Excerpted from An Ordinary Age: Finding Your Way in a World That Expects Exceptional. Copyright © 2021 by Rainesford Stauffer. Published and reprinted by permission of Harper Perennial.

“At this time, I was supposed to have more things figured out than I do right now,” Lexi, twenty-one, said. She graduated with a job lined up that was canceled as a result of COVID-19. Her mom is an immigrant, and her dad grew up poor, and she described education as something viewed, especially in immigrant communities, as “your ticket to the world,” a means of life being good from there on out that she’s been working toward her whole life. “I think a lot of things I worry about are so interconnected,” she said. “In terms of social issues, you really can’t extract any single one without touching anything else.” Young adults get this on a profound level. Her fear of being unable to get a job and pay off student loans is inherently connected to the fact that the job market is dismal, and she pointed out that her generation has grown up with a particularly heavy backdrop: Her college years were bookended by the election of Donald Trump and the COVID-19 crisis; she was a young teenager when the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting happened, and described the general sentiment as “something’s going to boil over eventually.” Then, she added, there’s the social pressure—“to move out of your parents’ home and have a beautiful apartment, and live in a glamorous city with your friends, and go to expensive dinners every night.” If that sounds like fantasy, not reality, it’s one reason to look twice at the stories we tell young adults about timelines, what adulthood feels like, and what they ought to be doing. And the stereotype of young people craving being special? “I think that’s also part of us, like, clinging on to those last remaining strands of the American Dream,” Lexi said. “That if we can just be special or be different, that dream will be ours in some way, but we need to stand out in the crowd to make that happen.”    

Laney, a twenty-two-year-old first-generation college graduate who was working full-time out of her childhood bedroom when we spoke, likened the urge to always keep moving forward, to pursue novelty or adventure, to getting knocked over by a wave—the momentum feels good; it doesn’t matter where it’s taking her, the fact that she’s moving is enough. It felt like an apt metaphor for trying to make it in the world right now. “And for a lot of people, including me, that movement has been a marker of I’m doing something, therefore I’m doing something right,” she said, noting that, for a lot of young adults, there is increased autonomy over what you find meaningful and how you spend your time for the first point in your life. It echoed conversations of every extraordinary thing young adults explained they pursued just because they believed it was the thing they should be doing. For one of the first times, Laney said, it feels like, “Oh, how do I actually spend my time? Yes, I’m doing something, but am I doing something that I believe in?” Rarely is time for that consideration built into the framework of young adulthood, and it gets overshadowed by the pervading sense that we should’ve had that figured out already, regardless of circumstances.

“When I would hear my peers talking about how when they reached their twenties they’d start having children and moving into their own houses and collecting all these other milestones that to them signified adulthood, it was hard for me to see that for myself,” Brie, twenty-four, told me. She recalled hearing that, being from the South Side of Chicago, she wasn’t necessarily expected to “make it out,” and realized in her early teens that’s because the city’s systemic problems became her community’s problems, which, in turn, fell to individual people. “Imagine trying to live your very best life in a place that is telling you that your life does not have value,” Brie said. Because of the pain, suffering, and generational trauma Black people, and in particular Black women and Black trans women, have had to endure, Brie said, of course that pressure carries on. “It’s, well, how are we supposed to live our very best life when you’re constantly trying to take our lives away?” Young adulthood doesn’t exist in a vacuum: Systemic problems do impact how, or whether, young people meet the so-called milestones of young adulthood.

Excerpted from An Ordinary Age: Finding Your Way in a World That Expects Exceptional. Copyright © 2021 by Rainesford Stauffer. Published and reprinted by permission of Harper Perennial.

Click here to read a conversation about An Ordinary Age between Rainesford Stauffer and Public Seminar intern Shivani Somaiya.

Rainesford Stauffer is a freelance writer who has written for Teen Vogue, Vox, and Scalawag, among others. She’s the author of An Ordinary Age, which came out in 2021 from Harper Perennial, and All the Gold Stars, forthcoming from Hachette Go. Currently, Rainesford is the Writer in Residence with the Kentucky Student Voice Team. She holds a B.A. from The New School, where she completed her undergraduate education online. You can find her on Twitter: @Rainesford