Josef K, the protagonist of Franz Kafka’s The Trial was 30-year-old when he was arrested. My professor at Haifa University, who taught the novel as part of the course “the Existentialist Novel,” told us that Kafka probably chose this age because 30 symbolized stability and respectability. “People in their 30s” he argued “have already reached the pinnacle of their career.” We, his students, all in our early 20s, accepted this is as a fact, for us, thirty was almost old age.
Ever since that day I have watched age 30 gradually falling from grace. It started with my own private biography. When my husband turned 30 his position in life was very far from being stable. He has just finished his PhD and was on his way to get his first teaching job. Three years later when I turned 30, I already had 2 very young girls, but my career had not even started. In comparison to K.’s position (before his arrest of course) our family was very far behind.
At that time I rationalized to myself that the cause for our delayed progress was that we came to the US from a foreign country– my husband served 4 years in the Israeli army, and we started graduate school relatively late. But still in my immediate circle, in the small university town in the Midwest, I saw very few people in their early 30s who had “arrived”.
Still in spite of our modest achievements, young people today face a much bigger challenge. My daughter who turned 32, and is still in graduate school, cannot expect the ease that we had in finding a university job. Moreover, in a way because she is still at school, she is luckier than many of her friends who had finished their doctorate but could not find a job. Many of them are also burdened with huge loans that they have no way of paying back..
The situation of young people in Europe is not easier; with high unemployment, The Guardian reports that almost a third of Italian adults (31%) live with their parents. The highest proportion is among 18- to 29-year-olds, for whom unemployment is particularly high, with 60.7% reported living at home. Among 30- to 44-year-olds, 25.3% still live at home. I know that young people in the UK face similar difficulties.
I realize that the world that Kafka knew was very different. At that time education brought about economic prospects, social mobility and prosperity. But when I look at young people today, so many of with no permanent job, no family of their own and unable to afford renting a small place of their own, I ask myself whether as parents we have not neglected our duties. I feel that somehow we forgot to tell them about that changing world. We kept encouraging them to study but did not warn them that education alone was not enough to bring about economic and social comfort. We didn’t spell out to them what else was needed, perhaps we did not know ourselves or preferred to believe that like us, when we were their age, they will eventually find their place
Kafka himself died when he was only 41, so for him 30 was almost the last moment. I just hope that our children who are still struggling in their 30s will be able to, somehow, find stability when they are in their 40s