Every time my birthday rolls around, I wake up, stare at the ceiling, and desperately try to convince myself that I haven’t wasted my life. Every year it’s been getting harder.
I’m a 26-year-old woman, 27 in May, and as of writing this particular article I’m still living in a share-house with two of my closest friends and a carpet that smells vaguely of cat, working part-time as a secretary for an office suite (which admittedly means I get to practice my sexy phone voice), and sitting on a half-finished manuscript for a novel comprised of a partially-developed soup recipe, terrible sex scenes, cannibals who can dance and rabbits that can’t.
Meanwhile, I see old classmates finding jobs in the public service, getting married and starting families. Some of them are buying apartments. My university cohort are founding web-journals, becoming successful editors and publishing books of their own. Recently I heard that one of my oldest friends moved to Wellington in July to study at New Zealand’s top drama school.
From where I’m sitting, they all seem like settled, confident adults, ready to handle whatever the world throws at them. When I look back a generation, things only get worse. At my age, Dad had jackarooed around Australia and toured with the army. Mum spent her twenties travelling around the world and singing on cruise ships, and after making her name as an artist settled in Tasmania to found her own documentary-film company. By her 30th birthday, the two of them had met, found themselves in countless crazy adventures involving smokey jazz clubs, German Shepherds, kind-hearted con-men and crazy Greek composers, and just to round it off, they had me.
Meanwhile, I have about as much an idea of what I want to do with my life as I did when I was 18. Of course, my dream is to write for a living, but I have to keep a roof over my head somehow! However, my career prospects are tenuous at best, my honours degree is gathering dust in a box somewhere and the thought of doing my taxes leaves me in a cold sweat. It’s a rare day when I don’t find myself thinking, ‘If I’m spending my time doing nothing but writing, without a stable career or a home of my own, if I can’t stomach the thought of raising a family or leaving the country to see the world on my own, do I really deserve to call myself a functional adult?’
One cup of tea and a brief look at the people around me is enough to tell me the answer.
The stereotype I sought to embody was simple and all-pervasive. We see it in every sitcom and piece of airport fiction, we heard about it from our parents and teachers whenever we said we wanted to play guitar or program video games for a living. Our government is so fond of it that it recently cut student loans to arts-based diplomas in order to ‘remove lifestyle-related courses’ and encourage jobs that ‘would benefit Australia economically in the 21st century.’ The Beatles wrote a song about it. When I was a child, being an adult meant having a career, and the 9am to 5pm, five day a week work cycle was the purest expression of that.
In every example, a career was something that you could be locked into for your whole working life, and it would often would be carefully planned. From high school through to university, you were supposed to set your sights on becoming one thing, whether that was a doctor, a lawyer or a journalist. Every class you took was geared towards getting a high enough UAI (or Tertiary Admission Rank in NSW, or Overall Position in QLD,) to get into the necessary degrees at university that would make you indispensable to a prospective employer, and more often than not the first job offered to you after finishing that degree was at the bottom rung of a structure that you could spend decades climbing. If not, then you’d spend a year or two patiently building a resume, making yourself ever more employable for when an opportunity finally comes calling. We’re raised to believe that career is everything: with a stable job, it’s possible to support a family, buy a house, and (most importantly of all,) live independently. A career, essentially, is meant to open up the world.
However, at least with regards to my personal experience, finding one of these white-picket-fence careers is difficult. Perhaps I was just looking in the wrong places, but the companies and businesses I found that were hiring tended to be looking for people with at least two or three years of experience in their chosen field, and those few with entry level positions going always seemed to be snapped up as soon as I so much as breathed on them. Furthermore, there just aren’t as many positions going as there were a generation ago (a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald explores the dearth of entry-level positions available to people looking for work). Tasks such as bookkeeping and data entry, which might have once taken a whole team of people, now require a fraction of the staff thanks to the streamlining effect of computers, and as the economy fluctuates companies downsize, change roster and go bankrupt. This has led to a lot of professionals looking for work, and in the middle of that experienced crowd, one nervous little freelance writer isn’t going to stand out that much.
Thankfully, those pesky computers have also created other ways to open up the world.
Over the past few years, I’ve read story after story about the young adults of my generation being more alone than any other. We’re connected to each other over the internet, but we lack any real contact with one another, and the virtual space in which we all dwell only serves to make any ‘real’ interaction harder.
However, social media, and more broadly the internet as a whole, has opened up platforms for communication and creativity that were unheard of less than a decade ago, with more ways to interact online being created all the time. Instead of waiting for a university degree to grant them access to a library, or a career to fund a paid holiday, budding artists, writers, entrepreneurs and start-up clothing designers can find opportunities, inspiration, feedback and markets on their own time, and on their own terms. Jewellery-making? Welcome to Etsy. Aspiring writer? Pick a fanfiction website (it worked for Fifty Shades). Have an idea for affordable underwear for transgender women? Make a Kickstarter and watch the pledges roll in, mine included, or start a Patreon and earn money based on your prospective audience. The traditional career is by no means obsolete, and the online world carries its own dangers, but the fact remains that the modern adult has more room to pursue their own passions than ever before. I know I’d rather pursue my dreams of becoming a writer on websites like Feminartsy and fanfiction.net then work for 40 hours a week in a job I loathe: if I had to work in retail full time, I’d burn myself out by the time I was thirty.
And the biggest secret that we’ve learned? The ‘functional adult’ we wanted to be, probably never existed in the first place.
Image: Tongle Dakum
Callie Doyle-Scott was born in Tasmania in 1990, but has since travelled around Australia: she currently resides in Canberra. A graduate of RMIT University’s Creative Writing program in 2013, she never quite lost the study bug: her speciality is culinary history, specifically that of Victorian England and Japan throughout the ages, though she loves to research old folktales in her spare time. Callie started writing stories when she was ten (her first being about a cave that could turn people into animals,) and was first published in Dickson College’s CLIO History Journal with two articles on Renaissance heroines Caterina Sforza and Lucrezia Borgia. While studying, she went on to found and edit Verity La’s Out of Limbo project (an online archive devoted to the coming-out stories of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex individuals,) and participate in Bryce Courtney’s final writing masterclass in 2012. Since then, she has written articles for the Verity La and Writer’s Bloc webjournals, and hopes to establish a wider portfolio over the coming months. She is currently working to finish the draft of her first novel, a gastronomic fantasy entitled Soup for the Moon, in the hopes of approaching a publisher by the end of the year.
This piece has been published with the support of the ACT Government.