By Matt Dineen
“A bomb-maker or a comedian.” When I was 8 years old, this is what I would respond when grownups or peers asked me the question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I’m not really sure where this came from. I wasn’t particularly funny and I was much more interested in geography and baseball than weapons manufacturing. Back then, I didn’t even know what that meant. This response was arbitrary, random and served only to shock and confuse the people asking this seemingly soul-searching inquiry.
Fast forward 16 years...“What do you want to be when you grow up?” has (d)evolved into: “What do you do?” I am grown up now so what have I become? What am I doing? The prevalence of these questions reveals a lot about our culture. Its obsession with work and jobs begins to shape us from the moment we are able to speak these words. From the very beginning we are conditioned to base our (future) identities around our jobs. This is a cultural assumption that we are discouraged from ever questioning. It is taken for granted throughout our lives.
So what have I become? What am I doing? After high school I attended a small liberal arts college for four years and received a bachelor’s degree nearly 3 years ago. During this time out of school my paid work has more closely resembled that of a teenage wage-slave seeking parental independence than that of a skilled college graduate. In a work-obsessed culture this situation creates a disconnect between “what we do” and what we enjoy and are capable of doing. It affects those of us in our twentysomething years more dramatically than others because this is when we start to confront the complexities of the so-called real world. But the collective dilemma of living in a capitalist society is the ongoing struggle to follow our passions while surviving.
The quarterlife crisis is unique because it is when we begin to viscerally understand that our cultural conditioning around work and success is nothing but mythology and functions only to preserve the status quo. It is when we learn that a college degree does not guarantee you anything close to job security. We start to grapple with the dilemma of passions and survival as we search for a semblance of meaning in a society that is based on an empty construction of material success and power.
In my experience with the quarterlife crisis it has been essential to personally reject these constructions and expectations in an attempt to redefine success and wellbeing. My life goal does not involve getting a powerful job and making more money than I really need at the expense of others. It is not centered around acquiring and consuming lots of things and turning toward these material possessions for happiness. I have tried to live a simple lifestyle that does not require a 40 hour a week wage job. By cutting back on reckless consumerism and by living in places where I don’t need a car I have been able to have more “free time” to pursue my true interests.
This is not to suggest that I haven’t struggled as much as other twentysomethings or that I have somehow transcended this crisis. I have been riddled with financial debt for over a year now and that’s not even counting the massive student loans that I have been nervously deferring. In between periods of unemployment I have worked a number of jobs that have been unfulfilling and have interfered with sustaining inspiration to follow my passions.
The most recent example was at a café where I took drink orders, made sandwiches, washed dishes, and cleaned the bathrooms. This particular café happened to be in the same building as a national media literacy organization that I had respected for years. It was so frustrating for me to be downstairs working a job that I hated when all I wanted was to be upstairs working with them. Occasionally, I fantasized about what it looked like up there and how much happier I would be doing research about issues around race, class and gender in the media than I was cleaning off tables and mopping the floor. Instead I just tried to carve out time for my own writing and research and for playing music and staying politically active.
In my quest to redefine success it has also been important for me to be connected to a network of independent, underground culture. This world has provided me with mentors and models of what uncompromised success can look like. From indie musicians and artists to community organizers and radical school teachers, there are people out there that have made it through this quarterlife struggle and are able to fully incorporate their passions into their daily lives. It has been really inspiring for me to speak with people who have actualized this dream, completely on their terms and in line with their values. This gives me hope as I continue to work a wage job that is separate from what I really want to be doing with my life.
I think back to the question: What do you want to be when you grow up? In a sense, what I am doing now seems just as strange and implausible as being a bomb-making comedian. When I was 8 years old I didn’t have a full understanding of how complex life under capitalism can be. Although we are molded to conform to a rigid occupation-based identity the reality of growing up is much more complicated. In order to thrive during this transitional moment we need to embrace the fact that our lives are multidimensional and from there do everything we can to follow our passions and redefine the recipe for happiness.
Matt Dineen is a freelance writer living and working in Northampton, MA. This piece has been submitted to an anthology about the "quarterlife crisis." Go to Quarter-Life-Crisis to learn more about the project. Submissions are due March 31st.