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The Kids Are Actually Sort of Alright
My screwed, coddled, self-absorbed, mocked, surprisingly resilient generation.
By Noreen Malone
Oct 16, 2011
I know this might read as very woe-is-us, but these are the facts: Nearly 14 percent of college graduates from the classes of 2006 through 2010 can’t find full-time work, and overall just 55.3 percent of people ages 16 to 29 have jobs. That’s the lowest percentage since World War II, as you might have heard an Occupy Wall Street protester point out. (Not coincidentally, one in five young adults now lives below the poverty line.) Almost a quarter more people ages 25 to 34—in other words, people who should be a few years into their independent lives—are living with their parents than at the beginning of the recession.
Being young is supposed to mean you have the luxury of time. But in hard times, a few fallow years can become a lifetime drag on what you earn, sort of the opposite of compound interest. Because the average person grabs 70 percent of their total pay bumps during their first ten years in the workforce, according to a paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, having stagnant or nonexistent *wages during that period means you hit that springboard at a crawl. Economist Lisa Kahn explained to The Atlantic in 2010 that those who graduate into a recession are still earning an average of 10 percent less nearly two decades into their careers. In hard, paycheck-shrinking numbers, the salary lost over that stretch totals around $100,000. That works out to $490 or so less a month, money that could go, say, toward repaying student loans, which for the class of 2009 average $24,000. Those student loans (the responsible borrowing option!) have reportedly passed credit cards as the nation’s largest source of debt. This is not just a rotten moment to be young. It’s a putrid, stinking, several-months-old-stringy-goat-meat moment to be young.
Earlier generations have weathered recessions, of course; this stall we’re in has the look of something nastier. Social Security and Medicare are going to be diminished, at best. Hours worked are up even as hiring staggers along: Blood from a stone looks to be the normal order of things “going forward,” to borrow the business-speak. Economists are warning that even when the economy recuperates, full employment will be lower and growth will be slower—a sad little rhyme that adds up to something decidedly *unpoetic. A majority of Americans say, for the first time ever, that this generation will not be better off than its parents.
And so we find ourselves living among the scattered ashes and spilled red wine and broken glass from a party we watched in our pajamas, peering down the stairs at the grown-ups. This is not a morning after we are prepared for, to judge by the composite sketch sociologists have drawn of us. (Generation-naming is an inexact science, but generally we’re talking here about the first half of the Millennials, the terrible New Agey label we were saddled with in the eighties.) Clare has us pegged pretty well: We are self-centered and convinced of our specialness and unaccustomed to being denied. “I am sad, jaded, disillusioned, frustrated, and worried,” said one girl I talked to who feels “stuck” in a finance job she took as a stepping-stone to more-fulfilling work she now cannot find. Ours isn’t a generation that will give you just one adjective to describe our hurt.
It might be hard, in fact, to create a generation more metaphysically ill-equipped to adjust to this new tough-shit world. Yet some of us, somehow, are dealing pretty well.
Our generation is the product of two long-term social experiments conducted by our parents. The first sought to create little hyperachievers encouraged to explore our interests and talents, so long as that could be spun for maximum effect on a college application. (I would like to take this forum to at last admit that my co-secretaryship of the math club had nothing to do with any passion for numbers and much to do with the extra-credit points.) In the second experiment, which was a reaction to their own distant moms and dads, our parents tried to see how much self-confidence they could pack into us, like so many overstuffed microfiber love seats, and accordingly we were awarded clip-art Certificates of Participation just for showing up.
The finite supply of actual brass rings meant that the first experiment would never pan out, but the second was a runaway success. Self-esteem among young people in America has been rising since the seventies, but it’s now so dramatically high that social scientists are considering whether they need to find a different measurement system—we’ve broken the scale. Since we are not in fact all perfect, this means that the endless praise we got growing up, win or lose, must have really sunk in. (Meanwhile, it’s this characteristic that our parents’ generation—which instilled it in us!—so delights in interpreting as “entitled.”)
I’ve got a working theory about what’s happening as our self-esteem surpluses collide with a contracting world. A big chunk of our generation, the part David Brooks a decade ago collectively labeled the Organization Kid, more or less happily embraced very hard work within the system. (Brooks was focused on elite students, but I think the term applies equally well to your typical first- and second-honor-roll strivers.) If you were an Organization Kid and have prospered despite the economy, landing one of those jobs that come with an embroidered gym bag, you’re obviously fine. The big change is that when you describe yourself as lucky—a word that comes up a lot with friends I know like this—you may actually mean it more than you would have before. (Before, it would have just been codespeak for “privileged.”) If, though, you set track records and made summa cum laude—if you earned praise not just for effort but real achievements—only to land back in the same bedroom where you drilled for the SATs, then you are unmoored. Your less-decorated peers, feeling the love regardless of results, came to believe they’ll always be appreciated. Whereas you have had your worldview kicked in.
You become a little like my friend Lael Goodman. “The worst thing is that I’ve always gotten self-worth from performance, especially good grades. But now that I can’t get a job, I feel worthless,” she says. Lael, who is 27, was the valedictorian of her high school and did very well in college too. Unable to find a position that paid a decent wage using her English degree, she got a master’s at the University of Michigan in environmental studies. She does technically have a job, for now, filling in for a woman on maternity leave at a D.C. nonprofit, but it’s not one that prevents all her go-getting from seeming for naught. Lael feels like she’s stranded on the wrong rung. “All the articles in the newspaper say that investing in an IRA now means I’ll have hundreds of thousands of extra dollars down the road, so I should just scrimp and save,” she says. “But I can’t scrimp and save because I’m doing that just to afford housing and groceries. So I’m screwed now, unable to enjoy young adulthood in the way that I feel I was promised, and screwed for the future.”
Then there is my friend Sam (not his real name, because he felt that if I used his real name, he’d truly be unemployable). In high school, Sam was the sports captain who set all the curves in calculus. I used to call him up the night before physics tests to figure out what I should know. Sam went to the best college he got into, for which he took out $50,000 in loans. He signed up for some abstract-math courses, was cowed by classmates who worked theorems for kicks, and majored in poetry writing rather than fall short in the subject he’d built so much of his identity on. After graduating, he took a job as a woodworker’s apprentice, not the expected outcome for a grade-grubbing gunner, but also not all that unusual back in the days before every decision about which major to sign up for or job to take started to feel make-or-break. One thing about being the boomers’ heirs growing up in boom times was that it used to be okay to take a life-enriching sabbatical. There was no reason to think you wouldn’t eventually be able to get back on track.
Sam found out that woodworking turned out to be mostly vacuuming up wood chips, and so after a few months, he moved on to a series of other gigs, none of them exactly a career. When he finally got sick of bouncing around in his broken-down $200 car and living with his parents—who kept pressuring him to revisit his math-and-science aptitude—he got himself a $25,000 bank loan, which he used to cover expenses while enrolled in continuing-ed classes in engineering at one of the U.C. schools. He ran out of money pretty quickly. He then found a job working in urban education, but was laid off after a year and a half. “That was the point in my life where I was like, I need to get a career, I need to make thatmove,” he told me over the phone, in the mellowed-out East Bay patois that had crept into his voice since I last spoke with him. These days, he’s going to networking events and desperately applying for jobs in the tech world, hopeful that landing something very entry-level will put him back on a navigable route to success. He’s had creditors calling him at all hours. He is rather earnestly worried that he might end up on the street. His brothers are managing to stand on their own feet, and he can’t bear to move back home.
“I have a lot of regret about going to college,” Sam, the person in my high-school class who’d been most obsessed with getting into a good college, now says. “If I could go back again, I think I’d try … not going to college”—our generation’s ultimate blasphemy.
Sam blames himself for his predicament, not the economy, mostly. But other people in similar straits are coming to see their personal hardships as the product of broad inequalities. How many young people will put themselves into that category is a big test for Occupy Wall Street. One of its advocates created a Tumblr, “We Are the 99 Percent,” to collect accounts of being screwed by the recession. The posts from twentysomethings take stories that sound something like Lael’s—“I worked hard (40 hours a week during most of my education), for what? Tell me what I need to do to get ahead, because I did everything right!”—and make them a call to arms.
The unions, we know, are heeding that call, but a broader youth movement has yet to materialize. Yaphet Murphy, a 28-year-old Baruch grad from Brooklyn, was at the first day of the protests. He’d made up to $45,000 a year as a taxi dispatcher at JFK before deciding that in order to really get on in the world, he needed a degree, in his case in marketing management. His $50,000 in student loans in deferment, he now pulls in $400 in a bad month and $1,000 in his very best month from freelance projects. He lives at home, relying on the generosity of his mom, an office assistant with the Social Security Administration, and his uncle, who works for the MTA. Yaphet hadn’t gone downtown to wave a placard. He was there on behalf of a client, a (very) independent film called Vodka Rocks!, a “countercultural” critique of corporate branding. “I thought it was congruent,” said Yaphet delicately. He still prefers to entrust his fate to his own hustle.
The Obama 2008 campaign was the high-water mark for twentysomething political involvement. The activism it entailed felt like work—not a turnoff for us. Dialing your way through spreadsheets of get-out-the-vote phone numbers is something you can add to a résumé; getting escorted off the Brooklyn Bridge in those plastic handcuffs is not. But we’re done with that kind of engagement, for now: While this is by some measures the most politically progressive generation ever, young people have never been more disillusioned, as a group, about their ability to bring about meaningful change through the electoral process.
Sam Graham-Felsen was the Obama campaign’s chief blogger last cycle and now lectures about youth activism all over the world. When we spoke during the early days of the protests, he wasn’t convinced Occupy Wall Street could make activism cool for kids again, a factor he views as a key difference between the U.S. and ¬places like Egypt. “Even just the physical style, the types of chants, the stuff that they’re eating, the granola—it’s just so derivative of the sixties,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Guys, let’s do something that’s more our generation.’ ”
What’s not clear is exactly what that might look like. It’s not that this is a generation that doesn’t want to improve the world—been to a college activity fair lately?—but ours is a fractured involvement. The Cold War sort of settled which was the superior economic and political system, leaving youthful calls for revolution to be shouted in the context of gay rights and women’s rights and pro-Palestinian-hummus-in-the-campus-cafeteria demonstrations, which are really about improvements to the status quo, not a wholesale overthrow. In the sixties, that generation’s protesters wanted a blank slate, economic and political chaos out of which they could build something new. We’ve got that chaos, and all we want is a way to get back to the structured prosperity that preceded their marching. It’s hard to build a potent counterculture when some of the people it’s meant to appeal to are just hoping for the chance to put on a tie and report to their cubes.
If you look at the people on the left who have painted the darkest picture of what the economic downturn means, they’re a generation ahead: Matt Taibbi, for one, or Ken Layne, the publisher of Wonkette, whose ironized blog prose mixes strangely with his incredibly bleak reading of the economy and culture. (Layne told me, in an e-mail of ambiguous sincerity, that the main advice he would give a recent graduate was to own only what would fit in a backpack and keep a current passport always on hand.) They are unabashedly, feverishly upset. Their words practically sweat clammily. Our generation tends to prefer our dystopian news ¬delivered with the impish smile of a Jon Stewart. (I turn the channel when it’s time for scowling, ranting Lewis Black.) Reared to sponge up positive reinforcement that requires only a positive attitude as a buy-in, we are just not that into anger.
I spent the summer listening to Helplessness Blues, an album by Fleet Foxes. It is sweet and comforting and hated by a certain kind of music snob, and it was unexpectedly popular. The band, fronted by a 25-year-old, owes much to the sounds of groups like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, but if such a thing is possible, Fleet Foxes makes those older acts sound hard-edged. The folk music of the sixties was protest music, but there is nothing remotely political about this. Instead, the preoccupations are inward-turning, the title track serving as a gentle generational anthem: “I was raised up believing / I was somehow unique / Like a snowflake, distinct among snowflakes / Unique in each way you can see,” it begins. “But, now, after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be / A functioning cog in some great machinery / Serving something beyond me.” It’s not just the bearded dudes in flannel; some of our angry-sounding musicians, it turns out, are just seeking affirmation. On the song “Radicals,” rapper Tyler, the Creator snarls, “I’m not saying just to go out and do some stupid shit, commit crimes. What I’m trying to tell you is, do what the fuck you want, stand for what the fuck you believe in and don’t let nobody tell you you can’t do what the fuck you want.” Then the kicker: “I’m a fucking unicorn, and fuck anybody who say I’m not.” Today’s fucking unicorn is yesterday’s “Fuck tha Police.”
Television writers, a lot of them young themselves, are starting to offer their own expressions of our generation’s shifting sensibility. Pre-crash, we had the creamy male fairy tale of Entourage. Now HBO serves up How to Make It in America, a slightly grittier prequel to the good life that implies simply being marginally in the mix of a certain kind of scene—it’s no longer necessary to have ascended to the top—constitutes “making it” today. And CBS is enjoying a hit with 2 Broke Girls, set in a diner in Williamsburg and co-created by Michael Patrick King, whose Sex and the City prerecession fantasia ran on a constant loop in college girls’ dorm rooms in the mid-aughts as we put on our heels and going-out tops and drank vodka from Solo cups. The show is neither very good nor very accurate in its portrayal of what it’s really like to be a broke girl living in Williamsburg (hi!), but it does get one big thing right. It centers on the sardonic heroine Max, played by Kat Dennings, who beneath her surface armor is hamstrung by faltering self-confidence after, we are meant to imagine, being unable to get anything better than her waitressing gig. Her co-worker foil, Caroline, the spoiled, newly destitute daughter of a Madoff-esque figure, refuses to wallow despite her fall from privilege, and dreams up a cupcakery as a way to split the difference between the waitressing grind and the life she had coming her way. Obviously, a vegan falafel truck would be a much more 2011-appropriate start-up scheme, but never mind: Their attempts to deal with adult disappointment, to find a new path, now make for a plot with a lot of mileage in it.
In the early days of the recession, I was secretly a little jealous of friends who’d lost their jobs. When you’re young enough, from the outside a layoff can look confusingly like liberation. It seemed like an opportunity to do more of the semi-sanctioned and semi-scripted fucking around that goes with this decade of life. But it stops feeling like a fun, sexy choice when it’s not, in fact, a choice, and what income you’re fortunate to have is highly nondisposable. It’s hard to fully enjoy avoiding maturity if you’re worried that it’s more like maturity is escaping you.
Amid all the jumping around between jobs and among beds, the twenties are, for a lot of people, the time to figure out whom you want to settle down with. The economy has pushed back that rite of passage: The median age of first marriages has crept up by about a year since 2006—a statistically huge increase—and the overall marriage rate is at an all-time low. The number of women between 20 and 34 rose by about a million between 2008 and 2010, but the number of children born to the group dropped by 200,000. Thirty-nine percent of us in a 2010 National Journal poll were getting financial help from relatives, including a full quarter of those with full-time jobs. Those statistics partly stem from actual hardship. But they also seem to reflect inflated expectations of the lifestyle you need to have attained before you’re ready to move on to your next stage.
And yet: Some of us are learning to make the trade-offs. For 27-year-old Lydia Greaves and her husband, the choice was the house they dreamed of buying in his native Seattle or the family they dreamed of simultaneously starting, but not both. He, a lawyer, couldn’t find work for nearly a year after getting his J.D., and she, an environmental chemist, was laid off for a while in 2010. They’ve decided to put off saving for the down payment and try for the kid first. “If we wait until we feel like we’re financially ready, I’d be 40,” she says. “It was like, ‘Okay! In that case …’ ”
It’s not exactly a happy story, but it can be a hopeful one. And the early-onset pragmatism is trickling down. One of the youngest young people I spoke with was Kristine Nwosu. The child of Nigerian immigrants, she’s 19 years old and a sophomore at Temple University, putting her among the first members of our generation to enter college knowing full well the scary merry-go-round they’ll be climbing aboard when they’re done. Her mother is a nurse and her father a chef who, even before he started cancer treatments and underwent a liver transplant this summer, had struggled financially, losing both a restaurant and a catering business. Kristine used to want to cook for a living, too. But she’s leaning toward studying to be a pharmacist, a field for which hiring prospects remain bright. “I have a slight interest in it,” she says. That now feels like enough.
Recently it has become important to me to buy lamps for my very small apartment. I have been in it more than a year, and it’s starting to feel claustrophobically tiny. I can’t make it any bigger, but I can make it brighter, and so I have spent hours browsing the web for shades with the right transparency, the ideal height. I move lamps around daily, trying to find the combination that will make cramped feel cozy, that will cast a golden glow if I stick them in the right corners.
It occurs to me that what I am trying to do with lamps—to make the best of limited circumstances, to brighten what feels shabby—is the domestic side of what I’ve already done with my professional self. I’m one of those young people always calling themselves lucky: I’ve been employed throughout the downturn, in the industry that I wanted to work in. But at my old job, there were several rounds of layoffs. The first robbed me of my cubicle mate, the last (which came after I’d left) hit veteran colleagues at the top of their games. Watching that, I decided to never count on career stability and have tried to be less defined by my work. Some of my friends have recalibrated as well. “I look at the people in positions of authority in my office and see the stress and pressure they are under,” says one. She has lowered the bar beyond which satisfaction supposedly waits. “It makes me think, Well, maybe I don’t have to be in charge. Maybe I’ll be okay with just keeping afloat rather than making a splash.”
It’s part of the American way to get a lot of self-worth from your job. Meanwhile, one of the reasons there aren’t enough of those jobs out there is that America no longer makes enough stuff. Young people feel that void, intrinsically. Making stuff is what got us smiles from our parents and top billing in refrigerator art galleries. And since we are, as a generation, more addicted to positive reinforcement than any before us, and because we have learned firsthand the futility of finding that affirmation through our employers, we have returned to our stuff-making ways, via pursuits easily mocked: the modern-day pickling, the obsessive Etsying, the flower-arranging classes, the knitting resurgence, the Kickstarter funds for art projects of no potential commercial value. The millions upon millions who upload footage of themselves singing or dancing or talking about the news to YouTube. Of course, funny videos and adorable hand-sewn ikat pillows aren’t the only kind of stuff that people are making as a way of coping with harsh economic realities—meth, for instance, comes to mind. But putting aside those darker enterprises, this is a golden age for creativity and knowledge for their own sakes. Our pastimes have become our expressions of mastery, a substitute for the all-consuming career.
Even status updates and photo albums on Facebook are part of this. Jonathan Franzen wrote a commencement speech–cum–jeremiad last spring against our generation for, as he sees it, substituting Facebook “liking” for real-life passion for something. But the thumbs-up isn’t a substitution for anything. It is just a tiny kindness, a sweet pat on the back, and the profligacy with which we give them out is just a function of a generation’s giving out compliments in the volume in which we received them growing up. Thumbs down, Franzen, for missing the point.
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