Sunday, July 24, 2016

The cohort problem

We go through most events in life on the same time-table as our peers. Some of this is about biological development--what the human body and brain are capable of when--and some of it is about the way we're socialized, but we experience most major milestones at roughly the same time and in roughly the same sequence as our peers.

Because if we don't, we find new peers.

Finding new peers isn't about shunning those who aren't like us (though, okay: sometimes we do reject a particular life narrative), but about the fact that we depend upon others to help us understand and navigate our lives. We need the example and support of those who have made similar choices or have had similar bad or good luck. If you have kids early, you're going to need other parent-friends no matter how much you may cherish your old ones. And if you remain single or childless long past the majority of your peers, you're likewise going to need at least a few friends who can see the world through similar eyes.

Because it's not just about knowing people who have experienced the same thing (whatever that thing may be). It's about knowing people likely to have had the full range of emotions that go along with it: the fears, anxieties, and expectations; the way the rest of your life gets reshuffled and redefined around that event. Because just as there are things that people who have been bereaved can't talk about with people who haven't--no matter how well-intentioned--there are things that I can't say to my parent-friends about being childless, or to my single friends about being married, or my nonacademic friends about being an academic. Or rather: I can say some things about those topics, maybe even a lot, but I can't say everything, or expect the same level of immediate understanding, advice, or mutual interest that happens when I'm talking to someone who's been there and is equally as invested in figuring out What It All Means.

Grad school is an obvious example of a peer-group reshuffle: When I was twenty-five and twenty-eight and thirty, I felt as if I'd stepped off the conveyor belt that was delivering my college friends to their destinies: they were buying cars and houses and getting married and advancing in their careers when I didn't have so much as a cat (and the most expensive thing I owned was an aging laptop). But grad school gave me a new set of peers and a new narrative, a sense of what follows what, and people I could talk to about all of this--including our collective sense of having been left behind by adulthood.

But such shuffles aren't necessarily permanent. Indeed, the big discovery of my thirties and forties has that both "cohort" and "life stage" are less rigid than they'd seemed. In high school and even in college it's a big fucking deal to do anything even a year or two before or after everyone else. But now, at age 41, I'm in roughly the same place as most of my age peers--whether I met them in high school or college, grad school or after: most of us are married and with mortgages; most of us have had some career successes and some career failures; and most of us have suffered at least one major loss. Those things didn't all come at the same time or in the same sequence, but in their outlines our lives look more similar than different.

Because even if the parameters expand, age remains central to how we define our cohort. Not everyone who's forty is my professional peer (some entered graduate school much later or advanced much more rapidly than I), and my cohort includes people half a dozen years older or half a dozen years younger. But I still have a very real sense that my cohort encompasses people of roughly my age and roughly my professional stage, because the two intersect.

But the problem with bonding so strongly with those of our cohort is that the next life or career stage remains perpetually mysterious and difficult to imagine. This is why we sometimes reshuffle our peer groups--to find a narrative that fits better or has greater explanatory power--and it's the reason for many midlife or midcareer crises: not so much the inability to see what's next (at a certain point, we know the major likely moves) as the inability to know how we'll feel about or be able to live inside those events when they come.

Sometimes when I feel angsty about the future I have to remind myself that people have actually done this before. People I know! Whom I see at work or at conferences, some of whom I even know well enough to gossip and get drunk with. Nothing my peers and I are going through is completely new (though the conditions of the profession may have made certain things easier or harder). But I don't generally have deeper and more existential conversations with those I feel are in a cohort above mine; the sense that we're at different life stages and that such conversations couldn't possibly be reciprocal is hard for me to overcome.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t value knowing that my seniors have gone through whatever I'm currently confronting. In my early years in the profession I'd feel a sort of electric shock whenever someone a decade ahead of me would say something kind and off-hand--and I'd suddenly realize that, holy shit! She gets it. She was here. (And she survived.)

I hope I do the same with my juniors, but I also realize that I, too, am not exactly who they need. I may think I understand what they're going through, and maybe I even do (though the temptation of the senior party is always to assume that nothing's changed and that our experiences remain exactly relevant), but they're at earlier professional and life stages. What they need, most of all, is the support of their peers. And I'm not that.

Or at least not yet. Cohorts don't retain their boundaries; both our seniors and our juniors may someday be our peers.

And then, perhaps, all will be known.


Megan said...

I've been thinking about this, too, as I entered this profession meaning to be the kind of generous and warm senior person with whom I had those kinds of brief interactions you describe ("kind and off-hand"). But now that I'm starting to get there, I'm finding that I'm not sure how to become that person. I feel a lot of survivor guilt, and I don't want to put that out there. And I'm not sure what I can offer that is actually helpful beyond the off-hand statement. Maybe this gets easier as you get farther away from grad school?

Flavia said...


I do think it's easier as you gain your own separation from grad school and move more clearly into a different career stage. In reality, a junior faculty member's cohort includes advanced grad students, but unless you're preexisting friends, the bridge between the two can feel huge, especially on the grad student side. In my first few years on the TT I had a hard time a) feeling senior to anyone, and b) not just sharing all MY stories and traumas with current grad students.

I still relate intensely to the grad student experience and am affected by a lot of things I hear grad students say (and I certainly see them as colleagues, potential friends, and all the rest!), but I'm better able to step back and recognize that our relationship isn't fully one of peers, might involve a real or perceived power differential, and so I let them steer, if that makes sense: I let them do more of the talking and respect whatever vibes I feel coming off them.

In general, listening is more essential than talking.

Megan said...

Interesting thoughts - thank you. (And isn't it funny how often listening is more important than talking? Such a good reminder.)