I work a few shifts a week at an independent bookstore. In recent months, our staff has gained a few newly minted college graduates, all English majors who sought one of the few jobs where their degrees are explicitly useful. And nothing reminds me of how old I am, or how much my life has changed in the last decade, than interacting with a recent college grad.
I was reminded again last week as I closed up shop with our newest hire, who graduated 3 months ago from a top-tier university. This is her first job out of college, her first time living as a Real Adult. She’s friendly and pleasant, and she wears the uniform of quirky girls everywhere – retro glasses, brightly colored cardigans, red lipstick, skinny jeans, boots far too heavy for the Northern California weather.
She had made a few mistakes the first time she closed, so our manager asked me to keep an eye on her as she went through the procedures this time. My presence seemed to make her anxious – she made a few careless mistakes, which she hastily blamed on the list of instructions she was reading from. Like so many overachieving students entering the work force for the first time, she wasn’t used to not knowing what to do, she asked questions about the smallest and most trivial of details, and she was visibly uncomfortable with being corrected, wilting slightly each time.
I remember those days.
After we locked the doors, we made small talk as we walked to our cars, parked a few blocks from the store. And she, perhaps frustrated by the unfamiliar experience of having her mistakes highlighted, unleashed a litany of complaints about her newfound adulthood.
“Being an adult sucks,” she said. She lives with a relative who doesn’t charge her rent. To get to work, she needs to endure either 2 hours and $13 of public transportation – each way – or, when she’s lucky to have access to a car, 45 minutes in city traffic. She’d like to live closer, but she can’t afford rent on the hourly rate she’s given at the store. “Why don’t they pay us a living wage?” she asked, with the irritation of an idealist being exposed to the real world for the first time.
I listened quietly, unsure of how to respond. Part of me had no sympathy for her. None of this information was hidden from her when she accepted the job; she knew what it paid, she knew how far it was. And if she was looking for a living wage, then she should not have chosen a retail job in one of the most rapidly dwindling industries in the world.
But another part of me felt such compassion for her, this girl getting her first taste of adulthood, because that awakening is brutal. The realization that being a good student in no way guarantees success in the real world. The realization that you aren’t actually perfect, despite what your resume suggests; that every job has a learning curve, and mistakes, once so rare and unfamiliar to you, are now a daily part of your existence. The realization that you have limits, and while a 4-hour daily commute may sound doable in theory – “Think of all the books I’ll read!” – it sucks the life out of you in reality. The realization that you no longer live in a near-constant state of hanging out with your friends; you now have to make appointments to see them, if you aren’t too tired to do so after work, and your current roommate is two to four times your age.
I felt bad for her. But I also wasn’t sure what to tell her, because when I think about how I got over these things (which, if I’m honest, I haven’t done completely), most of it was just exposure – getting used to these things happening constantly and learning how to manage my discomfort in the meantime. Learning how to accept criticism and direction and seeing that it didn’t crush me. Being given a project and fumbling through it, wishing all the while that I had clearer directions, but being especially proud when it was done because I didn’t.
“Yeah, it’s really hard,” was all I could say in the moment, because Get used to it seemed cold. And so did Just wait until your 30s.
I remember wondering, in the year after college, how people grew in their 30s. I could clearly see how that would happen in my 20s – I would learn so much about myself! I would make so many big decisions! – but what would happen once I was settled? Life must get so stagnant, I reasoned, with my 21-year-old logic.
Ten years later, that thought literally makes me laugh out loud. I thought I was making such significant decisions at 21 – and in some ways, I was: I was deciding where I wanted to go to grad school, where I would spend this formative decade. But in hindsight, those decisions seem inconsequential compared to the decisions I’m making now.
… Like How long do I stay at this job that I’m not crazy about? In college, if you didn’t like your classes, the semester was over in 14 weeks – and college itself was over in three and a half years, give or take. The timetable of grad school is also fairly fixed. But your job can go on for as long as you want it to – so how do you decide when it’s time to move on? Especially when a better option isn’t immediately apparent? This question usually arises in your 20s, but it only gets more complicated in your 30s: What do you do if you’re over the job, but you now have a degree of flexibility and freedom that you didn’t have before – that you’d probably lose if you started over elsewhere? What do you do if you’re too specialized now to be able to move easily within your field?
… Should I marry this person? You might luck out and be 100% certain that your partner is the one you should be with, forever and ever, amen. But what if it’s less clear? What if there are lots of upsides, but there are also one or two glaring issues – you fight all the time, or you’d want to raise your children in different ways – that you don’t know if you can live with? How do you decide if those issues are dealbreakers? This is another twentysomething question that only gets more complicated in your 30s: What do you do if you’ve been on the dating scene for a long time and you don’t see any better options?
… When do I have children? There’s literally never a time when you’ll be completely prepared to have children, and there’s never a convenient time in your career to have them. So when exactly should you do it? Especially if you’re still relatively new at your job because you recently made a change or, like me, you spent all of your 20s in school – do you hop off the track now, even though you just got on it? And if you really want to have a kid and there aren’t any long-term partner options in sight, do you dare try it on your own? Or do you come to terms with the fact that being a parent might not be in the cards for you? And if you don’t have children, voluntarily or otherwise, how will that change your relationships with your friends who eventually will (which is to say, the majority of them)?
… What do I want my career to look like after children? Do you want to get back on the aforementioned track? Personally, I wonder: Will it be an affront to my feminist identity if I don’t work full-time, if I’m not as ambitious as I could be? How will other people – especially similarly-educated people – perceive me? What will my children, especially my female children, gain or lose from this decision?
… Where do I want to raise a family? Do you want to stay where you are, in the exciting, vibrant city you’ve chosen for your 20s, with the tribe you’ve formed and essentially grown up with? Or should you move closer to your parents so your future children will know them and you can take care of them as they age? And leave behind your life of good friends, diversity of all kinds, and countless interesting things to do?
Compared to the things I was thinking about ten years ago – do I want to go to school in somewhat-urban LA or suburban LA? – these questions feel so much weightier, largely because they impact people besides me and they’ll have much wider-reaching consequences. And that’s why the thought that I would stop growing at 30 is so laughable to me now – if anything, I’m only growing more, because the questions I’m asking are so much more complex, have such significant consequences for myself and the people I’m closest to.
So last week, I looked at my 23-year-old coworker – and, by proxy, my own twentysomething self – and thought what I dared not say aloud: It only gets harder. It gets better, of course – you’ll stop making as many mistakes, and you’ll be less mortified when you do; you’ll have more perspective and you’ll know yourself infinitely better, thanks to the lessons you’re learning now; your life will get richer and more meaningful. But the questions, the decisions – those, young friend, only get harder.