The quarter-life crisis
Do you remember your college graduation? Chances are you remember it fondly, if you remember it at all, after the dizzying, clawing, cramming few weeks that preceded it; weeks of drinking and dancing, trying to make it last forever even as it was drawing to a close.
Graduations, after all, are usually a warm, summery affair. For students it’s a moment in and out of time, suspended for a glorious day between before and after, between school and real life. I remember looking around at my graduating class ” this was, unbelievably, two years ago now ” and thinking we would never be as beautiful as we were that day.
But I also remember being vaguely aware of an impending crisis. Not a real or terrible crisis, of course ” we weren’t, after all, the class of 1916 or 1942 ” but a crisis nonetheless.
For years, there was a clear formula for success: Get good grades, play sports, don’t dye your hair green and you can be successful. Suddenly, in a day, it all changes, and it’s up to you to define success. It’s an existential crisis, an “oh shit ” what now?” moment, and for my generation it can be summed up by the lyric of then 25-year-old singer-songwriter John Mayer, “it might be a quarter-life crisis.”
When I moved to Aspen after college ” a town, I figured, where the mountains are so steep and the snow so groomed you can outrun the avalanche of reality behind you ” what I found was a town full of young men and women like me, so confused and directionless that the only post-college life they could muster was a life that took its meaning from being a life without meaning, without direction.
In short, ski bums.
I was one of the lucky ones; a fortuitous opening at The Aspen Times and an editor willing to take a chance on a kid without any journalistic training or direction, landed me a full-time job as a reporter.
A full year later, however, my friends remain Aspen’s new generation of ski bums. I know they don’t like the term. Sure, they work service jobs ” bartender, bellhop, caddy ” jobs that allow ample time to ski and party and aren’t too punishing when hung over, but they insist they are not going to become the stereotypical “I came for a winter and stayed 20 years” ski bums.
They plan to move on to what they call “serious careers.” Driven by an image of themselves as successful young men and women on their way to successful careers, they say they can’t possibly bum around for long. This has been the standard line since most of them arrived last year.
But now, as the air begins to cool and the first hints of winter blow through town, how can they not stay on another year? After all, they skied 100 days last winter, they make enough money to support themselves, and what’s another year anyway? Life’s still out there waiting, right?
The future for young foreigners in town ” the Kiwis, the Aussies, the Argentines ” is certain. Leave when the visa expires. But for the Americans in their 20s, time in Aspen is as long as they decide it to be.
“I’m taking a graduate course in procrastination,” my 24-year-old friend Jordan Hess says.
It’s a Monday evening and we’re sitting around a barbecue, celebrating a friend’s birthday at Jordan’s apartment in the center of Aspen. There are five of us chatting, but at least a dozen more drop by during the course of the evening. We’re dressed casually, but not inattentively, going for the ruffled, fraternity/sorority look made famous by the label most of us proudly don: Abercrombie and Fitch. The guys drink cheap domestic beers. The women, feigning deeper sophistication, pass around a $10 bottle of white wine.
We are in our mid-20s, except for the birthday boy, who just turned 42. His name is Daniel Aronson, but everyone calls him “Pesci,” due to his similarity in appearance and temper to movie star Joe Pesci.
Pesci is an old-school ski bum who fits neatly into the stereotype of the businessman who decided he was winning the rat race, but at the cost of feeling like a rat. A bond futures trader at the Chicago Board of Trade, he moved to Aspen at the age of 41 to be a cook, skier and regular drinking buddy to a group of 20-somethings determined not to make the same mistakes he did.
“It’s the mystique of this place,” Pesci says. “It brings people here of all ages. It’s different for me. I had a career and left. These guys still have that in front of them.”
Jordan says he and his friends are no counterculturalists. They all dream of financial success ” “I worked my butt off in high school and college for a reason,” Jordan says ” it’s just they aren’t quite sure what success means yet. As his friends were stressing over job opportunities in college, Jordan decided to avoid the entire ordeal.
“This was my way of not having to think about it,” Jordan recalls. “While all my friends were sweating out applications to law school or investment banks, I was free and easy knowing I was coming here.”
Jordan now works as a salesman at the Sunglass Hut and waiter at The Cantina. In the downtime between customers, he re-reads his favorite book, “The Da Vinci Code,” trying, like the book’s protagonist, to make sense of it all. He’s an Ivy League graduate, but no one around town thinks his job is in any way below him.
Still, the specter of cosmopolitan condescension looms. Once last winter, I sneaked Jordan into a high-end party during Aspen’s Comedy Fest. He caught the eye of a tall, immaculately manicured female executive from CBS’s Los Angeles office. Things were going swimmingly until the executive refused to believe (and then later to talk to) Jordan after he told her about both his education and his sales associate position.
“What?” Jordan asked her. “It’s a good job. I get to ski a lot.”
Swimming against the current
Like the two friends who moved to Aspen with him, Jordan had no intention of staying more than a winter. But he made new friends, like recent University of Pennsylvania graduate T.J. Freedman, who were in the same position. Suddenly it seemed normal to take “time off” after college. The stigma was lifted, and everyone stayed.
“I think the decision to stay was made a lot easier because I found myself around friends my age with the same uncertainty about their lives who weren’t panicking. There suddenly wasn’t as much of a rush to start a career,” T.J. says.
All of Jordan’s friends say they have the support of their parents: T.J.’s father, a successful businessman from Boston, once told me a little ruefully that he went straight from college to graduate school, and that “I want my son to have some fun before life catches up.”
Even so, a reminder of the swiftness of life’s current is only a phone call away. T.J. has friends already working 80-hour weeks at big-city investment firms, heading firmly down a career path, and leaving T.J. behind on their way to financial success. T.J., a bellhop at an upscale Aspen hotel, has mixed feelings about their experiences.
“My friends back home are all getting promotions to second-year analysts, or going into their second year of law school. And here I am a bellman aspiring to be promoted to bell captain,” he says. “But at the same time all my friends say they are trapped in a city and working too hard and that I should stay out here as long as I can.”
An Aspen career?
Aspen was recently rated ninth by Skiing Magazine in a list of ski towns with the best opportunity to make a career. There are certainly some opportunities; Jordan’s high school friend-turned-Aspen-roommate Rob Brown was recently hired to clerk at a local law office, and his boss made clear the possibility of hiring Rob after law school.
But both Jordan and Rob say looking for a career in Aspen misses the point of moving to the town in the first place.
“My boss keeps telling me that all the lawyers in town are getting toward retirement age and I should think about getting a law degree and coming back,” Rob says. “But you need to have made a successful career for yourself before you come to Aspen; that’s how I’ve always looked at it. You’re not going to start from the ground up here.”
“You could probably make a career here, but there are too many distractions,” Jordan adds. “I don’t want that here. I want to have a low-stress job I can just leave behind.”
Jordan, T.J. and Rob all say law school is their most likely course after they finish the winter season. Without any real sense of direction, going back to school seems the most sensible option. “It’s a degree that doesn’t shut any doors,” Jordan explains.
Between now and then, there are law school admission tests, applications and everything from powder days to ski bunnies to distract them. After law school, who knows?
The walls of Jordan’s apartments are covered with scribblings in permanent marker by his friends and roommates. The writing ranges from song lyrics to poetry to barely comprehensible rants ” the hieroglyphics of many drunken nights. As our conversation comes to a close, I spot a piece of writing I’d never noticed before. It says, “the funny thing about regret is, it’s better to regret something you have done than to regret something you haven’t done.”
“That about explains it all,” Jordan says. “I wish I could have told my friends at graduation that.”
Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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