While we’re on the subject of my grandma, I remember going to visit her with my younger brother later on in her life, after she’d moved to the retirement home, which she inwardly hated and outwardly tolerated. My brother hadn’t seen her in perhaps a year or so and was visiting while in the area before a big walk he was going to do, either his walk across Newfoundland, or the one up the coast of California. I can’t remember which. He was explaining the philosophy of the walks (and there is a philosophy—there has to be to walk all that distance), that he liked to get out and meet people, talk to them, that part of the point was to show what’s lost when people race around in cars all the time. I’m not sure how he expected her to react to this kind of idealism, but, she was completely exasperated and asked when he was going to settle down and get a real job. He said he liked the walking and that he thought about it as a kind of work. She responded by telling him that people shouldn’t like their jobs, that liking your work really wasn’t the point. She might as well have added, “that’s why they call it work.” He countered with probably the best and worst response he could have made at that point; he told her that Jesus’ job was essentially to walk around and talk to people, and so, in a way, he was really just following in his footsteps.
That pretty much ended the conversation, but not in a way that suggested he had won. You couldn’t just compare yourself to Jesus in front of my grandma and come away unscathed in her mind. I’m sure she never forgot the conversation or the discomfort that followed it; the collision of worldviews was obvious, stark, the impasse palpable.
I’m sure my brother’s cash-less, wandering lifestyle seemed egomaniacal, self-destructive and potentially pagan to my grandma, a woman who lived through World War II in Europe, only to move to Canada to eke out a living with a man who struggled as a farmer for years before getting a “real” job in the city. She did without because there was no other option. She worked hard alongside my grandpa to provide for her daughters, wanted them all to be educated, which they were, and watched them marry and work hard themselves. Then came the inscrutable and frivolous offspring, a generation of grandchildren who felt they had the right to relinquish their grasp on the middle class and choose a life of just getting by, floating along, waiting for new and exciting opportunities to present themselves. To be fair, my brother was in his early 20s at the time. Unmarried. Unattached. Un-indebted. Like many of us at that age, he was probably wrestling with some demons, and, besides, he wasn’t doing anything that vastly different from the kids who took off to backpack in Europe in the 1970s or to Asia to teach in ESL programs in the 2000s, well, except for the walking bit.
Like all those who take a year or two or three away from education and work in their early adulthood, my brother very obviously and deliberately shirked the model of our grandparents. For my brother, this wasn’t some kind of second generation immigrant complex—the generation that is supposed to capitalize on the hard, establishing groundwork of the first émigrés. There was no trust fund or deep pocket fuelling his endeavours, just his own tenacity in returning to a lucrative, if gruelling, job tree planting every summer. In some ways, his choices speak to a larger set of statistics that supposedly describes this generation: marrying later, if at all, having fewer children and having them later in life, if at all, taking up careers later, after years of post-secondary education, and then shifting into new careers when an employer downsizes, when we become bored or simply to develop a diverse portfolio. But, then, these stats also don’t really capture the idiosyncracies of his path. Very few elect to spend half a year following a rail trail across Canada’s foggiest province, and certainly none do this as professional development.
Even if they’re not trekking through states and provinces, many people in their early adulthood do embark on paths with little to no discernable benefit other than the experience of the thing itself. With the exception of a few mythical positions that allow one to save vast sums of money, most ESL jobs pay comfortably enough to allow one to travel, to work few hours and to enjoy living in a different culture. Most trekking around Europe will put one into debt, though that debt is usually mild compared to the staggering loads accrued through four years of university education, let alone graduate school. These are choices being made in favour of the experience. We want to do things, see, hear, smell and taste things that are beyond the limits of whatever borders we know. To be sure, the option to be mobile is a decidedly privileged, Western one, but is an option widely taken up.
Statistics don’t explain the changing motivations behind the drastically different sets of decisions being made by many of today’s 20-somethings. Why do so many of us choose against settling or settling down? Why is our generation obsessed with movement, with racking up experiences, with always doing something more, something different? And why do we feel as though we are somehow failing if we aren’t building up our bank of experiences? Why does it now feel impossible to tolerate working in a job that we don’t like?
I’m not sure that I can answer these questions (which doesn’t mean I won’t try). And, in asking them, I don’t mean to suggest, like Lori Gottlieb’s recent book aimed at nearly middle-aged, unmarried women, that I’m an advocate of settling (though I don’t necessarily disagree with the premise of her book, which I have not read). But between my grandma’s vehement attitude around work being work and my brother’s approach to life as a project, a time of experimentation and a space in which one should explore the parameters of one’s self, something has shifted. We’re in a different place, different places, really: hostels, dorms and temporary rentals snagged on Craigslist. If we buy houses, we’re just as likely to think of them as investments (now tenuous investments at best), as we are to imagine them as places where we will raise our families. And we’re here largely without guidance, since the paths our grandparents and our parents took are, for the most part, no longer passable. So which direction are we supposed to go? Maybe the most sensible choice is to take a break, walk across a province, and consider the options.