The 20-Something Conundrum

Ever since the New York Times article came out about 20-somethings I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my generation and how we differ from our parents and past generations.


As a result, I’ve “interviewed” several peers, colleagues and friends of all generations about the qualities that differentiate Generation Y and why we are the way we are.  In addition, I’ve done some soul searching and good old internet research (how Gen. Y of me) to present the following perspective on the subject.




First, a few definitions for the purposes of this work:


  • Millennials, Generation Y (Gen. Y), 20-somethings: These terms refer to people between the ages of 22 and 34.  There is no clear cut definition that was to my satisfaction regarding the start and cut-off ages of this particular group.  While I may use these terms interchangeably, I am referring to the same group throughout.
  • Location, location, location: These terms refer to only those 20-somethings living in the United States.  I will go more into why that is in later blogs.



I can’t help but want to defend my fellow Millenials from the constant flak and badgering we get from society and our parents from having several different careers or directions in our 20s.  The times we are living in are very different from our parents and WE are different.  Information is at our fingertips, the world is readily available to us through our phones as well as our education.  We live in a global economy, global marketplace and the simplicities of life our parents enjoyed like the flexibility of having a stay at home parent have suddenly become a luxury.



My parents came here as immigrants from Mexico and Cuba and while it may seem as though they knew what they wanted from the beginning; it’s like most things in life that take form like the telling of a story: it’s much easier to tell it once you know what the end looks like.   My mother was raised like a good Mexican woman; expert at cleaning and cooking, her purpose in life was to find a good husband and breed (This isn’t meant to be offensive, my mother, like most Latina mothers, is a force to be reckoned with and she’s likely tougher than you).  My father’s path was slightly less defined until familial obligations forced him to be financially stable with an eye towards the future.



They were not raised in the United States during the 90s watching Reality Bites and The Real World and listening to feminist activists like Ani Difranco and going to punk rock shows the way I was.  They also didn’t have the choices my brother and I had so they did their best with all they had to work with.  They did pretty well for themselves; putting my brother and I through good universities, purchasing a nice suburban home and travelling a great deal.



I understand their frustration with my brother and me.  They worked really hard for us to have the opportunities we have at this point in our lives and careers.  It must be really annoying to have a daughter like me who thinks settling down is something you do when you’re in your 40s. For Godsakes, I’m already 26 and God knows my clock is ticking (especially with no boyfriend, right mom)?

My brother can’t decide whether he wants to be a New Yorker, Chicagoan or California dreamer and so he has moved from coast to coast and places in between with his career.  My parents keep hoping that we become more sensible: purchase some property, make some investments, settle down.


It seems like the only thing we can all agree on is that our youth is this sweet elixir that vanishes more quickly than tequila at a Mexican wedding.  We just can’t agree on where or how to drink it.


Sometimes, I think I wasn’t born to settle down and sometimes when I try to, I just long for another adventure, while each one makes me thirstier than the first.  To me my 20s means I am free.  Free of mortgages, free of marriages, free of long-term commitments and maybe it’s my only shot to have my adventures.

I don’t want to wait for retirement; I won’t have my body then, and there are no guarantees that I’ll even make it to my 70s anyway.  Janis Joplin once said, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”  I’ll have a lot more to lose when I’m older and “settled.” Kids might come into the picture as well as a mortgage, a husband and all those other things that I’m supposed to want right now, but I don’t.


My mother is constantly thinking she did something wrong in raising my brother and me.  Somehow, it was a mistake to send us to college or to bring us with her on all those vacations because we were bitten with the travel bug and now we can’t stop. Or maybe we learned too much in college and expect to encompass it all in a career.



Our generation as a whole is highly educated with up to 51 percent of us having some college in our educational background.  This, in stark contrast with our parents whom only had a high school education, has helped create what I call the 20-something conundrumthat is plaguing and blessing we Gen Yers.



The 20-something conundrum has to do with the paradox of choice.  The current belief system we operate under in Western society is roughly as Barry Schwartz, (The Paradox of Choice, 2005) puts it, “The more choice people have the more freedom they have.  The more freedom they have the more welfare they have.” We are essentially “paralyzed” by too many options and too much freedom that choosing a path is more difficult.  When we finally do make a decision we are likely to be less satisfied by that choice because we are too busy thinking about what could have been with other options.  A perfect example are our parents: they chose the path they did with more ease because of less choices.



I’m sure many can relate when you’re at the grocery store and you’re in the cereal aisle.  If you had three options: Cheerios, Corn Flakes or Cinnamon Toast Crunch you’d probably have an easier time deciding on the type of cereal to get, right?  But instead there’s Cheerios, Honey Nut Cheerios, Cinnamon Apple Cheerios, Toasted Oats, Multigrain Cheerios and all of a sudden twenty minutes have gone by and you’re comparing ingredients and prices and stressed out about how this decision will affect the rest of your life.

That’s what the 20-something conundrum feels like except the choices are between: getting a corporate job downtown that pays really well, following your dream to become a writer, actress, singer, nationally renowned cyclist, working at a non-profit and serving your community, backpacking through the Andes, moving to France and studying the language, working for the embassy in China or going back to school and getting your MBA or a Masters in English so you can go back to your old high school and put a new spin on The Great Gatsby.



It’s overwhelming, right?  We are the generation that was told as children that if we can dream it, we can have it.  Our parents sent us off to get really expensive diplomas that we were supposed to graduate with as a passport into the land of opportunity and now we are finding that it’s harder and harder to choose a path knowing what big world there is out there.

So while I’m busy deciding whether to start my own business, get my MBA or join the PeaceCorps at 26 years old, my parents were bringing their family to the U.S. from Cuba or getting ready to get married.


For our generation, it’s not the work that challenges us, but rather choosing a path and going down it with no fear of regret that’s the challenge.   This is the quarter life crisis; this is the 20-something conundrum.  



Look for more blogs from me about 20-somethings in business within the next few weeks.

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