Mature Age Shame

13 July 2017

The most empathetic student feels at least a little impatience with the mature-age student who’s got their hand up yet again, or whose so-much-longer-than-everyone-else’s response causes the tutorial to trail past the allocated finish time.

I’ve accordingly tried to stem the flow of opinions (which, having had an additional 10 years to ferment and solidify, threatens to burst forth at any moment) by limiting the number and length of my contributions during my second-year creative nonfiction tute. However, despite my attempts to remain incognito, I’ve discovered that I’m wholly unable to prevent myself from blurting out “mature-age student” during introductions, as if it were some kind of confession. Luckily, the undergrads I share my classes with have responded with an open friendliness suggestive of a complete lack of prejudice (one girl even went so far as to reassure me, “Well… you don’t look it!”).

More than that, throughout the semester, they’ve demonstrated an all-inclusive consideration for one another and a maturity that, I’m sad to say, I cannot retrospectively perceive in my 20-year-old self. As is so often the case, I’ve realised that the source of the judgement which has given rise to the shame I feel at finding myself back at the University of Melbourne at the age of 30 is not external, but a younger, altogether more sanctimonious self.

When I try to remember the exact nature of the gripe I had with mature-age students as an undergrad, the discomfort that comes to mind strikes me as somewhat more complex than impatience. The real issue, I believe, was their failure to meet my then criteria for success at 30-plus years of age. At 30, I thought, one should have a career, one should have established oneself (this having something vaguely to do with earning enough money to be able to afford private health insurance). What were these people still doing here?

My friends and I warmly welcomed 30 in its early days. I clearly remember at least two separate occasions on which two of my closest friends and I were sipping gin and tonics and chuckling smugly over insecurities dead and gone with an almost corporeal sense of self and a pleasantly surprising wash of contentment. As a fellow mature-age student put it, at 30, “You don’t feel the same pressure to make friends.” Five months in, and the same friends have permanently open in their browser at work and I’m back at the University of Melbourne where I was supposed to be making a good start on adulthood 12 years ago.

This is not so much intended as a warning as it is, I hope, a reassurance. With the disclaimer that that this interminable search for a vocation is in all likelihood a very first-world symptom of some deeper generational issue, the idea that the years, though they may age you, will at least gift you with greater decisiveness, or that once made, the Great Decisions of Life will silence the questions you torture yourself with in order to arrive at them, is bullshit. If you’re someone who’s interested in life in the sense of living, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever stop questioning what it is you choose to do with your time.

Of the adjectives used by others to describe my decision to take a year off from full-time work in favour of part-time study, my favourite is “brave”. After spending several years labouring under my decidedly underdeveloped adolescent notions of success, I’m ready to consider that it might be brave to interrogate your occupation and preoccupations. It may even be courageous to try that thing that has nothing to do with anything or anyone else but yourself.

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