November 10, 2020

What the Heck are we Supposed to Do? ~ Sincerely, Everyone in their 20s.

Kaitlin May

The opaque humidity stifled my shallow breaths while stringy strands of sweat-drenched hair stretched across my shoulders.

The laptop and training binders tucked into my bag felt like I was carrying a seven-year-old child on my arm around the streets of Arlington, Virginia.

My feet sauntered on the fiery pavement until an imbalance in my steps stopped me in my tracks. My high heel was melted. It was actually melted.

My houndstooth dress was now plastered to my sweat-soaked skin while I attempted to move myself out of the stampede of overworked Arlingtonians.

How am I going to walk like this?

I limped my way through the rest of my first day on the job and, in the blistering heat, I persisted to make cold calls.

As a recently graduated Communications major from Virginia Tech, my motivation to prolong the college experience in the popular postgrad hub of Arlington, Virginia outweighed my motivation to secure an enduring career.

“You can make up to 100,000 dollars per year,” my manager assured me during my interview.

Sounds good enough for me, I thought.

Selling copiers, printers, and document management software was my entry into the professional world. Barely making a living wage, I was required to slip into secure, corporate buildings, strike up conversations with the employees there, and eventually—sell them a copier.

“How is our copier?” an office manager asked. “Bill—do we even have a copier?”

Puzzled employees pierced me with their stares.

My eye twitched while the cement of an artificial smile plastered on my face began to crack. There were polite, yet skeptical responses such as that one, but there were also more…aggressive responses.

“Yes, hi—no, no I don’t want to sell you anything I just want to know if I could have your business card to put a face to the name?” I squeaked.

“My name? It’s on the door.” Slam.

The wind from the momentum of the door slamming blew my hair back and thrust my papers onto the floor. It was impressive, really. Nice, I thought. This is definitely not the ticket to paying down my 50,000 dollars of student loan debt.

Cold calls, car stalls, and cockroaches in my apartment summed up my first year of taking on the real world.

On my way to a meeting with a potential copier buyer, my 10-year-old Ford succumbed to its dying battery in one of the busiest intersections in Rosslyn. A cacophony of profanities and horn honks cumulated behind me while I stared helplessly into my rearview mirror and cranked my manual window down to catch a breeze.

A tow truck got me to the nearest dealership where I was whisked into my first car purchase as a 22-year-old with no knowledge, funds, or confidence. Nothin’ but debt.

I made my way back home in a brand new 2013 Ford Fiesta and no recollection of the purchasing process. My nerves blacked out every conversation I had over the three hour long ordeal.

Once inside my apartment, my roommates and I initiated the nightly routine of containing our unexpected bonus roommates—cockroaches. Traps were set in every corner and Raid cans enclosed my frameless bed on either side. I was ready for them.

Needless to say, none of these aspects of my postgrad life were what I had imagined them to be. All I had ever heard about was an idealistic projection of life after college. There were only bright-eyed 20-somethings with the world at their feet—landing their dream jobs in the most sought after cities.

Some of them traveled the world and captured it all on Instagram. My social media feed was a mixture of trips, aspirational meals, and corner offices—shaken and stirred into a comparison cocktail while my newly single 20-something self would sling copiers by day and combat cockroaches by night.

No one wanted to see that on my social media pages.

I wished my insignificant existence was as impossible to ignore as the gravity of my financial situation. The stark contrast between the coddled college bubble of freedom and the binding financial burden on the other side of the diploma was jarring—and that was only the beginning.

With an unsteady income and an even shakier self-esteem, I was embarking on the most uncomfortable decade of my life—my 20s.

I had no structure, no classes, no guidance, and no financial support. All of that was really an illusion, anyway. But now, life was coming at me with a ferocious velocity. I was making the most consequential decisions about my finances and future with the least amount of experience and maturity.

I hadn’t yet dealt with trauma from my teens, and when I attempted to open my toolbox of coping mechanisms, there was nothing but cobwebs. (And maybe a couple of cockroaches.)

I walked into every room with a deceptive veneer of confidence, while internally I was screaming for help.

Despite the widely held perspective in our society being that I was well past my preteen awkward stage, I was sure this was much worse. Bucked teeth, braces, and a blossoming body were no match for this steep segue into adulthood.

Our programming tells us that the only path to “success” is to do well in school, go to an esteemed college, and get a good job. We are encouraged to chase our dream job while also being practical, pragmatic, and proactive about the future.

We start our adulthood at a deficit because the promise of prosperity is a guise with no supporting evidence. Our guidance has been given by a generation that has never gone in that direction—no wonder we feel lost.

Student debt cripples us in our 20s unless we unearth a lucrative landing ground, but one that dually fulfills the mystical mirage of our childhood aspirations. Find the right career and you’ll never work a day in your life.

Instead, the majority of us will be working every day for the rest of our lives to perform damage control on a broken system while circumventing the emotional baggage of dismantling our, our parents’, and society’s expectations.

We do everything we are supposed to do and are still disadvantaged by our debt. What about marriage? Babies? Travel?

We’re working longer and harder to afford to live, especially as women, and by the time we even taste a drop of financial stability, our biological clocks disrupt our consciousness while we continue to hit snooze. We can’t settle down yet, we’ve got more work to do.

We’ve been commanded our entire lives from birth to age 22 by what we’re supposed to do, but once we’re out from under the heel of society’s shoe, we beg: Please tell us what we’re supposed to do!

Do we accept a position that most people wouldn’t mention, let alone boast about?

Do we abandon our values and pursue a career that prioritizes profit over people?

Do we throw it all out and focus on finding a partner?

Do we have babies?

Do we buy a house? More loans.

Do we attempt to do all of that simultaneously and combust? A lot of us do.

The societal structure around what it means to be an adult in 2020 is a gauntlet of garish goals that can descend anyone into a self-loathing spiral.

So in my last year of this new age awkward stage, I’m getting out of the gauntlet.

The only expectations that matter to me now are my own.

I may not have a corner office, an impressive travel calendar, or children—but those are someone else’s dreams for now.

My only goal and hope for fellow Awkward-Stagers is to find self-love. None of what we do, or have, or post about can ever hold more value than who we inherently are as people.

Forget the debt, and get rich in self-worth.

The rest will fall into place.


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