Life as a 20-something in Madison

These emerging adults veer from the norm
Life as a 20-something in Madison
Paulius Musteikis
Trevor Harkness

Winnie Karanja avoids talking about her age because she knows what would come next. As a 20-something, she’s witnessed a person’s tone change after they find out how old she is.

Never mind that Karanja is the founder and executive director of Maydm, a Madison-based computer programming company with a mission to diversify the technology sector by connecting young students–particularly girls and students of color–to experiences that allow them to learn coding and programming.

Never mind that Karanja, a trilingual, has life experiences from across the globe. She grew up in Kenya, earned her undergraduate degree in Wales, her master’s degree in London, and moved back to Madison, where she grew up, to build a business addressing a disparity in a sector and community she’s passionate about.

“I’ve been intentional about not saying my specific age,” she says. “You get rid of the preconceived notions.”
Her age puts her on the younger end of the generational spectrum known as the millennials–a group that grew up during the nation’s worst economic downturn in decades, and that some people are eager to slap a label on. One such widely-used label is “emerging adult,” a term coined by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a psychology research professor at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. An emerging adult describes a new distinct life stage for those in their late teens and 20s. Some have already formed opinions about emerging adults: They’re lazy, entitled, self-obsessed, stressed.

Kathleen Gerson, a professor who has studied generational changes for 30 years, says we should be careful how we label the 20-somethings. Whether we call them the “lost” or the “stuck” or the “emerging adulthood” generation, the ways in which they process and respond to experiences as well as the kinds of opportunities they have, vary greatly–as they have for all generations.

Life as a 20-something in Madison

Just weeks after an election that left many people her age soul searching, Karanja was aware of these descriptors. She was thoughtful in the way she responded to the stereotypes assigned to her, as were seven other Madison 20-somethings interviewed for this story to talk about what it means to be an emerging adult in today’s world.

The 20-somethings, ages 20 to 29, make up an estimated 18.3 percent of Dane County’s population, according to 2015 statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. That translates to more than 93,000 people in their 20s living throughout the county. And they are an interesting bunch.

They’re decision makers, mold breakers, artists, teachers, builders, business owners, romantics, big-picture thinkers and debt payers of a new economy at the start of the third millennium. How they are transitioning into adulthood is, at this very moment, still developing. And what might make them so fascinating is their potential for greatness, as well as failure, in journeys along unpaved paths to becoming adults.

What path?
Alaura Seidl, 27, does not fit into a conventional mold when talking about traditional paths to adulthood.
In a 2010 article, The New York Times referenced five milestones that marked the transition into adulthood: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child. Back in 1960, 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men had reached all five milestones by age 30.

Fast-forwarding to 2017, Seidl doesn’t even fit the male/female categories of this survey.

Seidl identifies neither male nor female, and uses the nonbinary pronouns of they, their and themselves. The process of coming out took unlearning social norms and others’ expectations for Seidl to finally get to a place where living in their own skin felt right. It has taken time for Seidl to explore their identity and explain it to others. One thing that helps tremendously is art. ”There are things that I can’t say out loud that I can say through art,” says Seidl, who has taught in the art department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is currently teaching at the Monroe Street Art Center and the ArtWrite Collective. Seidl founded that collective, which cultivates a resilient community through art in the Dane County area.

Life as a 20-something in Madison

Seidl’s art is personal and collective in the way it touches on themes of discrimination, accessibility and oppression. The projects and exhibitions Seidl has worked on help define their life, both personally and for others’ understanding. “It’s not this big upset every single time I talk about gender or sexuality, that I have to have an upset stomach. I’ve worked through some of that stuff and time and effort … have allowed me to be here.”

Checking off conventional milestones isn’t a goal. Seidl has a different checklist, which included hiking more than 1,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail, using art for social justice and helping other people learn. “I think since I am in a position now where I have a roof over my head, I can feed myself mostly, I have people around me who love me [and] I have people who I love, now’s my time to give what I can for my community,” Seidl says.

School to work
Gerson, a professor of sociology and collegiate professor of arts and sciences at New York University, doesn’t like the “emerging adulthood” term. As a scholar who has studied groups of people in their 20s and 30s since the mid-’80s, Gerson acknowledges that the transition to adulthood has been changing in this country for decades.

“The period between what we consider childhood and adolescence and what you might call full adulthood has become more ambiguous and has lengthened,” says Gerson. “The 20s have increasingly become a time in which Americans–and not just Americans, by the way, because this trend appears to be worldwide, especially and specifically in the advanced economies–[experience] a period that takes longer and involves a different set of transitions than it did 30 years ago.”

Going from school to work is a particularly abrupt transition for young adults, Gerson says. “Suddenly, you’re expected to know what you want to do with your life and you’re expected to be able to support yourself,” she says.

On the cusp of the school-to-work transition, De’Andre Alexander was an at-risk youth, or a child who is less likely to transition successfully into adulthood, usually relating to academic success. Alexander knew what he wanted, but he was having a hard time getting there. He wanted a house, a nice car, a family, a dog. But he was fresh out of high school and couldn’t find a job. He was surrounding himself with the wrong people.

College wasn’t something he was considering, since he didn’t want to leave his mother. He admires her greatly for raising three children paycheck to paycheck and juggling multiple jobs as a single mom. Alexander could have counted himself among the group of emerging adults surveyed in a Clark University poll, which found that half of respondents ages 21 to 29 said they didn’t go to college because of family responsibilities. In that same poll, nearly seven in 10 respondents said they didn’t go to college because of the cost.

Then, Alexander went through Operation Fresh Start, a pathways program, as his older brother had done. Operation Fresh Start provides Dane County youth ages 16 to 24 with a path to self-sufficiency through education and job training. This led him to a job as an ironworker for Union Ironworkers Local 383. What Operation Fresh Start was also successful in doing was motivating Alexander to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming a firefighter.

Life as a 20-something in Madison

“It kind of helped me realize how to give back to the community [and] how to treat people in the community,” he says. “And you realize the importance of giving back. That was the biggest thing for me and it helps with me becoming a firefighter, because I care about Madison and I want to improve the city as much as I can.”

Operation Fresh Start is one local example of an organization identifying and addressing a disparity in young adults’ work readiness. According to a 2012 report cited in a Forbes article, half of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed, scraping by with low-wage service jobs. They’re also earning less than their ’70s counterparts, adjusted for inflation. And young adults, Alexander included, are moving back home for a while at a greater rate. In 2014, for the first time in more than 130 years, adults ages 18 to 34 were slightly more likely to be living in their parents’ home than with a spouse or partner in their own household, according to a Pew Research Center analysis.

But Alexander, now 26, is on a life course–no longer linear or traditional–full of possibilities. With the support of Operation Fresh Start and other positive influences, he’s closer to fulfilling his childhood dream and also aspires to someday help other at-risk youth like himself.

“I had the determination and I wanted to change. As long as you want that change, it will happen,” he says. “But being involved with Operation Fresh Start, it speeded up that process.”

Balancing act
Like Alexander, Lauren Anderson, 27, isn’t afraid of change. A Florida native who moved to Madison in 2011, Anderson spent four years in the corporate world working in merchandising for Lands’ End before turning her focus to her passion project of blogging. La Petite Fashionista, a blog she started as a senior in high school in 2007, gets 20,000 user views a month and has 12,000 Pinterest followers and 9,000 Instagram followers.

When she coupled full-time blogging with a startup consulting business in 2014, it was lucrative enough for her to quit her job. Anderson is in the process of migrating her following from La Petite Fashionista to La Petite Farmhouse (which is a lifestyle blog focused on simpler living.)

And now that Anderson’s blogging is her full-time job–where she shares her personal stories and experiences with followers–work/life balance becomes a bit tricky. Where does work end and life begin when your job is to promote your personal brand?

For Anderson, this balance is found in unplugging. “It helps so much,” she says. One night out to dinner with her husband, Anderson realized she had spent almost the entire night staring down at her phone. “He was so upset. We got into an argument,” she says. “It was a huge wakeup call for me to find more time for him and my friendships and family in life.”

But with balance also comes blending. Anderson clearly blended the line between work and life, as her personal hobby turned into a business. And the 20-somethings in traditional workplace settings are looking for a stronger connection between the time they spend at work and at home.

Life as a 20-something in Madison

“They want to be able to blend meaningful work with meaningful personal and intimate ties. They want to be able to blend working for a paycheck with building families and caring for others,” Gerson says.

The Clark Poll found that more than three in five of survey respondents are currently unhappy with either their work-life balance, salary or both.

“That’s where I think our institutions have not been up to the challenge,” Gerson says. “If in any way it’s fair to call this generation lost or stuck, then it’s really the institutions that are stuck, and not the individuals.”

This blending also seems to explain the more relaxed workplace young adults are looking–and maybe even expecting–to enter into. “I think the focus is more on what you produce and less on how you go about doing it,” Gerson says. “There’s almost a view that rigidly designed jobs will be counterproductive and that the best way to get work done is to make it more flexible and focus more on what is produced and less on how it is produced,” she says.

Cutting-edge companies, like the ones in Silicon Valley (think Google, Netflix, Facebook) as well as local companies (like EatStreet, Spredfast, Bendyworks) foster creative work and creative minds, Gerson says. And the 20-somethings–whose work, personal and online lives are as open concept as the layout of their dream houses–crave a job where they can contribute their ideas and talents in a way that is important to them and connects to a bigger picture.

True love?
Many 20-somethings have grown up in an era where there’s not one dominant family form, Gerson says. “People now have the option to build all kinds of different relationships, from the more traditional kind to more egalitarian forms, whether they’re in heterosexual or same-sex relationships or even to remain permanently single,” she says.

All seven of the 20-somethings in this story see themselves settling down and marrying–down the road, that is.

“Not until I’m 30, at least,” says 24-year-old Anthony Rineer, whose parents are divorced.

Rineer characterizes himself as a serial long-term monogamist. He’s been in a relationship with his girlfriend for three years and they live together in Madison. Two years ago, Rineer was just shy of earning a college degree at 22 years old when Teddywedgers, a Madison legacy institution, went up for sale. He decided to drop out and buy the business and now, he and his sister own the pasties shop right off the Capitol Square. While Rineer falls in line with the 70 percent of emerging adults who responded in the Clark Poll that they expect to go back for more education or training at some point during their 30s and 40s, he’s happy with focusing on his business and personal life right now.

Rineer and his girlfriend decided to move in together after two years of dating. Practicality came into play when making that decision. The same can be said about Anderson and her husband, Kyle. They moved in together, along with Kyle’s brother, before she and Kyle married. Living together happened somewhat accidentally. The new place Anderson was supposed to move into was still under construction, and the project was delayed. She moved in temporarily, but it just made sense to stay there.

Life as a 20-something in Madison

Clinical psychologist Meg Jay reported to Forbes that cohabitation has skyrocketed 1,500 percent since 1960, with more than 7.5 million unmarried couples living together today. In an article titled “Why We Need to Take 20-Somethings Seriously,” Forbes interviewed Jay, who specializes in adult development and is the author of “The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter–and How to Make the Most of Them Now.” In that article, Jay says she worries that romantic relationships have been downgraded to a new level of casualness. The Tinder app has made it possible to write off love interests with the swipe of a finger.

But 20-somethings still believe in love.

Anderson and her husband read Gary Chapman’s book “The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts” to better understand each other, and they say they work on their marriage every day.

Alexander hopes to find a wife and have kids someday–it’s all part of the plan.

Seidl found love unexpectedly on the Appalachian Trail in 2014. The person Seidl would fall in love with was living in Florida before they crossed paths on the trail. “As soon as he was done hiking the trail, he got on a bus and took a 38-hour bus ride to Madison. With his hiking pack still on, he showed up to my apartment in November,” Seidl says. “Neither of us were expecting that to happen. He’s a huge part of how I’m able to do the things I do.”

What Gerson has found in her research repeatedly is that young adults today have great aspirations for relationships and they don’t want to settle for less. “They are to find a lifelong partner in which they can have a mutually respectful and largely egalitarian relationship. Not one that is defined by rigid roles, as we might have thought of relationships in the past, but one that is mutually supportive and helps each member of the partnership become who they want to be.”

It’s a very high standard to meet, so it’s hardly surprising that there’s much experimentation going on, she says. “As young adults tell me all the time: ‘I have to know who I am before I can know who I want to spend my life with.'”

Meaningful work
That’s a question all 20-somethings ask themselves at this transitional point in life: Who am I? What’s my purpose? Jay calls the 20s a “developmental sweet spot,” as 80 percent of life’s most significant events take place by age 35.

But, whether nature or nurture is responsible, it seems today’s 20-somethings–whose extended financial help from parents or self-focused personalities or inability to decide on a career might look like entitlement or narcissism or laziness–are more thoughtful than one might expect.

“They have high aspirations to find meaningful work,” says Gerson. “Not just work that is well paid, but also work that speaks to something in themselves that they want to develop. This is true across classes and races.”

Winnie Karanja didn’t build her coding business just because it was something she knew she was good at and could share with other people. Growing up in Kenya, she remembers seeing students who weren’t able to go to school. “I was just like, that’s not OK,” she says. “I was always trying to figure out why are things the way that they are?” Karanja wonders: Why do disparities exist in Africa as well as Dane County? How can we reverse the trajectory of the underexposed students of color? Why is it that when some people talk about Africa, they aren’t naming specific countries and cities? “How do I steward these skills and this knowledge that I have back to the community that has given so much to me?” Karanja asks. Her job is about more than making a living.
But the answer to the question “Who am I?” isn’t necessarily found in a job or in studying a subject that will earn you a marketable degree for a good-paying gig you can call a career.

While 86 percent of 20-somethings surveyed in the Clark Poll say it is more important than ever to get education or training past high school in order to find a good job in today’s economy, 59 percent would take a lower-paying job if it meant doing something they love.

Trevor Harkness, 24, moved to Madison from Rockford for school, but he had difficulty getting into his area of choice–environmental science and technology. After two years, he quit school and took some time off. He was working at Ian’s Pizza on State Street, and at the time, it was just a paycheck. Then an opportunity arose for him to help open another Ian’s Pizza in Denver.

Life as a 20-something in Madison

He spent a year in Denver working hands-on–everything from building the restaurant to learning about the business side. While he returned to Madison after the stint to be closer to his mom and sister, moving to Denver ignited something in him. “I was starting to fulfill my need to get out. Do things. See places,” Harkness says. He bought a bright red 1984 Volkswagen Vanagon. “It’s an old hippie van,” he says. He has taken trips to Colorado, Utah and Arizona in the van, visiting national parks, meeting up with friends, hiking, biking and rock climbing. This summer, he plans to sell his Madison condo and live full-time in the van.

But Harkness isn’t “living in a van down by the river,” a la the old “Saturday Night Live” sketch by the late comedian Chris Farley. He has a full-time job as the assistant manager coordinating food and beverage of the flagship Ian’s Pizza in Madison. He travels back to Rockford often to visit his family and takes cross-country trips with his younger brother. He doesn’t necessarily see himself living in his van for the rest of his life. But right now, being in that van–sometimes with no more than his hammock, a bike and his thoughts–is where Harkness wants to be. “It’s kind of an unexplainable feeling,” he says. You wake up without obligations. You return to work feeling like you’ve hit a refresh button, he says.

And he’s happy. His family keeps him coming back to his home base, but his travels give him headspace and uncomplicated joy.

The same happened for Seidl on the Appalachian Trail.

“The trail was a really great way for me to get re-centered into my body, and live in it and appreciate it, despite the kind of distance that I’ve had and a kind of estrangement I’ve had with my body,” Seidl says.
And in these journeys that give Harkness and Seidl ample time for reflection, they then return to jobs they truly feel are meaningful.

Looking forward
It is clear that while it’s incredibly difficult to slap a label on an entire generation, the road to so-called adulthood and self discovery is changing. The 30-year deadline is dead. Traditional households are disappearing. Careers are coming before families, but not at the cost of happiness. And under the watchful eye of elder generations saying, “The future is in your hands,” the 20-somethings are responding, first with the slight panic of a young adult uncertain of themselves and what’s to come, but then with bighearted optimism that trumps everything–even a year like 2016.

“Not only are they trying to make their own transition to adulthood, but they’re doing it in a historical and social period in which the society itself–its basic economic and social structures–are undergoing enormous and uncertain social change,” says Gerson.

Andrea Behling is managing editor of Madison Magazine. Tamira Madsen and Karen Lincoln Michel contributed to this story.