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.”