time.
So is this a topic that we can discuss systematically? Or is the ultimate answer, “Take responsibility and keep your covenants”? I will admit that I haven’t completed an exhaustive analysis of Dr. Levin’s book, but I’ve been interested and stimulated by some of his catch phrases–becoming a student of adulthood, finding a good fit between minds and careers, helping emerging adults to weather the quarter-life crisis, finding good role models. Ultimately, it’s important to me to know if I’m becoming–or how to become–a productive adult because I care deeply about having something significant to give my future children, my future wards, my future Young Women, my future neighbors, my future communities. And, let’s be honest, because I don’t want to be earning $12,000 a year for the rest of my life.