February 8, 2013

Nothing to show for it?

Last weekend, one of my friends and I were catching up over breakfast, and the conversation inevitably turned to the possibility of moving, wanting to buy a house or apartment, and how expensive our respective cities are. That New York Times article about the middle class in Manhattan struck a chord with a lot of people I know, and as sobering as it was to read, it wasn't exactly news to any of us. Manhattan is really too expensive for most people to live in, and even Brooklyn, which used to be the butt of sooo many jokes, is getting too pricey. It seems as though you have to be ├╝ber-wealthy to shake that feeling of just barely getting by.

My friend and I were bemoaning the fact that although we can both continue to scrape by, it will probably always be like that if we remain in the city (NYC much more than DC, but still). At some point we'll want to expand our families, and with that comes the need for something larger than a one-bedroom apartment. Sure, by the time those babies come into our lives, we will hopefully have better salaries, but will it really be enough to cover rent and baby expenses? This started to raise a lot of anxiety about how we should have all of those things, how our former high school classmates who stuck to the suburbs or ventured to other parts of the country have those things, and how unfair it is that we will be lagging behind them just because we live in urban areas.

"I want a house!" I cried.

"I want a lawn," she whispered.

"I want to have nice furniture."

"I want to own something. I'm an adult and have nothing to show for it."

When it came down to it, we both realized that the idea that we should have a house, a husband, and babies by the time we're 30 just wasn't going to come true. Yes, I'm married at 27, but I'm also still in grad school and will just be starting my career in the next couple of years. Even then, the hubs will still be in school, and we'll be in our mid-30s before both of us are (hopefully) working full-time. We chose that lifestyle because we're both big nerds who wanted to accumulate degrees (and, you know, learn things), but it also means that unless we dramatically change our location, there will be no house-owning for at least a few more years.

My friend is also 27, lives in Brooklyn, and is partnered. She and her boyfriend have jobs (hurrah!) in the music industry, so their perspective on being priced out of even Brooklyn was particularly interesting to me. Artists are not exactly known for raking in big bucks, so when they can no longer afford to live in a city that represents mecca for so many creative types, where do they go? More importantly, how will that change artist "scenes" and communities?

I don't think I have the answers to some of these questions. What I do have is the realization that whoever made up the rule that we should be in a certain point in our lives by a given age was totally wrong. Today's reality means that I can't have all the things that I want and feel entitled to, and it will probably be a while longer before the materials around me reflect what I think an adult "should" have.

Yet even that idea doesn't sit well with me. Owning material goods shouldn't make me more or less of an adult. With the internet, it's easy to get glimpses into other people's lives and feel jealous that they have nice houses and go on extravagant vacations, but it seems silly that those things should project them ahead of me in the Adult Game. Why can't my degrees, my happiness, my maturity, and other intangible things "show" my adultness? What if what I have to show for my place in life isn't the same as somebody else's-- is one really better than the other? When it comes down to it, I don't want to feel as though I'm always competing with those around me. The news article made me realize that living in the city forever probably isn't feasible for us, and I need to accept that. It doesn't make me any better or worse, and I need to be open to being responsible over having pretty, flashy things.

I don't know what the future has in store for me. I don't know where the hubs and I will be living, I don't know exactly what type of job I will have, and I don't know if I will ever get the dream house I fantasize about. And that's okay. It's sad sometimes, and it's frustrating most of the time, but it's also okay. Living my life by the standards of somebody else is something I have never wanted to do, and that shouldn't stop now. Keeping up with appearances is exhausting, and I'm going to define my "adulthood" in my own way. It's the only way.