Brooks’ contribution to our socio-cultural understanding of this particular life phase has the potential to redefine it as a vital and pivotal time of life for the 20-somethings going through it. Too often, when young adults have not yet accomplished many of the tasks and challenges commonly expected of them when they leave college, they are characterized as “lost,” “adrift,” “not having found themselves,” or, worse, “dysfunctional.”
Many parents continue to hope, and perhaps expect, that their children will have clarity about their career aspirations and be actively on the path toward a professional life by graduation day. Often, they get their wish. Many graduates, however, complete college with considerable career uncertainty. They may need a period of post-graduate exploration and experimentation before coming close to a career choice that is sound and feels right to them. As Brooks says, “the odyssey years are not about slacking off…it’s possible to see that this period of improvisation is a sensible response to modern conditions.”
In my psychotherapy practice, I have seen many 20-somethings who have either referred themselves for help or were referred by concerned others, typically their parents. The anxiety or depression they report, often appears traceable to phase-of-life related issues. Some young adults feel (or are) unprepared for the absence of structure and organization that occurs when they leave home or college and try to establish a separate and independent life. Others, however, similarly depressed or anxious, simply may not have yet figured out the terms and conditions of their adulthood, including career choice, and need to know that this is acceptable and normal and not emotional disturbance or inadequate functioning.
Princeton University, according to a recent New York Times article, is working to create a program to send a tenth or more of its newly admitted students for a year of social service work in a foreign country before they set foot on campus as freshmen. Princeton’s president, Shirley M. Tilghman, believes that such a program would give students a more international perspective, add to their maturity and give them a break from academic pressures. She called it a year of “cleansing the palate of high school, giving them a year to regroup.” Growing numbers of high school students have opted to take a “gap year’ before entering college, and many colleges offer one-year deferrals to students they admit. Some parents may worry, however, that once their children veer off the traditional continuity of high school-college, they may lose interest in attending four more years of school. The “gap year” for most, I suspect, may help to make “the odyssey years” more meaningful and establish further clarity as these young adults try to figure out how to establish their adult phase credentials and, therefore, how to thrive.