Years ago, while I was still a student in Zürich, I had a conversation with a guy which has lingered in my brain. We discussed some of my background, with me saying that I spent a couple of years working in the hotel industry and then got out. His next comment was “Oh, so you’ve only been a functioning adult for 2 years.”
The best I can say about this response is that he probably didn’t mean to sound as much like a dick as he did. He was a rather conservative guy for someone several years younger than me, so it makes sense that his definition of functioning adulthood is working a full-time job and paying taxes even though he’d never done any. He had a bit of a talent for pointing out exactly what you might feel insecure about, though.
This is something that’s popped up in my mind now and then ever since. Living in a student WG at my age was, for most people, regressive. “Aren’t you supposed to get your own apartment? Aren’t you supposed to be working full time in order to get that?” I loved my life, but I was never sure if I should. I thought my life there was a bit of a holiday because there I managed to turn my regular life into having the energy of a holiday.
This even got turned up to 11 for my couple of months as a hostel volunteer. I wasn’t living as a normal taxpaying career consumer, but I filled my life with the spontaneity that can only easily come from not being that. Working as a tour guide, and then as a volunteer, gave my life a degree of freedom that was both liberating and worrying. I recently got to revisit one of my hostels for a week, and it was just full of the activity I haven’t been having lately as a full-time teacher.
All this was a rather intense experience. Every day was full of something, and I love the kind of social environment where meeting people is encouraged far more than not.
Generally speaking universities and so on also offer relatively intense social environments, and I’ve often recommended people to take advantage of that because regular adulthood does not make that easier. I’ve met many people who struggle with it afterwards because the contrast is dramatic: you go from living with friends in an environment where you would meet many different people all the time to living on your own working a job where you see the same people at least 5 days per week. Life does not make it immediately obvious how to improve on that either because you are usually on your own.
It was apparent to me while I was living in that WG that I had tapped into an aspect of happiness that society largely disagreed with: Everyone says you’re supposed to get a job and develop your assets in terms of property and savings. Then the idea is that you get married, have some kids, and eventually retire. Ideally, you love that person you marry, and ideally, you enjoy the job you work at.
Let’s be honest though, many people slide into marriage because they dated and it seemed like the next step. Many people get a job that they’re okay with and then just keep doing it for years until leaving isn’t easy anymore. Barring any big life shocks, it’s common to just go from one thing to another because society suggested that it was the next thing you should do.
And maybe that does satisfy you, which is great. I’m willing to bet that many people just do it because it was presented as the next thing to do, though, and the busyness of life keeps them occupied. This is, however, what mid-life crises are made of: reaching your 40s or 50s, maybe when your kids grow up, and realising that maybe you didn’t do what you wanted to do.
I was really affected by my last experience working in the US, and then my time in Penang soon after that. In the US I met lots of Americans who were working the exact same kind of job I was, but were limited by the parochial borders of American society which doesn’t look outside very much. Those without families to support just worked towards their next car, or a bigger apartment. I had the great fortune to live for months with a friend in Penang, and he was also dealing with the lack of the same social environment we had had before. Both these experiences taught me that life had a way of feeling empty without something more to fill it up.
I am, currently, trying the normal thing: I work 5-6 days a week, I rent a studio apartment, and I save money to go on holidays. The stability is great, of course, but I can’t help but find myself chafing a bit at the regularity of it. Sometimes I hear people say what many have said before: “I just came back from my holiday and now it’s back to work, I wish I could be on holiday all the time.”
And sure, bills need to be paid, and for that work must be done. But the way I see it is that you can still make your life more like your holidays if you want to. Insofar as possible, fill your non-work hours with the things you like to do while on holiday. Even if you don’t like your job, you can find something else to bring you joy. If you love your job, even better, but it need not entirely define you as a person.
I think it’s important to recognise your own humanity and individuality because it is your life, no one else will live it for you, so you have to choose how best you want to live it.