I'm certain Caroline Burke's heartfelt article in The Atlantic this week (Please, Please Stop Asking Me Questions About My Post-College Plans) will resonate with many recent college graduates and milennials in general. I understand. Transitioning from "In Loco Parentis" to "Sink or Swim" can be frightening--and exhausting. College is a wonderful hybrid; young adults are freed from the rules and restrictions of childhood and adolescence, and have not yet had to cede their freedom to the rules and restrictions of adulthood, which, as she outlines in her essay, can often be more of a spirit-crushing burden.
There is no question that, despite the increasing limitations on our choices imposed by a faltering economy over the past generation, many Americans still have the luxury of opting for a rewarding career--or several. Middle class denizens can, to some extent, still "write their own professional script" and avoid the bleak "cubicles" Burke so dreads. But, sadly, many more of us are no longer able to pick and choose where and how we work--and the future is looking even more grim. In this era of growing financial inequity, middle class security has been replaced, pragmatically, by middle class anxiety. Doors are closing for everyone, not just the young.
I'm sure Burke's parents, relatives, and friends will understand her feelings as she says good-bye to a phase of her life that she is ambivalently leaving. I would guess that they all wish her wellness and happiness, and would be likely to cheer her on no matter which paths she chooses. But, as is natural for teens and young adults, Burke's witty perspective remains predominantly focused on her feelings, her expectations, and her fears. Who can't empathize with her reluctance to enter the "prison" of unrewarding work and unfulfilling relationships? Few of us, when we were Burke's age, relished the idea of limiting our explorations and choices, and "settling down"--or "settling", period.
But Burke's article doesn't provide a roadmap that answers the real question that Burke's family may be hinting at. How will you support yourself--and how will you survive? Volunteer work is praiseworthy, but it doesn't put food on the table, or a roof over it. Mom and Dad seem to be successful physicians, who, despite their "mature" ages (comparable to mine, i.e. "still kicking"), are probably in a position to help with the incessant financial demands of daily life and student loan repayments. So, like many "Boomerang-ers", Burke may expect a welcoming return to the nest that will allow her to delay her "launch" to sustainable independence for a few more years.
Yes, boomers in the cohort of Burke's parents often did take a meandering road to the retirement pension and the second husband, but, rarely "looked back" after leaving home for university. The vibrant economy and social safety net of the decades before Y2K contributed to the ability of young Boomers to live on their own and stumble into the lives, for good or for ill, that Burke hopes to defer or avoid. But the '00's and '10's have not been kind to any US generation. Many Boomers who have retained their jobs and their health have seen an erosion of their resources, even as, having delayed starting their families into their 30's and 40's, they have been tasked with sandwich responsibilities including the safety-driven, helicopter parenting now necessary with children and teens, as well as with the care-giving demands of super-senior parents needing assistance in their 90s and beyond.
Sure, some well-off Boomers are enjoying celebratory respites as they holiday around the world--but many more are wondering if their savings--and their health--will hold out long enough to support elderly parents and dependent teens and young adults. Perhaps what Burke's parents were trying to relay to her is the plaintive appeal, "We're getting older, we're getting tired, and, we may not always be by your side to be able to help in the way that you might welcome, expect, or hope for." Perhaps Burke's conversation with her parents needs to be about both her and their needs, and she could develop a committed action plan to balance her professional and personal explorations with an understanding of her family's (and society's) needs and expectations that she assume responsibility for herself, including, yes, reading her emails, and brainstorming solutions to survival issues, such as lacking a cap and gown.
We were all young once. And, frankly, we Boomers were darned lucky; lucky to have had the personal, social, and economic opportunities provided to us by a nation at its peak. Our own parents, even if they'd had the means to access an education, often didn't have the option to choose a career--or a divorce. Some didn't even have a choice about when and whom to marry. But, as Burke herself ruminates, one can re-view the past, but one feels the present. And if that present is a straitjacket of sadness, pain, and fear, then that perceived reality can make progress in life as difficult as thirst and hunger do. The energy and the enthusiasm of youth is a treasure, however, and it is that energy and dynamism that will and should be a driver for Burke to face and address her fears and doubts, perhaps with the support of friends, family, and trusted advisors, so that, rather than react with defensive resentment, she can step up to the launching pad with confident optimism.
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