Recently a cousin turned 21. As I began to write her a greeting that sounded sensible without being aunt-ji type advice (and I must say I did not do quite well) I began to think about what things were like when I turned 21.
Obviously I had no clue that life would change within a few years when my academic life ended and worklife started, when I began to live in a home of my own instead of the supervised environs of parental home and hostels and when everyone around me began to test what serious relationships were like. In retrospect, my early 20s was probably the time I actually discovered the ‘real world’.
The change from school to work was the most traumatic one I must have had. In my final years at school, I regularly got good grades. Work was a whole different world.
I could understand that some people were brighter than me and did better at work than me. I was at a loss to explain how some people with obviously lesser intelligence than me shone too. It took me a long time to work out that the parameters by which you are judged at work was very very different from the near black and white evaluation you have at school. You needed to be not just hardworking and sincere but also street smart, networked and have a whole host of skills that never came in books.
Not to mention, the lack of ‘intellectual’ challenges at work also perplexed me. After the exciting world of cutting-edge valuation techniques gleamed from international text books, most of my time actually went into photocopying, working on presentations, inputting annual reports into the risk system and other such tearful tasks.
The question loomed – was I in the right field at all? And within this field, was I in the right role? Was I in the right organization? With absolutely no idea of what to expect from the real world, I was shooting in the dark and incidentally, so were a lot of my friends.
In the 5 – 6 years after we all started work, the batch’s professional profile changed quite a bit. When we left campus, pretty much all of us sounded like high- flatulin MBAs ‘who wanted to work in intellectually challenging careers’ in investment banking, consulting or top IT or marketing companies.
Five years later, people had fanned out. Some had decided they needed to work on a bigger scale and decided to do a second MBA overseas. Some moved into entirely new fields like economics, developmental work, research (one guy from another school even started his own music band!). Some left their jobs and started their own companies. Some had stayed in their own fields, but moved to less ambitious positions and organizations that did not require 15 hour days and politicking like mad. It was as though all of us had been released from the B-School/parental/peer
It turned out that unlike our parents, at twenty-something we had not got stuck in the job we would do the rest of our lives. We could change roles, change organisations, change fields and infact even just sit at home to think for a while, without too much of an impact on our CVs or financial status. At junior levels, jobs were so plentiful that the worst that could happen was that you would have to start again with lower-brand name firm. And you were paid peanuts in any role, so the difference in working in an ad agency vis a vis working in a consulting job was not going to hurt for a few months. At any rate, it was worth taking the risk of making changes to find what you really wanted to do.
In the midst of all this existential angst on work, I had totally ignored personal life. Not that I did not care for relationships. However, the way I saw it, my parents would find a suitable prospect and one fine day I would get married. That of course, did not come to pass.
Happily enough, I was not the only one. My generation was lucky enough to push the definition of an ‘old maid’ slightly and change the perception to ‘independent, single woman’. Instead of the giggly, ‘I have a crush on you’ type school girl relationships, everyone began trying their hand at the more serious stuff. And learnt a lot on the way.
Like work, it turned out that you had to figure out what kind of Prince Charming would fit you well to have a shot at the happily ever-after.
Probably the most important change that happened in my twenties was my relationship with my parents. I had finally gotten over my teenage fixation of blaming my parents for everything and being equally dependent on them for most major decisions in my life. Instead we began to drift towards a new territory of an adult-adult relationship from a parent-child relationship. This meant that they had to accept some of the difficult decisions I made and I had to accept that I would have to disappoint them in some ways.
It was not just me. Parents all around were upset when their brilliant child who had gotten a great-paying job out of school had decided to quit and join an unknown start-up. Parents were upset that their children had chosen to marry outside the community or to postpone marriage indefinitely. They were reluctant to cut the apron strings, and when they were ready to do so, they were apprehensive about whether we were mature enough to take our own decisions.
As I said, I was discovering the 'real world'
But boy, was it also fun!
Finally we had the money and the time to enjoy it. We could go on Saturday morning shopping binges and Saturday night party binges without the guilt of spending our parent’s hard earned money. (The thought of saving money did not enter my head till I turned 27 or 28).
We were now responsible young adults, but we were only responsible for ourselves and not even to a spouse, forget children.
We could have a house in which mattresses strewn over the floor replaced sofas as seating, mealtimes were entirely dependent on the sleep/work/party cycle, lighting could be from the cool low hanging paper lanterns rather than the elegant, refined lighting of our parents’ homes.
There was always someone who had a relationship to be discussed and analysed and having ‘girly talks’ was a lot of fun.
We knew that no matter how bad things were at work or at relationships, one could get out and look for something new. There was no pressure to bring a semblance of permanence to our actions. Our options seemed wide, wide open.
One of the interesting things I have always heard about the West is how kids take a break year and ‘find themselves’ when they leave school. Of course, that concept would probably be laughed at in India. Looking back, I realize that we do not entirely skip the phase, especially when one is from a reasonably well-off middle class home in an urban centre. ‘Finding yourself’ is just what you do in your twenties.