Life Begins at 21?

JAMES WAN wonders if life outside the bubble is all it’s cracked up to be.

career CV graduation job leavers third year

They say that life begins at 40. But then ‘they’ say a lot of things that aren’t true. They say that Ryan Giggs is black. That ducks can fly. That a tomato is a fruit! Incidentally, ‘they’ are often inconsistent in their rubbish as well. They also say, for example, that life now doesn’t begin at 40: it begins at 50. And that 60 is the new 40. And that 40 is the new 20. And that you haven’t even lived until you’ve, I dunno, swum with some kind of whale. 

If I were to follow all of these arguments to their logical conclusions, I’d simultaneously be 20 years old, 60 years old and yet-to-live. And possibly black. It’s no wonder that these supposedly comforting proverbs that are offered to us as we age are about as reassuring as a Catholic cardinal. For finalists this year, those deceptive maxims are particularly ineffective, as we now know that life, in fact, ends at 21. (Or 22 for gap-year-ers!)  

As we reach the end of our time at university, it becomes increasingly apparent that we are not entering the real world, but leaving it behind. On the one hand, there will be no more mornings devoted to Windows Pinball 3D, no more afternoons frittered away through hours of procrasturbation, and no more evenings spent trying to fashion a meal out of just pesto and Quavers.  On the other hand, alongside these luxuries we are also bidding farewell to such things as our open-mindedness, our semi-considered ideals and our ability to really think. The moment you leave university, it seems, you’re gagged, bound, and plugged into the matrix of pay-cheques, careers and compromises. 

For most of us, however, this self-repudiating process begins long before graduation; probably towards the beginning of one’s final year when all anyone can talk about is what they’ll be doing in a year’s time. It’s usually after looking at your CV and realising that it’s got more holes in it than the roof of a Gazan school that the panic sets in. You become a CV-builder. Firstly, you try to pretend that being a ‘peer counsellor’ 4 years ago involved some kind of ‘responsibility’, that being in a drinking society has somehow ‘fostered your organisational skills’, and that inviting people to an event on Facebook can legitimately be described as having ‘helped organise, market and advertise university-wide events’ (fingers crossed no prospective employer of mine ever stumbles across this article).

Secondly, you scour the web for any kind of work experience, internship or graduate scheme you can find, and apply for everything available, no matter how little it appeals to you or how completely unrelated to your degree, interests and principles it is. Before long, you find yourself volunteering at a pony-riding club for repatriated elves; you find yourself counting black clouds for the BNP; and when you get really desperate, you find yourself at an interview in some Mancunian suburb explaining how desperately you long to be a management consultant and that you were born to consult managers, or manage consultants, or manage consultational managerial consultants, or something like that. 

By this point, it’s already too late. Whether you get this job or the next, you’ve become a CV-building, rat-racing ladder-climber. And once you’re on the ladder, there’s no getting off it; you can only mindlessly climb it. In fact, climbing it becomes all that you want to do, all that you care about and all you can think about. And it doesn’t matter which ladder you’ve arbitrarily ended up on, you just keep climbing and climbing, blissfully unaware that each rung conquered is simply one step closer to spiritual desolation, self-loathing and total existential disappointment. 

Until one day, when you look at yourself in the mirror and realise that you just lost 10 years of your life. So you tell yourself life starts at 40. Then 50. That 60 is the new 40, and that 40 is the new 20. And then, as you try to convince yourself that life really starts at 80, you remember what you knew, deep down, as a still-youthful, wide-eyed, naïve university finalist: life ends at 21 (or 22 for gap-year-ers!).

So, farewell thought, scruples, and hope. It’s been fun.