I Was Nearing 40 But Passed for a Millennial
What happened when I didn't correct a boss who assumed I was one of the kids
I left my husband on a Monday morning in February 2015. The night before, I’d said my last words to him: “I’m ordering a pizza.” He hadn’t spoken to me in days.
And so I left. I couldn’t take one more day of gaslighting, or neglect, or feeling like I was haunting my own house. I stuffed my hatchback with as much as I could fit and then drove out of San Diego, where I had lived for almost a decade. Six days later, I was standing in my childhood room in Connecticut.
My family had moved into this house just after my fifth birthday; I was moving back in time to celebrate my 35th.
I’d pulled the plug on my flatlining marriage so hard I nearly yanked the outlet out of the wall. Too old to be a boomerang child, I was a boomerang adult.
The funny thing is, when I graduated from college, moving back home wasn’t something I had ever considered. It was the dot-com bust, and I knew plenty of people who took their BAs straight to their parents’ basements. But I toughed it out, living in the upper reaches of Manhattan on less than $2,000 a month before taxes.
I pretended everything was great but I hated New York. I was in an unhappy live-in relationship but couldn’t afford to move out. I got frustrated by innumerable interviews (and second interviews) that never turned into better-paying work. So I turned a spur-of-the-moment decision to apply to graduate school into a total do-over on the other side of the country. In one fell swoop, that choice ended my relationship, my fledgling career in publishing, and my New York City residency.
I Return Home for a Rethink
Admittedly, the move back to my parents’ house didn’t make a ton of sense. But sense-making hadn’t been my strong suit for some time. I never saw myself as an academic, but now I was in a sociology PhD program. I definitely never saw myself as a Californian, but I’d loved The O.C., so why not? I had a vague idea that taking a break from the workforce would reset my salary trajectory, but I had no actual plan beyond getting a free (albeit not-at-all-career-furthering) master’s degree.
Before I knew it, two years had turned into six.
When I finally gave up on academia (an even worse job market than print publishing), I didn’t have a PhD, but I did have a marriage license — and you already know how well that turned out. Ashamed, I cut off even my closest friends. And then I just sort of disappeared.
I moved back to the East Coast and started applying for jobs. But my bicoastal, overly-academic professional background wasn’t easy to explain. So I didn’t! I never lied, but my answers often contained substantial omissions designed to skirt questions like “why did you leave California?” and “where do you live now?” My strategy landed me a magazine job — yup, just like the one I’d had almost ten years earlier, but this time, Connecticut-based.
I turned in my Boomerang card, put on my big-girl pants, and took off, moving into a garage apartment on the other side of Connecticut. I had a real salary, a real commute, and a continued commitment to not letting anyone know much about me.
I Get Hired as a Millennial
And that’s how I became a “millennial.”
My new role was as an associate editor at a specialty magazine. Flashback — that was the exact title I’d held ten years prior in my last New York City job. In my new gig, I was junior to everyone else in my department, but I didn’t care. I was grateful for the job. I didn’t relish tasks such as answering reader mail and compiling product credits, but I did them happily because I Had A Job. My willingness to do drudge-work without a shrug (and my persistent adult acne) may have been why, I soon discovered, colleagues assumed I was in my early 20s. Yes, I looked young — I’ll admit this one non-flaw in my life — but the decade in SoCal didn’t hurt, either. Clothing that’s modest by Cali standards is shocking in New England, but not unexpected on a 25-year-old. I’m tech savvy (I can use a smartphone and a computer without cursing at the machines) and, it turns out that because I hadn’t worked in an office for ten years, my professional etiquette was more than a little off.
I fit the description of a millennial — except for my actual age.
So when coworkers shot questions my way, I answered them with political finesse. “How are you doing, moving out of your parents’ house?” Not quite the situation, but close enough. I said I was doing great! “Are you having fun putting together your apartment?” Well yeah, totally! Even though the reason I didn’t have any furniture was that I’d left it on the other side of the country. When we hired a real twentysomething who was relocating for a full-time position at the magazine, I was the one asked to sit down with her to talk about “what it’s like being a young person around here.” After all, we’d both relocated in our “early 20s.”
The Ins and Outs of Passing for a Millennial
Being a fake millennial had pluses and minuses. The minuses were immediately clear. I had few to no responsibilities. I was trusted with nothing that seemed remotely complex because there was a basic assumption that I had no idea what I was doing. (Seriously, had no one looked me up on LinkedIn?) One of the first tasks I was handed was organizing some files. Nope, not on the computer. Literally putting some pieces of paper into actual physical folders. During a photo shoot, someone my exact real age cracked, “You probably don’t even remember cameras having film!” I kept my mouth shut.
I convinced myself that “shutting up” was a plus. As long as I kept up the act, I didn’t have to admit to anyone, including myself, who I really was. It’s not that I cared about my age as a number. I cared about who and where I was supposed to be at my age: Successfully married with a steady job, a home, and children. Instead, I was a soon-to-be divorcée who had just shrugged off her boomerang status. Forget about having children — I was the child!
Being a fake millennial eased the critics in my head. It allowed me to ignore the messier parts of reality. And it wasn’t just something I play-acted in front of other people. Even alone, I cordoned off anything I didn’t want to deal with. I avoided social media; I refused to confide in friends. I did nothing that would remind me of who I really was.
But my divorce loomed, and eventually I had to go back to California to face the husband I’d left. And to reality. Slowly I began to acknowledge what had happened, and what I had done. I confided in a colleague (divorced) and my boss (married) about why I’d left. I reached out to some of my geographically far-flung friends and told them how I was really doing.
I discovered that most of my life fit into a single portable storage unit because the majority of my baggage is emotional. But more importantly, I found that when I spoke honestly about my life, people listened with sympathy and empathy; they didn’t judge me. In fact, they didn’t think it was unbearably shameful to have been a boomerang adult. Nor did they appear to be in complete disbelief that I hadn’t had a successful marriage, or left graduate school. They didn’t cast me out of their village. They didn’t burn me at the stake. Acknowledging who I really was — in normal, non-job-interview contexts, anyway — didn’t elicit the response I’d feared (not only for the past two years, but quite possibly the past decade). I’d taken elaborate pains and exhausted myself with a complicated tangle of lies, and it had all been totally unnecessary. I hadn’t just been judging myself, I’d been carrying out the sentence.
So here it is: I’m a 38-year-old divorced woman who was a boomerang adult. I’m not proud of it, but I am incredibly grateful that I had the option to move back in with my parents when I needed to. I’m not a millennial, even though I spent a solid year being Younger. While it was never nearly as sexy as the TV rom-com, I lived the basic premise.
But even in a fictional universe, you can’t fake it forever. The ruse falls apart. Maintaining the appearance of being someone you’re not is draining. I was putting so much energy into living the fantasy that I wasn’t dealing with my reality.
Being a divorced 38-year-old isn’t glamorous. But it’s who I am and I’m finally comfortable with that.