It’s part of the American way to get a lot of self-worth from your job. Meanwhile, one of the reasons there aren’t enough of those jobs out there is that America no longer makes enough stuff. Young people feel that void, intrinsically. Making stuff is what got us smiles from our parents and top billing in refrigerator art galleries. And since we are, as a generation, more addicted to positive reinforcement than any before us, and because we have learned firsthand the futility of finding that affirmation through our employers, we have returned to our stuff-making ways, via pursuits easily mocked: the modern-day pickling, the obsessive Etsying, the flower-arranging classes, the knitting resurgence, the Kickstarter funds for art projects of no potential commercial value. The millions upon millions who upload footage of themselves singing or dancing or talking about the news to YouTube. Of course, funny videos and adorable hand-sewn ikat pillows aren’t the only kind of stuff that people are making as a way of coping with harsh economic realities—meth, for instance, comes to mind. But putting aside those darker enterprises, this is a golden age for creativity and knowledge for their own sakes. Our pastimes have become our expressions of mastery, a substitute for the all-consuming career.
Even status updates and photo albums on Facebook are part of this. Jonathan Franzen wrote a commencement speech–cum–jeremiad last spring against our generation for, as he sees it, substituting Facebook “liking” for real-life passion for something. But the thumbs-up isn’t a substitution for anything. It is just a tiny kindness, a sweet pat on the back, and the profligacy with which we give them out is just a function of a generation’s giving out compliments in the volume in which we received them growing up. Thumbs down, Franzen, for missing the point.
On the day before I turned 27, I went to meet my friend Desi for a beer and a burger. He is a thoughtful, very smart 24-year-old college dropout, smallish and dark-haired with a bushy Brooklyn beard. He rides a motorcycle and seems to be friends with half the staff of places like Four & Twenty Blackbirds, where his roommate works as a baker. He took time off from Georgetown on a lark to work on an offshore oil platform and get some life experience (“stories rather than ideas,” he said—admitting in the next breath that it may have had something to do with the number of times he’d read On the Road) and wound up never returning to school. When he dated my roommate a couple of years ago, he was paying the bills with a gig delivering cloth diapers, and she made it sound like he was having trouble finding other work. Desi is the guy you would have once said had thrown away his future but today seems like maybe he’s got something figured out.
The morning before we met, Desi’s motorcycle had broken down. If his truck goes next, he won’t have the money to fix it. “A little bit of bad luck, and things can unravel pretty quickly,” he said. But Desi wanted to sell me on the merits of constrained circumstances, not tick off tales of woe. He is still delivering diapers, but he’s now got another job as a woodworker-slash-lacquerer. He finds a satisfaction in the craft that eluded Sam, my high school’s former can’t-miss kid, during his woodworking interregnum. Desi does a great deal of yoga. He proselytizes about the book Shop Class As Soulcraft. “Getting better at enjoying life” is something he describes very seriously as a goal. This is not something that requires a big salary, and he doesn’t think his mind-set will change much with age. He has only so much sympathy for the complaints of his girlfriend, a 2011 college graduate working retail who is devastated that she’s been unable to find a job that requires a degree.
Remember how most Americans think this generation will be worse off than the one that preceded it? This generation doesn’t agree. A plurality of young people still think they’ll do better than their parents. Our optimism is surprisingly durable. A large-scale Pew study published in 2010 showed that about 90 percent of us either say that we currently have enough money or will eventually meet our long-term financial goals—we’re more hopeful on that front, in fact, than we were before the recession.
Clark University’s Jeffrey Arnett, who studies what he calls the life phase of “emerging adulthood,” points out that people who respond with optimism to questions like that don’t necessarily see “better off” as simply a question of wealth. For nonwhite Americans, certainly, there’s less discrimination than their parents faced, and that may affect responses. But there’s evidence to suggest other members of our cohort believe they’ll live a more fulfilled life, have better relationships, even if they don’t live in larger houses or drive fancier cars than their parents. Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me, says the most prominent shift she has seen so far among young people in this economy is an apparent decrease in materialism. We are less interested in stuff, but still very interested in self.