For many of us, turning 21 might mark our last-ever birthday when we feel like we’ve hit an exciting milestone. Ten was double digits; 16 was sweet; 18 made us legal. From here on out, other than saying that our frontal lobes are finally fully developed (so there!) when we turn 25, we’re just getting older.
Yet, 21 isn’t the beginning of the rest of our lives, not in the sense of sinking into full-fledged adulthood. Technically, almost all of us at Stanford are adults, yet it strikes me how much of a transition stage we’re still undergoing. High school may be the time of so-called teenage angst, but college introduces a fresh dilemma: during our four years as undergraduates, we find ourselves highly conscious of the fact that we are no longer kids, but we do not always feel like adults, either. We adopt more serious responsibility, make more decisions that affect others in addition to ourselves and discover more about what we want to become — and then we dress up like zoo animals and yowl across the floor at that night’s campus party.
Since coming to Stanford, I’ve seen more costumes than I have since elementary school, as well as more neon-colored beads and slip-n-slides. On-campus housing themes continually play on words involving Nickelodeon and Disney. My friends sometimes engage in a surprising amount of reminiscing about favorite childhood movies, books and TV shows. Just watch me, the Stanford student seems to be saying. Even in the midst of midterms and problem sets and pressure to think about my future, I can still embrace my youthful side! If “coolness” still exists here like it existed in high school, then being cool seems to be largely based on proving how committed one can be to a slew of responsibilities, while simultaneously proving how un-seriously one takes oneself. Even as we strive to make a difference in the world, I wonder if we all secretly long to be five years old again.
Naptime, finger-painting and other kindergarten perks aside, there is no denying that the average Stanford student is exceptionally aware of the larger world issues upon which one can build a career, a political stance or any amount of grown-up things. We all know that goofball from down the hall who can still pack a punch when he speaks up in class. So what, then, does our determination to mix work with a healthy dose of play say about us? Are we each facing a sort of existential crisis as we grow up, unwilling to commit ourselves to one age-based stereotype over another?
In truth, college seems to be a time when we straddle the fence between two phases of development. Adulthood still feels too new for us to embrace fully, and for many of us, our status as students is the same as it has always been, nine months out of every year, ever since we were too young to remember. Simply by pursuing our studies, we claim our place in a strange sort of limbo: legally independent, but still not unleashed into the real world. You know, that place out there with responsibilities. Like cooking for yourself and paying the bills and — and — we’ll find out when we get to it.
For me, this transition period between youth and adulthood has been a welcome opportunity to change and discover my identity, and it seems to be engrained into the Stanford undergraduate experience, from freshman dorms to declaring our majors. Still, I can’t help but wonder whether it is merely an indulgence. This past summer, the New York Times Magazine published an article called “What is It About Twenty-Somethings?” that has lingered in my mind ever since. In sum, this piece investigated the argument that the current generation of individuals in their twenties — or our generation, the millennials — isn’t growing up as quickly as generations past. Even with liberal arts educations, they are slower to sever ties from adolescent habits and slower to get settled into responsibility, a career and a family. Whether this “twenty-something” stage is a modern phenomenon or not, it begs the question: at what point does our youthful indecision become counterproductive to accomplishing real-life goals? At what point is society better served if we stop taking our upbringings for granted, bite the bullet and accept our status as adults? Yet we cannot discount the flip side of this question: whether individuals from our generation might better approach self-satisfaction simply by taking the time to understand the world around them better.
Whatever the answer to these questions, vitality, wanderlust and self-discovery frequently seem to define this ambivalent stage in our lives. And, in the end, maybe I’m overemphasizing the differences between youth and adulthood. My own father turned 50 this year, but whenever I think of him, I always visualize his boundless energy and sometimes 12-year-old sense of humor. Maybe, once we find our balance in life, we really are only as old as we feel.
Think Rachel should take up finger-painting as a hobby? Send her your latest artwork at [email protected].