The young persons in these slides reflect an extremely random sample of twentysomethings affected by the economy, skewed heavily toward college attendees and acquaintances of New York staffers. All slogans are their own words, though we provided the tape.
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.”