Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Twenty-Something Crisis

The Prologue:

Emily: So I’m writing a piece about the mid-twenty-something crisis.
Nico: Ems, your blog
is the mid-twenty-something crisis.

The twenty-something crisis is defined as “the state of simultaneously wishing to be old (and therefore taken seriously in steps along the career path), coupled with intermittent pangs for a quickly disappearing youth.”

Signs of the twenty-something crisis include: weekends spent at home in a bathrobe with a cup of coffee and a good book, followed by a brief panic that leads to a week of late-night drunkenness and shenanigans; simultaneous repulsion by and envy for a stable home; the constant tweaking of The Perfect Resumé; the constant fear of being seen by one’s colleagues and clients in one’s natural state; wistfully referring to, and attempts to recreate, the college days; general disdain for loafers and briefcases; idealization of high school and college romances; hangovers now related to bedtime and not to quantity of alcohol consumed; and, the phrase pull it together appearing as a priority item on to-do lists.

Part One: The Seeds of Dissent

My resistance to the twenty-something age can be traced back to high school. Former students would visit the school, and I could hardly believe that the few years that separated us could yield such a difference.

The women that returned were together, pretty. They had pocketbooks and heels. They tossed styled hair back over shoulders and spoke in a lower, more tempered voice. These women—the same that had come to high school dressed in baggy corduroys back when grunge was in style—now matched the throngs of black-panted twenty-somethings that swung their hips on the streets of Buckhead.

Part Two: Boot Camp

To convince the Working World that I belonged, I needed to make a few changes. The reality of the situation was that I looked about sixteen, but was getting ready to début as a teacher to businessmen and women in Paris. My preparation for the conversion was nil. I’d spent the summer at camp, often wearing my hair in braids and acting cool for fourteen year-old girls. One day, I happily realized that I was twenty-four years old, and was dressed like Mary-Kate Olsen. A less anorexic version.

So when I returned home in August, I had all of five days to become a professional businesswoman. Day five, my mother and I stood in the mall and assessed the collection of bags from the day’s trip to the mall. Dress shirts? Check. Skirts and nice slacks? Check, check. Shoes? Check, check, check. All I was missing were pantyhose.

The process was complete. I’d spent the past few days arguing with various saleswomen, rejecting preppy, lilac tops that matched the fine stripes of a skirt, turning up my nose when presented with sweater sets, refusing to buy a blazer. When I’d walked into the store and requested something professional, the saleswomen had often and knowingly replied, “College interview?” My mother snapped back, “First real job. In Paris.” Eyebrows shot up. Dollar signs appeared in their pupils. I frowned as I was thrown into the fitting room, but always left with a full bag.

I’d been to the beauty salon. I’d sat in the chair and firmly requested a hairstyle that could double as both professional and hip. (It turns out, there’s no such thing. My new haircut shouted, “I’m thirty!”) As I stood frowning at the makeup counter, my mother had explained, “We need to make her look older.” Women gathered ‘round. “It’s all in the makeup.” “It’s all in the hair.” By the time we had lunch, I was having a tough time concentrating on anything besides my reflection. I scrubbed my face with the paper napkin while my mom reassured me that she couldn’t even tell I was wearing any make-up.

Part Three: The Crisis

There are things that simply cannot be taught. Take the erratic nature of hairdryers for an example. Soon into my stay, I’d already gone through two. One day, in a pinch, I borrowed Nicolas’s landlord’s drier. It, too, wheezed and overheated. My new salary was now devoted entirely to styling products. Try as I might, I couldn’t figure out how to coif my new thirty-something hairdo.

I struggled with belts and roaming skirts and blisters from heels. I became that bad static-cling commercial. I spent afternoons on Nicolas’s couch complaining about professional attire while he made me tea.

But then it happened. About two months into my new life, as I walked back from work, I caught sight of myself in a store window. All the signs were there. Black pants, sweater top. Straightened hair neatly pulled back in a neat ponytail. Fifties-style pea coat. High-heeled boots. In my grocery bag were wheat crackers, low-calorie breakfast bars, and a bottle of Diet Coke. Perhaps the only sign of my former self came in the form of an accessory: a bright red umbrella. My hopes were soon dashed when I realized that the umbrella matched my bag.

It hit me hard: Not only did I look like a twenty-something, I was twenty-four. I was a twenty-something.

Part Five: The Resistance

I immediately called Nicolas for support. I went over my plans for the week and concluded that I was still hip. The revolution was born.

I now allow myself ten minutes for pre-work primping. All attempts at blended foundation and blow-drying have been abandoned. Often, and I don’t even shower for work. Some of you may be cringing, but I consider it my personal “screw you” to Corporate France. I can no longer find my button-down shirts and wear different t-shirts under the same black cardigan everyday.

I reassure myself that I’m different from my fellow twenty-somethings. I’m not married. I’m not in med school. My friends are dreamers. We drink cheap wine and argue. We sit on floor cushions and munch on cheese. We live in Paris. I am in no way boozing it up with my former sorority sisters.

True validation came a few weeks ago, when preparing for a day’s work at The Bank for the Complicatedly Wealthy, I resuscitated a skirt from the fall. I rummaged through my closet to find a clean pair of hose. I found some, and tried one of the preferred methods of applying them to legs.

As I grabbed hold of a bunch and pulled them over hips, my middle finger punched through the material. I ripped them of and threw them in the trash. Found another pair. These ripped just below the knee because of a jagged nail. Found another pair. Ripped those on the second leg. Moved dirty clothes from closet to floor; I had no choice but to wear a dirty pair.

As it turns out, I no longer owned a pair of un-ripped hose. I smiled as I grabbed a pair of wrinkled pants. I was happy to ditch the skirt, and figured any twenty-something who actually has it together knows how to successfully put on a pair of hose.

Part Six: Peace Talks

Just this week, across the desk from a senior manager in his sixties, I chatted with a client. An intelligent man and well-spoken even in English, he’d taken to debating with me about politics during our bi-weekly conversation classes.

This particular day, he provoked me. I unprofessionally ended the class on a rant about American policy on AIDS in Africa, stuttering about the ridiculousness of promoting only abstinence, and not safe sex. The man didn’t agree.

Before he left the room, he asked, “How old are you?”

I immediately blushed. My cover was blown, and it had nothing to do with my wrinkled pants. I shuffled through some papers and replied, “I don’t see how that’s relevant.”

He thought for a moment and said, “I think you’re twenty-seven. You have the education, but you don’t have the experience.”

Flustered by the low-blow, I stammered, “Well, my mother is older than me, and I bet she’d tell you the same thing.” He smiled and closed the door behind him.

That’s right, Emily, way to go. In defending my honor and maturity, I’d resorted to the comeback of a seven year-old, quoting her mother as the ultimate source of what’s right.

As I sat in the empty conference room, I thought about what he’d said. Twenty-seven. Over mid-twenty. The twenty-somethings aren’t fooling anyone with their slick dress and tempered speech, especially not this seasoned veteran. Twenty-something is nothing. Just wait ‘til we’ve lived what he’s been through: the mid-life crisis.


At 10:21 PM, Blogger The Michael said...

Relax, Em, the experience will come, one way or another, whether you like it or not. You are going to forget 65% of everything you learned, ditch another 15% cause you finally realize it was BS all along, and rearrange what's left to suit where you need to go.
Fashion, believe it or not, will not rule you, and when 30 hits you, you will not remember living three decades. However, you will be fully prepared for 40, and until 50 sneaks up with you, you will fully understand the best years of your life.

At 11:14 PM, Blogger Emily said...

What, does it seem like I'm freaking out?!?!

At 11:52 PM, Anonymous Toinou said...

Wow, it is good to know one is not alone!
Actually, there are other ways to tackle with this transition period: take your deepest voice, and speak very loud of your work with friends (do not forget to tell you work very hard). At the moment I did not manage to do it on my own, but as far as I can see, I works really well for some people...

I can tick on my crisis list:
- Oedipus complex : done
- teenage crisis : done
- twenty-something crisis : in process
- midlife crisis
- (male) menopause

Hey, there is a hole between twenty-something and midlife crisis. Hum... Peaceful for a while? But wait, it may be done on purpose to deal with our futur children's own crisis!

At 11:55 PM, Blogger Emily said...

Well... according to the Michael, the thirties is marked by amnesia.

At 1:57 AM, Blogger Tony said...

I've been very busy (I didn't even read your post :(

I'll post eventually. I'm trying to finish my application to the Art Center and I've been lagging way too much. There's also been sickness in my family, I started a post about it but haven't finished.

C'est la vie non? Un de ces jours, je vais ecrire encore mais pour l'instant, c'est tout.

Now, back to work...

At 8:35 AM, Blogger Empty said...

If you think it's bad now, just wait until you reach thirty. After 30 I became "suit and tie guy" or, alternatively, "dude in a corporate monkey suit". However, that was nothing compared to the physical repercussions...but I digress. You should experience the "beauty" of 30 on your own...

At 10:09 AM, Blogger kim said...

I don't consider myself in a crisis, but I surely do feel a bit out of place most of the time. Probably because it's been four and a half years since I worked in a non-seasonal job (and in those last four and a half years, the lame seasonal jobs I would do occasionally in the US add up to a whopping six months).

The hole in my resume only widens. Plus, this whole going back to school thing? I will be 25. 25. 25, in a country where "going back to school" is a concept that nearly doesn't exist, and where I will be mixing it up with kids who still live with their parents, have never worked in their lives, and probably have an allowance.

On a side note, I am absolutely in love with the shoes in this photo. They look so forties!

At 1:08 PM, Blogger schuey said...

well i had a good laugh reading this, but havenothing to add that would be bright or insightful or even slightly witty.

Nice read.

At 1:15 PM, Blogger Randi said...

ditto.. so, why am I posting?

At 1:54 PM, Blogger Emily said...

I don't make me believe that people actually read this stuff?

(Statcounter tells me that 38% of people visiting my blog stay less than five seconds.)

At 4:01 PM, Anonymous Susan said...

God, finally, welcome. You've been hippying-it all about since graduation.

JK, my personal rebellion is giant earrings and awesome shoes. But that was only necessary at Old Marketing Job with Other Older Twenty-Somethings. At New University Job with Sassy Southern Eccentric Ladies, they think everything I do is awesome and envy me my youth.

In other news, SAO later?

At 4:23 PM, Blogger Trish said...

This crisis you speak of. It has a name! Quarter Life Crisis. Yep!!! There is a website and everything, even a book!!! Do a Google Search. It's quite a phenomenon!!!! I'm gonna be 29 in a few days *sigh* I still don't feel like I've overcome this crisis yet. I hope what "the michael" has said is true.

At 6:05 PM, Anonymous ddj said...

We're in the same club, Emily. I'm 25, finally done with school, in the first year of my first job, and am thinking, "WTF? Is this it?"

So, I made a list of things that I need to do before 30. I think over the next few months, I'll have it pared down to a handful of difficult, but definitely accomplishable tasks that will keep me from becoming a total tool.

At 7:56 AM, Anonymous Chris M. said...

My solution to this whole being 25 thing has been to remain in the limbo that is grad school until I'm "discovered" and never have to work again. Which means I should definitely be spending more time in old school piano bars chatting up the clientele... We can work on that this summer.

At 8:56 AM, Anonymous eb said...

Statcounter (and sitemeter) only know when people click on a link in your blog (or when someone reloads a page). So if someone comes by and takes hours to read a post - perhaps in an attmept to learn english through the reading of a post - but never clicks again after loading the page the first time, statcounter will register that as less than 5 seconds (or whatever the shortest amount of time is).

I say this not because it's all that interesting, but because writing comments is one way to avoid thinking about how I'm 26 and not sure what the hell I'm going to be doing in, say, 2-3 months.

At 1:34 PM, Blogger Kaizer - John Harvey said...

I can identify with what you're saying, only from a different gender-point. My 20's crisis came when I hit 21 and I realised not only do I not know what to do with my life, but I became so disillusioned with work, and people and everything. As far as I'm aware, every one of my friends is going through the same thing.
All through school, we're warned about how bad puberty will be, nobody ever tells you "oh yeah, in your twenties, you'll lose momentum and wonder why you should ever bother doing anything."
Which sucks.
Anyway, I'm better. Roll on 40's! At least then I'll be able to buy a penis-replacement motorbike!

At 8:57 PM, Blogger Randi said...

Maybe, little Miss Missy, people would stay longer than 5 seconds if you re-posted every blue moon! Ma'am. hee hee...
Have a good one!

At 3:12 PM, Blogger Bishop said...

As a twenty-something myself (NO, you may not ask) I sympathize with the image dilemma. It's vitally important to tread that line between uberchic and coolly professional. Personally, I like to dress conservatively at all times - I use accessories that hint at my personality.

Once, I was buying earrings on a whim (is there any other way?) and asked a friend how they looked on me. She hesitated, then said as tactfully as she could, "I think those are the sort of earrings that don't look good on anybody." I grinned. They were definitely the earrings I wanted.

They are still among my most favorite accessories of all time, and I wear them whenever I'm feeling sassy and unconventional.

At 8:04 PM, Anonymous christine hassler said...

Thanks for writing this Emily! I am excited to have stumbled upon your blog. My own "twenty-something crisis" prompted me to start a nation-wide research campaign and eventually write a book that is out now: 20-Something, 20-Everything: A Quarter-Life Woman's guide to Balance and Direction. I wrote it for women because I think there are marked differences between what men and women go through in their twenties. Plus, being a woman, I figured I’d write to what I knew! I can emphatically say, you are not alone, I meet and talk to so many twenty-something’s with similar issues on their minds. At 29, I can say my crisis has wound down and now I work to help other twenty-something’s through theirs. Thanks for writing about this issue and for your humor about it! Please check out my website at

At 5:44 PM, Blogger Corey said...

You should read/watch Fight Club. Chucks take on the corporate world is very entertaining.


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