The first time I moved, the first time I dove into the intoxicating lure of “new beginnings,” I brought few personal items with me to make my cinder-block-walled dorm room feel like home. No posters. No knickknacks to sit on our one window sill. No fairy lights. It looked like somewhere that could be wiped clean in minutes, whenever the next new beginning called, and no one would know I had been there.
I didn’t realize at the time how that would become a pattern in my life. I spent a good part of my twenties only half-unpacked wherever I happened to be. I was rootless; I was free. After freshman year of college, there was a stint in San Francisco, a month or two long, where I stayed in the spare room of a girl I barely knew, followed by a summer-long venture to the mountains of North Carolina, where I lived for three months. There was an apartment I decorated in Indianapolis and weekends spent driving around Nashville, which felt close enough to my hometown to be secure and like a big enough city to be cool, though I had no reason to move there. I was convinced that because I was supporting myself, I wasn’t adrift. I was having experiences, which is what we call couch-surfing and moving and extended European vacations when we need to make them sound meaningful.
Each time I packed up, I thought I was expressing some kind of originality. But I didn’t notice I was conforming to a classic young adult trope.
The “new beginning,” or “new life,” is marketed as a distinctly young adult rite of passage that plays out via Facebook moving announcements, alongside the ideas that comfort means you’ve played it safe and putting down roots means you’ve missed the adventure of “finding yourself” — an adventure that seemingly can only play out by ping-ponging from city to backpacking trip and back again. It’s a thread woven into the fabric of our pop culture: It crops up in our pitchy karaoke about a small-town girl on a midnight train going anywhere. It was on prime time TV when Rachel Green ditched her wedding for New York City on Friends and when episode one of New Girl dropped its protagonist into an unfamiliar apartment with strangers for roommates. It went to the Oscars when Reese Witherspoon’s role in Wild was enough to make us all think changing our lives began with packing our bags. It went full-on aspirational in Under the Tuscan Sun and Eat Pray Love, in which thousands of miles are traversed (and, surely, thousands of dollars spent) in pursuit of self-fulfillment.
Forty-one percent of millennials have moved to a new place without the intention of permanently staying there.
It comes from authority figures, too. From the time we’re college bound, we’re sold the promise of new starts, from college acceptance letters to college graduation, from the first job to the first raise, from the first apartment to the one we’ll decorate with something more elegant and personal than discounted Home Goods items. The obsession is spun as “adventure,” or “wanderlust,” or “exploration,” descriptors that make transience sound not just appealing but like a kind of spiritual obligation.
Young people, like millennials and Gen Zers, are actually wired to be obsessed with the new because young adulthood should be a time of starting over—without the trappings of childhood and with agency over our lives. “Life’s doors feel open rather than closed,” explains Meg Jay, clinical psychologist and author of The Defining Decade. “Multiple paths seem possible, so why not try walking down a few?” Young adults who engage in a balance of exploration and commitment have “have stronger identities, better careers and relationships, and are more persevering and realistic than those who choose one extreme or the other.”
While only 20 percent of millennials moved in 2016—less than previous generations when they were the same age—millennials still made up 43 percent of all movers. Fifty-nine percent of individuals ages 18 to 35 live somewhere other than their hometown, and almost 80 percent have moved at least once in their lives (not counting moves to college). Forty-one percent of millennials have moved to a new place without the intention of permanently staying there, with 26 percent citing a new lifestyle or a new start as the reason for the move. It’s worth noting that how we move differs drastically from previous generations, especially as young people are now moving to venture out on their own, rather than for traditional moving milestones, like marriage or buying a home.
Social media likely plays a role in all this. While no one has studied the exact correlation between moving and those themed Instagrams that make a city look like a movie set, it’s easy to see Nashville street art or New York lights or a Denver mountain and imagine that your life would be brighter and better if you switched zip codes. We know this plays a role in more temporary forms of adventuring: According to Expedia, one of the biggest travel priorities for young people is how “Instagrammable” their destination is.
Jennifer Tanner, an applied developmental scientist whose work focuses on the transition to adulthood, says that “the brain remains malleable and adaptive through your twenties so that you can find fit,” explaining that when Darwin talked about “survival of the fittest,” he didn’t mean physical fitness, but the “fit between the human and their context.” In other words, a sense of belonging matters, and though our brains are hardwired to pursue the new in young adulthood, Tanner believes our musical-chairs chase for fresh starts, constantly swapping out one for the other, is lopsided. “Exploring and finding out who you are is good,” she says. “But we haven’t put in place in society an equal measure where people feel good about, ‘Look, I made a commitment! I’m stabilizing my life!’ That’s when we should be celebrating.”
We have weddings to celebrate relationships, graduations to honor those who made it through years of school, and even going-away parties to commemorate people setting off on their next adventure. But if anything, finding your “right” city or “right” industry gets dismissed as non-news at best and settling at worst. Rather than celebration, we nervously look around and wonder if there’s something we’ve missed by not staying in a state of semi-upheaval.
“Emerging adulthood is about exploration, these new transitions, but I don’t think young people are very good at the commitment part,” Tanner continues. “How do we end this Ferris wheel?” She also notes that commitments are our connection to society, and when we run from those in fear of choosing incorrectly, we risk disconnection and loneliness, which she says is a big issue in emerging adulthood.
Jay points out that sticking, or commitment, is crucial because “starting a good life is one thing, but building a good life is another.” The temptation to keep life in the “honeymoon phase” — the newness we crave — exists because we get a dopamine hit in our brains when there’s new information, a new city, or even a new text. But she cautions that as you transition from young adulthood to full-fledged adulthood, “You may be on your fifth job or your fifth move, but that friend of yours who stuck with something, or someone, or somewhere for a while is going to start reaping the benefits.”
Up until a year or so ago, I’d been flailing from move to move, from reinvention to reinvention, hoping with each new location that I’d discover a new me, rather than a me that sticks. The point of trying on so many new settings and identities is to find our true selves. But that means we eventually have to find the right one and hold onto it.
Exploration and all it entails — finding yourself, finding home — only works if we give our discoveries a chance to strengthen their hold on us.
Each time I moved, I’d try to forge new friendships and routines. I’d imagine myself hiking trails in North Carolina or finally having the apartment where friends came over to watch movies and make dinner in Indianapolis. But the new beginning meant new people, new jobs, and new situations, which had to be started from scratch each time. It was supposed to feel like freedom. Instead, all the newness, all the time, felt eerily like being lost. Those hikes and dinner parties never actually materialized.
I remember the sensation of existing between parallel worlds of the new and the even newer. I was standing in my new apartment with my new gray sofa and recently signed lease, both signs of staying. But my bags were only half-unpacked on my closet floor, and job listings in a different city were pulled up on my computer. My internal theories weren’t matching up: Newness was supposed to make life exciting, not empty. Because I was perpetually starting over, I lacked any ties to people to share new discoveries with. It rendered them hollow instead of significant.
Exploration and all it entails — finding yourself, finding home, finding love, finding likes and dislikes — only works if we give our discoveries a chance to strengthen their hold on us. I recently felt a surge of pride when I realized I’d lived in my current city, New York, for more than a year. Even though I still need to buy a dresser for my apartment, I’m more focused on small, subtle glimpses of newness than grandiose fresh starts: meeting new people in familiar places, noticing old passions manifesting in new ways, developing new relationships with old friends, spending less time chasing the honeymoon and shock of starting over and more time savoring the understanding that the most meaningful new transitions often occur within.
I don’t have a plane ticket booked for an exciting new trip, or a new city I’m secretly brainstorming a move to, or a jaw-dropping new announcement to hit my Facebook friends with. But what I feel now is a commitment that doesn’t make me feel like a Post-it note that’s been stuck all over the map and is losing its stickiness. I feel exploration occurring within a life I’ve built instead of one I’m just starting. And that seems pretty new to me.