Living Through the Odyssey Years

Rashmi recently cited a David Brooks op-ed that I had bookmarked sometime back. The odyssey generation that he mentions, is found not only in the United States and Europe but also in increasing numbers in India. By odyssey generation, he points to a stage in our lives where we still are figuring out things and are largely unsure of the future. This was previously also known as the Quarter Life Crisis. The 20s seems to be unspoken crisis time among individuals especially those aspiring for more meaning in their lives apart from monetary stability. This life stage occurs between adolescence and adulthood, the well established stages of life cycle in our society. The typical symptoms of living through the odyssey years are living independently, delaying marriage, shifting professions, and continuing higher education.

During this decade, 20-somethings go to school and take breaks from school. They live with friends and they live at home. They fall in and out of love. They try one career and then try another.Their parents grow increasingly anxious.

These parents understand that there’s bound to be a transition phase between student life and adult life. But when they look at their own grown children, they see the transition stretching five years, seven and beyond. The parents don’t even detect a clear sense of direction in their children’s lives. They look at them and see the things that are being delayed [source].

The definition of the odyssey generation couldn’t have fitted my life any better. I have done almost all of the above and ‘suffer’ from the symptoms I earlier mentioned. My parents like others cannot fathom this drastic departure from the traditional mold of living life. In their days, an ideal life would be going to college, getting married, finding a decent job (or setting up a business), having kids, and living happily or otherwise. And all these activities have a fixed time limit which judges your status of success in life. You better be financially settled and married by the time you hit 30. If you have had a kid by then with another in the pipeline (so to speak), then great. If you veered from the script, then people start talking and assume the worst making your otherwise ‘open-minded’ parents nervous too. Admittedly, girls have it more difficult in terms of finding a life partner but guys don’t have it easy either. They are expected to have found their calling in the livelihood that would support them for the rest of their life. Whether you are happy at your workplace is of little significance as long as it pays your bills. When told of the need to find something you love working at, you are given the standard – “No one ever works at a job because they love it” – line whether it is true or not.

My own parents worry themselves sick on the status of my life-cycle. Having recently crossed the dreaded 3 & 0, it is almost as if someone tipped the hourglass clock and said, your time starts now! To give you a more recent example, as soon as I informed them of my comprehensive results, my dad’s first question was – so how much more time until you graduate? The second was, will your dissertation topic get your a good job? I could just shake my head in disbelief and knew that trying to explain them the intricacies of my dissertation would be futile. All they would want to know is if this would land me a decent paying job. The fact that we don’t meet PhDs in India as frequently as we do out here in United States doesn’t help either. No one has a clue of the motivations or intent behind pursuing a PhD. All that matters are the resulting tangible ends. Of course, I’m getting married later this year so at least that monkey is off my back but it hasn’t taken long for subsequent advice to follow. The importance of having a kid early in your married life is stressed upon in occasional conversations. The counter arguments that I wish to first live this life for myself and not just follow Darwinian tendencies of propagating my species, is considered selfish and falls on deaf ears. Although I’m sure David Brooks didn’t have young adults in India let alone my life in mind when he wrote that op-ed, I’m sure he will find resonance in today’s India. People are moving into non-traditional fields and are not simply slotting themselves in the engineer-doctor mold and until the dust settles, there is bound to be uncertainty.

I’m kinda envious of those who have their life figured out by the time they are 25. But I am not sure if they have simply compromised or are genuinely pursuing the life of their dreams. But as long as they are happy doing whatever they are doing, it doesn’t really matter. I’m sure plenty of this blog’s readers and commenters find themselves in similar situations and face similar struggles but it would help me (and them) a great deal if those who have emerged successfully (or do you ever?) at the other end share their stories.

6 Comments

  1. lol – same story different flavor…. my folks could not understand why I would give up stability of a good corporate job and start up. Because I want to do three thousand things and my job doesn’t let me, would be my answer….. but, why can’t you be happy just doing one thing, they lament, ,,,,,, and when will you settle down :)
    all the ;’lol’ing aside, i think that it is a lot easier for us to earn money with relatively less effort than our parents and we possibly end up earning more and enjoying a better lifestyle, without working as much as they did. And therefore we are possibly not as insecure about money as they were…
    besides on the phd..It is an ancient tradition … remember all those people who went off to gurukuls or ancient universities in the pursuit of ‘truth’, well a phd is much the same :) Maybe that will work as an excuse

  2. Harini, I wish using the Gurukul excuse for a PhD would work. Initially my parents were damn kicked about me doing a a PhD. No one in our family has done it – was often trumpeted around. But then they never envisioned it takes this long :) Now they want me to ‘settle’ down and start earning the big bucks like your ‘friends in IT’ are. But yup, how to tell them that earning the big bucks isn’t my top priority.

  3. i know where that feeling comes from…. it is more about the journey than the destination.
    every time i visit a corporate – and see all those people buzzing away and fighting the clock – to make a presentation — i tell my self – but by the grace of sense go I :)
    big bucks nahi chahiye … i need x a month & i make it without too much traas…..and it is actually is more fun…

  4. Can relate to almost everything in the post …especially:

    but it hasn’t taken long for subsequent advice to follow

    :-)

  5. Settling down is not such a bad thing actually ;) – I am looking forward to it. I think I am past the odyssey years… jeez, I feel all old!

    S

  6. Harini, I guess some of us just don’t want that, big bucks or not.

    Bongo, I’m sure you are fighting hard to resist that. How long before you give in?

    Supremus, I have nothing against settling down. Heck, even I want to. But sadly, the definition of settling down varies a lot with my parents at least. And not all go through the odyssey years.

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