We all live for something. Some purpose statement hides beneath all our desires and decisions, whether we know it or not. We do everything we do out of love — for something or someone. The question is whether that purpose (or person) is worth all the time, money, and energy we’re spending.
Freedom and independence may be the purpose of choice among twentysomethings today. Clinical psychologist Meg Jay who focuses on young adults writes, “By the new millennium, only about half of twentysomethings were married by age thirty and even fewer had children, making the twenties a time of newfound freedom. . . . The twenties were now disposable years lubricated by disposable income” The Defining Decade).
The twenties have become this new kind of “paradise” in between childhood and real adulthood, when you can party hard, experiment with new things, and spend lots of money without feeling the consequences. We postpone becoming adults, or at least the responsibilities that come with being an adult, in order to enjoy a decade of gratification without boundaries and autonomy without expectations — a second, more sophisticated round of playschool before “real life” begins.
Jay shows that while twentysomethings are living it up, everyone else is wishing they were in their twenties. Teenagers are acting like they are twenty-one, and more mature adults are dressing and getting surgery to look twenty-nine, again. The “freebie years,” as she calls them, seem to be what life is all about, the height and pinnacle of human existence.
The Quarter-Life Crisis
After years of counseling twentysomethings — the new kings and queens of our society — Jay finds most of them aimlessly wandering and wanting. She writes (and she is not a Christian), “The postmillennial midlife crisis is figuring out that while we were busy making sure we didn’t miss out on anything, we were setting ourselves up to miss out on some of the most important things of all” — it’s the new paradise lost.
She watches single men and women in their twenties ride all the rides, satisfying every impulse and craving, and then crash into reality, wishing they had lived for something more fulfilling, safer, and more significant.
In the end, they weren’t really living for freedom. They were using freedom to live for themselves. And the more recklessly and desperately they lived for themselves, the more miserable they made themselves. The purposelessness celebrated on college campuses, and by Hollywood, may make for a great laugh and a good time, but it is an empty and short-lived reason to live. That kind of “freedom” enslaves us to ourselves, robs us of the life it advertises, and undermines the real reason we were made — to know and glorify God by enjoying him as our greatest treasure and ambition.
There’s an intense and exhilarating thrill in the freefall — but the parachute never deploys.
A More Mature Tragedy
Psychologists like Jay observe, and warn against, the devastating trend: You’re going to regret this in your thirties and forties! It’s true, and she offers lots of good advice about making decisions now with our future in mind. Yet her message ultimately just relocates our little paradise to a different decade — one with a more fulfilling, better paying job, a good-looking and productive spouse, two children, financial security, and the freedom to enjoy our more mature hobbies.
We rightly trade away the twentysomething playschool tragedy, but only for a comfortable fortysomething middle-class tragedy. David Platt describes the same disaster when he says, “We live decent lives in decent homes with decent jobs and decent families as decent citizens” (Radical, 105). John Piper offers a similar warning:
If you could just have a good job with a good wife, or husband, and a couple of good kids and a nice car and long weekends and a few good friends, a fun retirement, and a quick and easy death, and no hell — if you could have all that (even without God) — you would be satisfied. That is a tragedy in the making. A wasted life. (Don’t Waste Your Life)
We think we’re living the American Dream, but we’re entertaining and cushioning ourselves to death. We’re wasting the one precious life God has given us to live.
While the world wastes away life — at twenty, or thirty, or seventy-five — we can live a different story about better news and a greater treasure. While everyone else is spending everything they have on something that will not last, we can quietly and confidently invest the little bit we have here into the infinite wealth we will inherit in heaven.
Platt says, “If Jesus is who he said he is, and if his promises are as rewarding as the Bible claims they are, then we may discover that satisfaction in our lives and success in the church are not found in what our culture deems most important but in radical abandonment to Jesus.”
The apostle Paul writes, “You yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape” (1 Thessalonians 5:2–3). All that looked so peaceful, secure, fun, and comfortable turned to hell in a moment — like being thrown into labor, but you had no idea you were even pregnant. And it never ends. You never escape.
But you don’t have to live for a peace and security that evaporates when you need it most. Paul continues,
Let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thessalonians 5:6–9)
It may look like we’re missing out for a few years here, but one day the whole world will see that we are the safest, richest, and happiest people who have ever lived, a people living for King Jesus.
Spend your twenties, forties, and eighties searching for more of that stability, freedom, and joy.
Thumb author marshall segal
Marshall Segal (@MarshallSegal) is a writer and managing editor at desiringGod.org. He’s the author of Not Yet Married: The Pursuit of Joy in Singleness & Dating (2017). He graduated from Bethlehem College & Seminary. He and his wife Faye live in Minneapolis