A Post-College Path to Somewhere

By Laura Sessions Stepp
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 7, 2006

Timothy Ziese, a 22-year-old college senior poised to join the adult ranks, thinks frequently these days about a 6-year-old named Calvin.

Calvin and Hobbes was a comic strip that assumed cult status when he and his friends were in elementary and middle school. Ziese recalls the last strip, on Dec. 31, 1995: the precocious Calvin, standing alongside his sardonic stuffed tiger, Hobbes, near the top of a snow-covered hill, a toboggan nearby.

Trees dot the landscape, a certain steering hazard. Fresh snow covers the bumps and holes that could send them flying. Casting aside any fears, the impulsive Calvin urges his more rational friend onto the toboggan saying, "It's a magical world, Hobbes ol' buddy. Let's go exploring!"

Ziese wishes he could be that confident about his forthcoming launch from George Washington University. A double major in international relations and political science, he graduates with outstanding loans of about $40,000, is unsure what he wants to do with his life, and is apprehensive about the hazards and bumps that await him in whatever job he chooses.

"When I think of adulthood I think of waking up at 7 a.m., having a 9-to-5 job, paying my mortgage and my taxes, being married and taking care of my kids," he said. But if that's the understanding, said Ziese, there's no way he wants to be an adult adult come commencement. So what will he be?

"Maybe a young adult?"

Researchers say Ziese and other seniors are "emerging adults," making a transition that can last through their late 20s. Some older adults scoff at this, saying a coddled generation just needs to suck it up and quit whining. Those who work with new graduates, though, say it's not so easy. A lot stands in their way.

"Where once youth moved nearly lockstep through the markers of adulthood . . . today the path is much more circuitous and steeped in ambiguity," an ongoing study by a network of university-based scientists concluded. "Jobs are no longer secure, marriage is delayed, buying a house and gaining an education are expensive, relationships are more tenuous and the connection to community more fractured."

These are not exactly comforting words for someone like Lindsay Walter-Cox, also a GW senior. She at least knows what she wants to be: a school psychologist. But with more than $50,000 in loans, she can't afford to go to graduate school right now. So she has applied to Teach for America, a privately funded national organization that will send her to an urban or rural area for two years -- and allow her to defer her debt.

"Being a teacher scares the crap out of me," she said. "I'll have to project that I'm an adult even if I don't feel like one. . . . Even if I become a teacher, will I be able to support a family?"

Much has been made over the alleged "quarter-life crisis" of twentysomethings like Ziese and Walter-Cox. Authors, Web sites and commentators describe it as a period of indecisiveness, job-hopping, low earnings, and living back home with Mom and Dad.

In fact, many recent grads are anything but slackers. They have pursued double majors, high GPAs, campus clubs and sports like past generations chased beer and bongs. Although worrying about acquiring house, spouse and other externals of adulthood, they already possess some of the necessary internals: an ability to set realistic goals and reflect on their actions (if somewhat endlessly), a sense of purpose, and desire to help others.

Some seem fully mature already, to their elders almost frighteningly so.

Three such seniors gathered one afternoon at a roundtable on the campus of Howard University. All three, on partial or full scholarships, will soon start jobs in fields that pay enough to make them financially self-sufficient. That means they can expand their vision beyond themselves, another mark of adulthood. They are well aware of this.

Floyd Mitchell, president of the business school's student council, will go to work for Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., a management consulting firm. His salary package, assuming he passes his first performance review, approaches $90,000. He has to excel, he said, and not just because he'd like to be able to furnish a cool pad in Brooklyn with something more than Ikea beds and cookware. Black graduates will want to follow him, including Howard graduates, and whether or not they get hired at the predominantly white firm will depend in part on how he performs, he said.

"The reality is there's an added responsibility that comes with being a young black professional in a white world," Mitchell said.

Asso Aidoo, student representative to Howard's board of trustees, is headed for the banking and securities firm Goldman Sachs Group Inc. With a starting salary package similar to Mitchell's, "it's time to be accountable to my team, the stakeholders and my family," she said. "Things like the Super Bowl and a trip to the Bahamas, I just can't do those anymore."

Classmate Earl Fitzhugh, who as president of his fraternity organized a community mentoring program, is taking a job as a mechanical engineer with the National Nuclear Security Administration. With a salary package of $62,000, he foresees a time in the near future when he will earn more money than his parents do. He plans to help out when needed. "I want to go as far as I can for the sake of the family," he said.

As promising a future as these Howard students have, they, too, share anxieties about being able to navigate the ride down the snowy slopes ahead. Come May, they won't have professors who call them when they're sick -- some profs at Howard actually do that -- and they'd rather die than ask their parents to bail them out of a jam.

At the same time, they don't want to wake up one day and realize that, to steal a thought from T.S. Eliot, they've measured out their lives in coffee spoons. In their oversized jeans and khakis and yes, even their navy gabardine, they and others of their generation are still, at heart, Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers defending the planet. They want to live large.

This carries risk, they realize perhaps more acutely than their parents did at their age.

"At the dawn of adulthood, we achieve a sort of 'free will,' " said Ziese, the son of two Lutheran pastors. "We have the capacity to do great things or to fail miserably in whatever we choose to do."

If he were to draw that last Calvin and Hobbes strip, he'd tinker with the last frame. "What if Calvin runs into trees? Falls off his toboggan? Takes a wrong turn and misses a spectacular forest vista?

"The final sentence might run, 'Hobbes, we might crash . . . but let's go exploring anyway!"

© 2006 The Washington Post Company