Wednesday, August 25, 2010

What The NYT Magazine Gets Wrong About Twentysomethings

SLACKERS Like many humanities majors who graduated in 2008, I spent most of the past two years living with my parents. I had no choice – jobs were scant, and where they existed, the paychecks weren’t enough to fund a big-boy lifestyle.

It wasn’t what I’d call luxuriant or privileged. But I missed the memo, apparently: a recent article in New York Times Magazine says twentysomethings are wallowing in self-indulgence, staring at their shoes while figuring out what to be when they grow up. And they’re screwing over the rest of the world, too.

“As the settling-down sputters along for the ‘emerging adults’” says writer Robin Marantz Henig, “things can get precarious for the rest of us. Parents are helping pay bills they never counted on paying, and social institutions are missing out on young people contributing to productivity and growth.”

The article went live last week, and it wasn’t long before Facebook lit up with reposts and angry retorts. Henig seems more concerned with twentysomethings as a phenomenon in academic psychology. At no point did she ask us about being Generation Brat.

Congratulations! You’re unemployed.

I graduated Kenyon College in 2008 with a reasonable pedigree: cum laude and high honors in my English. No magna, no summa, but still, nothing to sneeze at. By all indications, my four years of effort should have secured my future.

The market wouldn’t officially swan-dive until that autumn, but clouds were gathering, especially for an aspiring reporter. Newspapers shuttered foreign bureaus, and then were shuttered themselves. My future was anything but secure. But I kept my stuff in boxes, cautiously optimistic that the boxes would soon follow me elsewhere, to Life After College.

Then my student loans came due. I won’t share my personal ledger in print, but rest assured, they aborted any aspirations of independence. I unpacked the boxes and moved in with my parents.

After two months and dozens of cover letters, I was lucky enough to land a job at the Cape Gazette, the local paper of record (the publisher, an Oberlin grad, has a charitable soul). My ambitions were scaled back, but I had a job in my chosen profession – in this alone, I was far luckier than most of my peers.

I hadn’t consistently lived at home since 17, when I left for boarding school. Now 23, I was once again eating my parents’ cooking and using their water and electricity. I watched episodes of House on their computer and locked the door behind me when I left for work in the morning (I carried their coffee in a travel mug).

Henig calls this a “nontraditional means of support.” Sure: I was fed, sheltered and supported in other material ways. But when she says it “would seem to make the delay something of a luxury item,” she ignores the fact that many in their twenties don’t want their parents’ “nontraditional support.” We were told we’d be able to lead big-boy, big-girl, grown-up lives after achieving a degree – finding out otherwise isn’t a luxury, it’s a massive existential disappointment.

It was my home, but it was not my house: if I wanted to have friends over, I would have to ask. This was the state of affairs as I grimly yielded to my 25th birthday, playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 in my parents’ living room. Any self-confidence I’d built up from four years of being pushing onward at Kenyon College was being whittled away by the simple, incredibly depressing knowledge that I couldn’t even sit on my own toilet.

Certain rough edges smoothed with time – for example, my father and I learned to avoid dinnertime discussions about religion or politics, which almost always exploded into shouting matches – but I never got used to it. As 2010 dawned, so did the prospect of marking two years under my parents’ roof.

The milestone terrified me. Desperate, I signed a lease on an apartment with two friends, not at all sure I could afford it.

With some creative budget-bending and extreme austerity, I’m surviving. I wince as I write checks for rent and utilities. I experiment with unlikely culinary combinations (barbeque sauce and linguine; leftover lamb and tomato sauce; diced pistachios in fresh, fluffy white rice) and I snap on latex gloves to clean my bathroom.

I always enjoy the view of my apartment building when rounding the blacktopped jogging path. Five months in, my semi-slovenly bachelorhood still feels like a triumph. I earned this.

Which is why I’m struck when Henig calls me and others like me privileged. Well, yes – anyone with a college degree is privileged to some extent. But I’m paying for it. At my current loan consolidation, I’ll be paying for it for the next 18 years. My monthly payment means I can’t go anywhere I’m not guaranteed a steady income. I can’t travel. I can’t embark on this vilified hajj of self-actualization (why is this a bad thing, again?). If I’m privileged, I’m also burdened with serious financial responsibilities.

In fact, I know very few people willingly stalling their rise to adultood. Several of my friends fit roughly into her schematic – un- (or vaguely) employed, overeducated, somewhat adrift – but smash her stereotype. One earned a bachelor’s in biology and is studying for medical school while working part-time as a Realtor; another holds a hard-won J.D. and is searching ruthlessly for a job.

Last I checked, neither of them enjoys the listlessness of an economic recession. They’re clawing their way to the success they were told would be the sure reward of a four-year college degree. No privilege, no luxury – just a new, unexpected reality.

At no point does Henig acknowledge the recession’s hard realities. The massive bloodletting of jobs that occurred in late 2008 meant that many recent grads were applying for employment alongside candidates with vastly more experience.

She skirts engaging the issue by saying “Of course, the recession complicates things,” but she follows that line of thought only to conclude that we’re “caught in a weird moment, unsure whether to allow young people to keep exploring and questioning or to cut them off and tell them just to find something, anything, to put food on the table and get on with their lives.”

If she looked a little harder into that “weird moment,” she’d see me and all of my friends, frowning and giving her the finger.

The view from the ivory tower

To be fair, Henig seems completely uninterested in actual twentysomethings – she cares only about the theoretical “emerging adult,” a psychological archetype developed by Jeffery Jenson Arnett, a psychology professor at Worcester, Massachusetts. Unlike Henig, Arnett has actually done his fieldwork. He comes off as warm and thoughtful, but Henig gently hints it’s all hogwash. Despite her “impressions” of the twentysomethings – garnered from an essay anthology called 20 Something Manifesto, not from speaking human beings – she writes Arnett “insists” emerging adulthood is not limited to young persons of privilege.

In my newsroom, we avoid words like “insist.” They confer judgment, and judgment presupposes knowledge we often lack. “Presuming to know is a disease,” my publisher often intones. Henig should take heed.

We aren’t enjoying an extended vacation. We’re struggling to adapt to a game in which the rules suddenly and cruelly changed.