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Generation Whine

Self-pitying twentysomethings and the Boomers who made them.

Before 2013 begins, catch up on the best of 2012. From now until the New Year, we will be re-posting some of The New Republic’s most thought-provoking pieces of the year. Enjoy.

NO RECENT TV moment has gotten more cultural attention than the opening of HBO’s “Girls”—in which aspiring memoirist Hannah Horvath, shoveling noodles into her mouth, is told by her parents that they’re cutting her off. “You graduated from college two years ago, we’ve been supporting you for two years, and that’s enough,” her mother declares, and Hannah’s wounded hangdog look morphs into outrage: “Do you know how crazy the economy is right now?” she says. “I mean, all my friends get help from their parents.” When “Girls” premiered, the general response to that exchange was a resounding cry of recognition. An NPR reviewer pointed to it as the moment when he “fell in love” with the show. The clip was shown by a presenter at a recent Stanford conference called “Promoting Positive Development in the Third Decade of Life.” 

“Girls” is part portrait and part send-up of a particular type: relatively privileged, newly ejected from the liberal arts bubble, armed with an expectation that the world will react to their quest for fulfillment with appreciative patience. And one reason the show struck such a chord was surely that its real-life inspiration is everywhere right now. A steady stream of articles and books is constantly reminding us that today’s young people, the recession’s unlucky children, are experiencing their twenties as an unprecedented period of paralyzing limbo.

When The New York Times’s Style section profiled 24-year-old Emma Koenig, creator of the popular Tumblr FUCK! I’m In My Twenties, it cast her as an emblem of millennials everywhere. “She is typical,” said the caption accompanying a picture of Koenig at home on the couch with her mom, “of her generation: bad jobs, duds for dates and an assist from her parents, whose house she recently moved out of.” During the past year, the Times has also chronicled the recessionary blues of “offspring who cling to the nest” (like the 26-year-old living at home and launching an Etsy-style Web business for small-scale artisanal-food purveyors) as well as Ivy League grads who flock to unpaid internships or who are waiting out the bad economy altogether (like the Harvard lit major who abandoned her job search to tour the country in an old Chevy minivan with her band).

The most recent addition to this cultural chorus is an ambitious generational study, stuffed with data and statistics, titled Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?. The book was penned by mother-daughter team Robin Marantz Henig (a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine) and Samantha Henig (a 28-year-old Web editor at the same magazine). Reading Twentysomething, it is hard not to feel a persistent familiarity in the back of the mind—and not just because its authors’ thoughts on the subject have been aired in assorted forums, including the Times and Slate. The déjà vu has to do with the strikingly specific portrait of the twentysomething that emerges, despite the book’s all-inclusive title and the broadness of its anthropological ambitions. The twentysomethings of Twentysomething are mostly angsty aspiring creatives whose Art is incompatible with adulthood. Many have parents willing to bankroll them, to a point. They are constantly tweeting and Tumbling, always about themselves.

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It goes without saying that self-absorbed twentysomethingdom is nothing new. In the 1991 novel Generation X, Douglas Coupland coined the term “me-ism” to describe “a search by an individual, in the absence of training in traditional religious tenets, to formulate his own personally tailored religion.” The worldview of this new set is instead a kind of “you-ism”—a tendency to look inward under the pretense of looking outward. This, after all, is a generation of twentysomethings taught to indulge and unpack every psychic injury online and to expect that endorsement for their own experiences is just a few clicks away.

THERE ARE NUMEROUS places on the Internet where you can read all about the particular torments of being a young person adrift in a grim economy, but perhaps none captures the spirit of the genre better than Thought Catalog. The group blog was launched in February 2010, gets some 20 million page views a month, and now has a permanent office in Brooklyn. Its posts are heartfelt meditations on subjects like “Why Does Graduating From College Suck So Hard?” (Answer: “Having a degree that felt like it was written on a cocktail napkin.”) Ryan O’Connell, Thought Catalog’s 26-year-old creative director, is its defining voice, cranking out earnest dispatches from his private life. In an essay titled “How to be a 20-Something,” he plays the misty-eyed mentor offering up tidbits of spiritual encouragement: “Work at a coffee shop but feel hopeful about your career in advertising, writing, whatever. Remember that you’re young and that the world is your oyster. Everything is possible, you still have so much to see and hear. You went to a good school and did good things.” Hundreds of commenters respond to his musings with grateful enthusiasm. “How do you know my life?” one wrote. 

Thought Catalog revolves around a single rhetorical tic: the word “you.” Its organizing principle is the comfortable presumption of consensus. O’Connell himself graduated from The New School as a creative-writing major in December 2009. He did several unpaid journalism internships. He fled to Europe and wandered. In conversation, his voice is strikingly similar to his Thought Catalog persona. “Everyone has that Europe moment, and if you didn’t have that moment, you want to have it,” he told me on the phone. “I recognize that everything I write could be considered navel-gazing, but I always try to direct it back to the reader,” he explained. “Take my experiences,” he added, “and make them yours.”

“Take my experiences and make them yours”: This could be the rallying cry of this school of urban twentysomethingdom. On Koenig’s FUCK! I’m In My Twenties, the bad economy is a constant low-level hum. Like Thought Catalog, it is animated by a kind of pseudo-survivalism, often conflating the specific difficulty of breaking into the culture industry with hardship in the economy at large. One post is a fake resumé that lists Koenig’s education as “Prestigious/Pretentious Art School” and cites skills such as “Procrastination and avoidance.” “There should be a union for interns,” another post contends.

Koenig majored in drama at New York University, and the months that followed her graduation, she said in a phone interview, were pretty low: “I felt like all I could talk about was how I’m in my twenties, I just graduated from college, and it sucks. The topics I had to speak about at parties were like, some guy that screwed me over or how the job I have sucks or how frustrated I am that I can’t get any acting work.” And so FUCK! I’m In My Twenties was born. Her parents were paying her rent, and she had an unpaid internship at a production company, which, she says, made her feel like “the most pointless human.” For months, she said, “I was creating material for [the blog], but I just hated myself so much and was like, this is so dumb, why am I doing this?” And then the responses started rolling in. Common reactions were: “This just happened to me.” “Is this person reading my thoughts?” By the time the Times selected her as the symbol of an entire generation’s ills, Koenig had a book deal and had requested leave from her job at a sandwich shop in order to write it.

I spoke to Koenig the morning after her New York book party. It had gone well. She’d sung a few songs she had written, one of which was called “Personally,” about frustrating relationships and the stress of trying to work in the entertainment industry. “When I said, ‘Thanks to Tumblr for sponsoring this,’” she told me, “I could feel myself getting a little choked up.”

It is striking that FUCK! I’m In My Twenties and Thought Catalog feel so likeminded—there’s a sameness to their voices and a narrowness to their perspectives that transcends standard youthful narcissism. After all, the “me-ism” of Coupland’s Gen X slackers at least contained a kind of critique of the society that had shaped their ennui. “You-ism” is less a matter of twentysomethings trying to understand their circumstances than simply taking inventory of their feelings, reassuring themselves by projecting their worldview onto the world. It has its origins in the self-affirming echo chambers of social media— all those retweets and likes and shares build the easy illusion that your problems are everyone else’s problems, too. And listening to Koenig explain the roots of her anguish is to be reminded of just how particular her reality is. “My dream is to survive doing what I’d like to think I’m good at, what I enjoy doing,” Koenig said. “I don’t think I’m being entitled to desire employment in the field I spent so much time and money training for,” she added. “But the fact that it’s next to impossible to stay alive is so frustrating. ... My education was $200,000 and I have a BFA [Bachelor of Fine Arts], and what does that mean?”

Even the book Twentysomething falls into this trap, despite all its gestures toward a generational birds-eye view. Twentysomething is massive in scope. It roams through chapters on marriage and fertility and youth psychology and sociology and midlife crises and quarter-life crises and student debt. And yet it ultimately feels like social media brought to bear as a research method, the result of flinging an idea at your personal network and waiting for supportive comments to cluster around it. The Henigs see this charge coming, and try to preempt it, noting that its interview subjects were chosen not by employing any “scientific method” but by conducting “a casual survey among friends of friends.”

Researching the book, “Sam e-mailed a copy of the questionnaire,” Robin Marantz Henig writes, “to every twentysomething she knew, and asked them to forward it to everyone they knew. I did the same for Baby Boomers.” They got 127 responses: 96 from millennials, 31 from boomers. The survey, included as an appendix, includes some plainly self-selecting questions like: “Have you gone to or considered graduate school?” And so, even though the Henigs wade through swaths of sociological data, they produce a cast of characters that could have been plucked exclusively from Brooklyn cafés.

Interviewees include a “broke, aimless vegan baker,” a 26-year-old “who works part-time in a transcription office in Boston,” “a 29-year-old yoga instructor,” a woman “who graduated from Harvard in 2007 intending to work in publishing,” a 25-year-old woman “who lives in Brooklyn and works for a fashion photographer.” The book is padded with personal observations from Samantha such as, “We can put on biz-caz clothes and swipe into our fancy office buildings, but it still feels more like dress-up ... than like anything real.” Despite the dutiful statistics, it’s the biz-caz clothes and the vegan bakers that stay with you. It is easy to forget that Twentysomething set out explicitly to answer an enormous and global question: whether “Millennials’ experience of the twenties is anything new.”

DURING THE early twentieth century, seismic social and economic changes created a new phase of life, which we now know as adolescence. The cultural mythology of modern twentysomethings is undergirded by the theory that they, too, are experiencing a completely new life stage called “emerging adulthood.” In a 2004 book, the psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett writes that this period lasts from ages 18 to 25 and has arisen in developed countries over the last 50 years. Catalysts include the climbing median age of first marriage and the demand for higher education in an information-based economy. Arnett describes emerging adulthood as “the most unstable period of life,” driven by a search for “identity-based work.” The Henigs’ book quotes Arnett extensively, as did the 2010 Times magazine piece that the book grew out of, and his theory has propped up many a newspaper trend story.

But mostly missing from the cultural conversation is the reality that the majority of twentysomethings don’t have the luxury of a long, winding passage to adulthood. At least one out of five twentysomethings does not have a high school diploma. Of those who graduated in 2011, slightly less than 70 percent enrolled in college—and only about 15 percent of those students went to relatively select colleges and universities. About half of all young Americans become parents before age 25. 

Yes, the economy is bleak for twentysomethings: The current unemployment rate is about 13.9 percent for 20- to 24-year-olds, versus 8.1 percent for the population as a whole. But the twentysomethings getting airtime are, needless to say, not the ones feeling the brunt of those statistics. For white 20- to 24-year-olds, the unemployment rate is 11.5 percent; for black youths, it is 24.9 percent. The Henigs point out that twentysomethings comprise more minorities than any other age group in the United States, and that some 42 percent of people aged 18 to 29 are living in poverty, versus 34 percent for the population as a whole. They offer up plenty of demographic data, but there’s not a single voice in their book from below the poverty line.

Kathy Edin, a sociologist at Harvard who studies urban poverty and family life, is one of the most prominent critics of the emerging adulthood theory. The notion that an entire generation is consumed by the desire for “identity-based work” is, she said, “completely ridiculous.” “The myopia is galling,” she added. “While people on Thought Catalog are struggling to find themselves, there are young families struggling to survive in an economy where two jobs can’t pay the food bill.” Edin cited a study she is conducting of 150 low-income youths in Baltimore. “These kids will take any job they can get. Identity at the bottom has to come from things that are not part of employment.” One young man she’d interviewed worked at a Coca-Cola bottling plant before getting trained as a medical assistant; his identity, she said, was wrapped up in a vintage Lincoln he had painstakingly detailed and reupholstered, and which sits parked outside of his family’s clapboard house. “The car is who he is,” Edin said. “But his goal is to get by.”

Sandy Darity, a researcher and economist who studies race and inequality, said that the image of the emerging adult is entirely missing “young people whose families don’t have the resources to enable them to devote much time to psychological angst.” He himself plays the harmonica, he added. “I never thought I could actually make a living that would be adequate to support a family doing that.”

IT’S EASY to fault the twentysomethings of “Girls” and Thought Catalog and FUCK! I’m In My Twenties for their obliviousness to privilege, the way they rue the recession for thwarting their search for creative fulfillment or use it as a set-piece to justify their floundering. 

But in the end, the adults are the ones who are lavishing all the attention on their plight. Koenig’s book based on her blog has been optioned for television. O’Connell is also writing a book, to be published by Simon and Schuster and titled I’m Special and Other Lies Twentysomethings Tell Themselves. Arnett, too, has a new book on the way next spring, which he describes as “a parent’s guide to emerging adults.” Twentysomethings are, of course, entitled to write about whatever they want, no matter how cloistered their worldview. It’s the tastemakers at places like HBO and the Times who have thrust them into the cultural spotlight and fixated on their every move.

So perhaps it’s not the twentysomethings whose self-obsession is driving this trend. All those stories about emerging adults bear a suspicious resemblance to another overcrowded genre about the worries of a small and privileged class: the parents who continue to invest in and manage their kids into adulthood. “I sometimes imagine that there’s an editor at the Times who’s got a thirtysomething kid that he can’t get out of the house who’s putting his shoes up on the coffee table and eating Cheetos on the couch,” the sociologist Michael Rosenfeld told me.

Robin Henig, for her part, says that she never intended for her book to be a blanket statement about all young people. “We were uncomfortable from the very beginning acting as though we were saying anything about a generation,” she told me. She wanted the title to be something like Cusp or Brink, she added, but her editors insisted on Twentysomething. Her main hope was to address the world of her daughters. “If there’s an emotion I want people to come away with from this book, it’s feeling comforted,” she said. A nearly 300-page professional collaboration between a mother and her twentysomething daughter—designed to reassure the daughter’s peers that everything will be OK—feels a bit like helicopter parenting seen through to its logical conclusion. While some of the anxiety at play here is surely the twentysomethings’, perhaps even more of it belongs to the boomers whose basement couches they are occupying.

And yet reading Koenig and O’Connell, it is hard not to think that such smart, funny, articulate, motivated twentysomethings are wasting a decade’s worth of creative energy, that they would be better off living outside of their own heads for a while. But they want to be artists, and they want to be heard, and they are adrift between their own creative ambitions and the pressure that the culture at large has foisted on them: to be, as Hannah Horvath might say, the voice of their generation or at least a generation; to speak for everyone simply because they have a blog and so they can; to take their experiences, and make them ours.

Laura Bennett is a staff writer at The New Republic. This article appeared in the October 25, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “Woe is Twee.”