The New Bildungsroman: An Ode to 20-somethings

BirthdayzIn just a few short hours, I will tackle the huge obstacle of accepting 23.  Now I know that for a lot of people, 23 is still very young.  I am not under any impression that I’m getting old and wrinkly or that my life is all down hill from here.  I have always filled the spot as “the young one” in my peer groups, and whenever my older friends complained about their birthdays I’d laugh at them and tell them that they were being ridiculous.  But here I am.

I guess the thing about birthdays is that you can’t stop them from coming.  As much as you drag your heels or make excuses, it’s going to happen.  So why is 23 sticking out so much in my head?  It’s not all that significant- there are no definite new responsibilities that come with being 23, but whenever I thought of 23, I thought of someone who is very much an adult- they’ve got it all figured out and are on their way down their chosen path with a real handle on the whole life thing.  I look around at my fellow 23s and it just ain’t so.  “No Offense.”  The majority of us just aged out of the college lifestyle but are still the low woman on the totem pole in the office.

My only real exposure to an upper-level literature class was Spanish Lit, and although I was focusing more on the language and cultural aspects, I did pick up a few literary terms along the way: e.g. Bildungsroman- the Coming-Of-Age story.  This is a really popular niche for authors because- and I’m making a huge assumption here- being a kid is F*ing hard and makes for an exciting story.  There are so many erratic emotions flowing through these kids as they try to figure out how to have their own mind and what to do with it, yet they face the paradox that they aren’t really allowed to make any of those decisions at all; it’s like growing a new voice that no one can hear.  I get it- I did it and I never want to go back there again.  When I reminisce about not being almost 23, I do not  envision the 15-year-old me. Helllllll no.  Anyway.

So the real definition of Bildungsroman is a literary genre that focuses on the journey from youth to adulthood.  For some reason, a lot of these stories focus on teenagers and their first dabbles with maturity.  It’s a great field guide for kids going through all of those changes, giving them hope that it’s going to be alright and that they aren’t going to explode in a big hormonal fireworks show.  But it never tells you what happens in the years following the almighty “Age” that they “Came to”.  For many of us, we think that we came of age, we went to college and thought we had our shit together because we did well in school and had that first taste of independence…and it was all working.  Shit, it was even fun.  But then you graduate, and reality sets in.  The real Bildungsroman doesn’t end with the main character splurging on cute first-apartment decorations and Instagram posts;  The real Bildungsroman shows the main character putting down the bottle of wine and buying some toothpaste and paper towels because you can’t just steal them from campus; it shows her forgoing the cute new bikini in favor of some adorably bland, unisex “office appropriate” slacks and matching flats (slacks wasn’t even a word in my vocabulary until 23 came at me).  We’re facing those annoying paradoxes of our youth all over again!  We’re expected to have jobs that put meaning into our fancy degrees, but we aren’t accepted anywhere without five years of experience that we somehow missed.  We’re supposed to be self-sufficient and live in cozy apartments with rugs that really tie the room together, but most of us have crippling debt (see above: fancy degrees).  Our elders tell us to take advantage of our youth/stop worrying so much/live in the moment, but scold us for being lazy or entitled when we follow their advice and set high standards for ourselves.  We want to travel and learn and explore, but again, that crippling debt thing.  There is so much for us to figure out, and our resources are limited.  The one thing we do have?  Time.  And just like birthdays, it will pass whether we want it to our not.

The lesson we get to learn as we trudge through this Bildungsroman is that we already fought for our voice in round use it.  We didn’t go through all of that high school growing up nonsense just to pore over any Buzzfeed article that validates our sense of confusion.  The very nature of our 20s is that we have to start making meaningful decisions, and these little shits are tougher than working through the games section of the LSATs or figuring out if that “We’ll be in touch//I’ll call you” was genuine.  The original Bildungsroman chronicles youngens as they summon the bravery to reach emotional maturity; they decide what they believe in, but ultimately they still can’t make solid decisions about the important things in life (like where to find the cheapest organic food).  I love to imagine our classic “Coming of Age” characters like Scout Finch or Stargirl making all of these outstanding strides towards independence, but still having a bedtime.  This time around, as we come of age again, we really do get to call the shots.  We already know what we believe in.  And hey, if we’re wrong…well we’ve got time.

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