DECEMBER 13, 2012
Homepage image: Spanish poster for Fellini’s slacker film ‘I Vitelloni’
THIRTYSOMETHING, THE 1980s TELEVISION SHOW that helped define the boomer experience, was about wanting youth despite its terror. The suffix playfully captured the confusion of growing up and old and recognized — the big difference between 31 and 39.
Robin Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig’s new book on the state of young people today, Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?, appears, at least in name, to be a nod to the show. But the authors never mention the connection, and the “something” lumps together the people at each end and in between and interrogates their state of being “stuck.” Twentysomethings, they write, seem unable to attain the traditional markers of adulthood — finishing school, moving out, becoming financially independent, marrying, and having children — by the time they turn 30 because of an excess of choice, privilege, and ego.
The Henigs may have the ideal pedigree to write such a book. They are mother and daughter, boomer and millennial, former New York Times magazine writer and present New York Times web editor. The reflection on mom losing her job while daughter wins one — at the hands of the same editor — is fascinating, and particularly illuminating of the authors’ relationship, their experiences of aging, and their relatively elite status, which the younger Henig, capturing a clear shift in generational style and thinking without commenting on it, takes particular time to acknowledge. But the format they choose — each chapter divided into “now is new” and “same as it ever was,” with Mama Henig writing most of the text and Daughter Henig interrupting in italics — makes for more pleasant, dinner-table debate than the stuff of polemical generation-defining tomes. As such, Twentysomething is more interested in the flashiest of phenomena that make this generation different — the Internet, and the neuroscience that aims to observe the Net’s impact on our minds — than with the demographic, economic, and social changes that have rumbled unglamorously along for several generations to come to a head as the millennials hit adulthood: globalization and deregulation; professionalization and diversification of careers; immigration and the assimilation of racial minorities; and gender equality and the apparently dreaded, never-mentioned f-word, feminism.
The Henigs acknowledge the trickiness of generational defining and grouping in the introduction. The last of the baby boomers were born far too late to have participated in that group’s supposedly defining moment, the Vietnam War. Even earlier, some members of the so-called interbellum generation, born in the early 1900s and named for being too young to serve in World War I and too old for World War II, still fought alongside the Greatest Generation. The people named Generation Y were born between 1977 and 1995 to boomer parents. (There may be nothing worse for a generation attempting to distinguish itself than to be named after the slacker generation before it.) The oldest grew up Internet-less, afraid of nuclear weapons, and believing that diversity meant one super-cute black child in a room of white kids and feminism meant sneakers with power suits. The youngest of Gen Y probably can’t recall a life offline, feared terrorists, watched Barack Obama take the stage at a political convention during the first election in which they could vote, and elevated cooking, cleaning and child-rearing into rarefied art forms, interesting them at their higher-powered desk jobs rather than practicing them at home.
The Henigs narrow their focus to those born between 1980 and 1990, even though the oldest of those are no longer twentysomething (but were when elder Henig wrote The New York Times article on which the book is based). Taking each element of an adult life by turn — graduate school, career choices, marriage, child-rearing, friendship, and the parent-child relationship — the authors offer reasons why “now is new” and why everything is “the same as it ever was.” The latter set of arguments functions as a helpful and handily presented corrective to the glibness of much generational writing, showing that millennials are not so different from boomers. Boomers also had more privilege, choice, and sexual freedom than any generation before them. They grew up in an era of plenty and graduated into recession. They were raised alongside a new technology — television rather than video games or the Internet — blamed for stunting minds. They were old enough to enlist during an American war of choice. They were self-obsessed, racing to watch, for instance, The Big Chill, a movie in which boomers talked about themselves and also filmed themselves talking about themselves. The Henigs only hint at circumstances being “the same” for pre-boomer generations. It’s the millennial author who raises the point (perhaps boomers are, in fact, more self-obsessed than millennials). But of course the old have long critiqued the young, and the young have long seemed too new and different. The twentysomethings of the 1920s faced the same accusations as boomers and millennials — of self-involvement, immaturity, immorality. The “flaming youth,” an appellation that came from a scandalous novel and its 1923 film adaptation, went on to worry that their 1930s-born children, members of the “silent generation,” were too dull. (The young can never win.)
The “now is new” portions of each chapter generally refer to the Internet and the economy as uniquely defining the millennial experience. This may be inarguable, but the Henigs don’t quite argue it — the format they use doesn’t quite allow them to make a case, and indeed, “same as it ever was” wins the contest at the book’s conclusion, which feels like a pulled punch. The younger Henig offers anecdotes about the trickiness of maintaining relationships or finding love online, suggesting astutely that Internet dating may bear more resemblance to the arranged or choreographed pairings of decades or even centuries past than to dating. (Other than the chapter on love, daughter Henig’s contributions are restricted to italicized interruptions, a mode that doesn’t help make millennials seem less whiny.
Both authors blame the Internet for creating the sense of endless choice: buffets of romantic partners, career choices, apartments in far-off cities, old friendships that refuse to fade as they would have before, new “lifestyle” trends. Too much choice is the most consistently offered reason from the authors for why now is new and why young people are stuck, although the other “now is new” element, the economy, limits choice and seems the more logical — or at least the more generationally particular — explanation for stagnation. Twentysomethings are likely not choosing to be jobless, to live with their parents, or to take on mountains of student loan debt. They didn’t choose to grow up in the most abundant of American eras, the 1990s, only to face early in their careers the greatest economic decline since the one with “Great” in its name.
The authors’ focus on these two forces, of choice and restriction, makes sense — every generation is defined by how it uses opportunities afforded them by generations past, and by their response to the challenges, unique or not, of their moment in history. Millennials didn’t invent the Internet or cause the economic crisis, but they have been forged by and are steadily reshaping both. The authors are generally sympathetic to twentysomethings despite the subtitle. Their conclusion that things are “the same” may seem like a reluctance to wrestle with or at least make claims about the implications of new technology and a particularly damaging economic crisis, but it’s also an exculpation of a group that many older Americans consider uniquely self-obsessed and dithering.
However thoroughly they explore the millennial experience, the Henigs do not seem to want to define twentysomethings in the way of books like Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, as their conclusion that things are “the same” might suggest. Still, they might have considered some of the other, longer-running forces that are making millennials who they are, and particularly the one that has to do with the abundance of choice. The uniqueness of the millennial moment in time is not simply more choice, but more choice for more people, specifically women and minorities. The Henigs note that millennials are the most diverse generation in American history, but the implications of that fact are simply not explored. The authors tangentially suggest that the recession may force a return to stricter, less coddling child-rearing “in the model of immigrant parents,” as if immigrant parents simply do not exist at present, as if the interesting thing about millennials wasn’t how very many of them are the children of immigrants.
Similarly, if less surprisingly, the Henigs never use the word feminism. Arriving at the end of a year of so much writing about feminism and women — including the notable and also aggressively titled The End of Men by Hanna Rosin and Jessica Valenti’s Why Have Kids? — Twentysomething seems strangely avoidant of the question: What choices do women have now, and what does it mean for the women making those choices?
The Henigs do discuss the impact on millennials of the wide availability of birth control, changing sexual mores, and the postponement of childbearing for the pursuit of careers. Like a disappointing amount of writing on the question, they do not consider how men are dealing with all this change, how everyone’s choices are more complicated, how relationships falter over negotiations on pursuing careers and raising children, how sometimes, no matter our gender, we all want a husband (a breadwinner) or we all want a wife (a homemaker), but none of us wants to stick solely to one role because we no longer must.
The nearest the Henigs come to naming feminism and its clearly key impact on millennials is in their conclusion, when they write, “The timing on the road to adulthood is slower […] driven in large part by a series of changes affecting women.” Leaving aside the implication that women’s access to new choices is somehow stunting an entire generation, as if this thing called adulthood can only work if half the adults pursue careers and the other half deals with the babies, the Henigs suggest that feminism is the central answer to the question their book’s subtitle poses. It might have been, then, a bigger part of the discussion. Written by two women, Twentysomething might have reflected on the gender bias of generational portraits. After all, the identities of the two most distinct American age groups, the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers, are framed primarily by whether their men fought or did not fight in wars. For millennials, for the first time, the experience of women may be the definitive one.