Miles from Home

China Commentary– Youthful Musings on the Environment, Culture & Development

On Being Odysseus

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Two days ago, as I sat nursing my last few beers in Hangzhou, my friend and I began a conversation. It is a conversation, a dialogue, we both internalize. We smother it under blankets of busy behavior. We go to school. We keep moving, one foot in front of the other. But here we were, on vacation, on our last night, as the misty drizzle buffering the approaching typhoon crept closer overhead.

It was one of those vacations, one where the time fit the activity perfectly. We had seen all the sights, met people, partied, slept, read, eaten too much Chinese food and squatted over toilet-holes. The little boxes had been checked. And here we were, in the down time, killing time. One last night. A few more beers. Nothing left to do and nothing left to say.

Except to externalize that discussion, those lingering notions of doubt. Doubt generally carries a negative connotation. It clings to us, to people, to me. It seeps into my marrow, and I can’t burn it out with a million days in the sun. It isn’t half bad, though. Sometimes, doubt propels you forward. It leaves you asking questions. It pushes you toward answers. So, we brought up our doubts. They went something like this: “Man, what the fuck are we doing in China?”

My friend and I agree. There is nothing I would trade this experience for. I made the right move proceeding down this particular path. It was for me; I needed it. I have friends at home working hard and excelling in their respective jobs. But I wouldn’t trade my life for their’s. And neither would my friend for his friends’.

A lot of it is personal. A lot of it is interests, character, personality. Whatever it is, my friend and I are quite different, yet find each other to be quite the same. We’re here, doing this, because it feels right. Even with the doubt. Even with the world back home spinning away as if it were on a secondary axis. Our home isn’t that place anymore. Going back, yes, perhaps it is in the cards, but it will never remotely be the same.

Old friends will be long gone, the memory of our times shared just shadows in our past. Family will be there, but what about the time we have missed between? I will never know what my sister looked like from 14-16 years old. That pains me to say it. My grandparents are getting older, and each day passes is one day less I have with them. With all of “them,” with anyone.

But I can’t stop this now. I can worry about the future, sure. But in doing so, I must not forget what it was that brought me here. The million footsteps before, the thousand roads diverged in a wood. I cannot forget the places I have seen and the ridiculous/dangerous/hysterical/tragic experiences I have embraced along my way. The “reality” of my perception has shifted; its subtlety belies its affirmation. Within me, I have been reborn time and again, shattering the shells of my own perceived identity, my doubts and my beliefs. And I need this. Others need other means. I need this. This is my Odyssey.

The New York Times, October 9, 2007:
“The Odyssey Years,” by DAVID BROOKS
There used to be four common life phases: childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. Now, there are at least six: childhood, adolescence, odyssey, adulthood, active retirement and old age. Of the new ones, the least understood is odyssey, the decade of wandering that frequently occurs between adolescence and adulthood.

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.

They see that people in this age bracket are delaying marriage. They’re delaying having children. They’re delaying permanent employment. People who were born before 1964 tend to define adulthood by certain accomplishments — moving away from home, becoming financially independent, getting married and starting a family.

In 1960, roughly 70 percent of 30-year-olds had achieved these things. By 2000, fewer than 40 percent of 30-year-olds had done the same.

Yet with a little imagination it’s possible even for baby boomers to understand what it’s like to be in the middle of the odyssey years. It’s possible to see that this period of improvisation is a sensible response to modern conditions.

Two of the country’s best social scientists have been trying to understand this new life phase. William Galston of the Brookings Institution has recently completed a research project for the Hewlett Foundation. Robert Wuthnow of Princeton has just published a tremendously valuable book, “After the Baby Boomers” that looks at young adulthood through the prism of religious practice.

Through their work, you can see the spirit of fluidity that now characterizes this stage. Young people grow up in tightly structured childhoods, Wuthnow observes, but then graduate into a world characterized by uncertainty, diversity, searching and tinkering. Old success recipes don’t apply, new norms have not been established and everything seems to give way to a less permanent version of itself.

Dating gives way to Facebook and hooking up. Marriage gives way to cohabitation. Church attendance gives way to spiritual longing. Newspaper reading gives way to blogging. (In 1970, 49 percent of adults in their 20s read a daily paper; now it’s at 21 percent.)

The job market is fluid. Graduating seniors don’t find corporations offering them jobs that will guide them all the way to retirement. Instead they find a vast menu of information economy options, few of which they have heard of or prepared for.

Social life is fluid. There’s been a shift in the balance of power between the genders. Thirty-six percent of female workers in their 20s now have a college degree, compared with 23 percent of male workers. Male wages have stagnated over the past decades, while female wages have risen.

This has fundamentally scrambled the courtship rituals and decreased the pressure to get married. Educated women can get many of the things they want (income, status, identity) without marriage, while they find it harder (or, if they’re working-class, next to impossible) to find a suitably accomplished mate.

The odyssey years are not about slacking off. There are intense competitive pressures as a result of the vast numbers of people chasing relatively few opportunities. Moreover, surveys show that people living through these years have highly traditional aspirations (they rate parenthood more highly than their own parents did) even as they lead improvising lives.

Rather, what we’re seeing is the creation of a new life phase, just as adolescence came into being a century ago. It’s a phase in which some social institutions flourish — knitting circles, Teach for America — while others — churches, political parties — have trouble establishing ties.

But there is every reason to think this phase will grow more pronounced in the coming years. European nations are traveling this route ahead of us, Galston notes. Europeans delay marriage even longer than we do and spend even more years shifting between the job market and higher education.

And as the new generational structure solidifies, social and economic entrepreneurs will create new rites and institutions. Someday people will look back and wonder at the vast social changes wrought by the emerging social group that saw their situations first captured by “Friends” and later by “Knocked Up.”


Written by Miles

October 9, 2007 at 8:39 am

One Response

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  1. Good post! Homer’s Odyssey is a wonderfully powerful metaphor for the journey through life. Story and myth in general can help us place events in our lives in some sort of context. There is a blog I subscribe to that deals with myth, the Odyssey, and the journey through life called Rethinking Life:


    March 7, 2008 at 6:30 pm

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