Re: Twenty-Somethings

by David French

Robert, thanks for highlighting that Slate symposium. I was preparing a response to Jane’s post when I saw yours. The symposium is intriguing, but it also reflects the particular cultural elite/urban world inhabited by the young writers. What was compelling about the NYT piece was the breadth of the research. The writer wasn’t just doing an anecdotal piece about hip, young, and wealthy New York kids, but instead took a broad look at the data before zooming in on individual lives. It was that broad data, looking at twenty-somethings as a group, that was so compelling. They change jobs a lot (not terribly damning by itself). Almost half move back home with their parents (again, not that significant in isolation). Two-thirds cohabit before marriage (this is a number that’s hard to justify by any measure). It is the collective picture of aimlessness that is disturbing.

But one of the symposium posters makes an excellent point:

Isn’t New York Magazine always writing about how parents act like children, anyway (see “Grups“)? And what of the line in Greenberg: “The adults dress like children and the children dress like superheroes.”

Boomers also still don’t want to think they’re grown-ups. See those ridiculous Dennis Hopper surfing ads for Ameriprise? They’re going to turn retirement upside down!

This generation’s aimlessness and vise-grip on childhood is learned behavior. We all have trouble growing up these days, it seems (the pictures accompanying the “Grups” article are just priceless), and this eternal adolescence often results in a self-centered life. Isn’t my generation — the forty-somethings — abandoning marriages because spouses are “of no added value“? Don’t we have attitude problems in matters large and small? The specter of a 40-year-old proudly lashing out at a dress code is almost sad. Wasn’t that bridge crossed in tenth grade?  

At the same time, I type this scolding post in my own set of blue jeans in a rural Tennessee office that looks vaguely like a SoHo loft. And — full disclosure — I’m locked in my own version of eternal adolescence with an extremely healthy (if that’s the right word) video-game addiction. In fact, one of my proudest media moments was an in-depth profile by a leading gaming website.

So, am I part of the problem? Viewed through one prism, I’m an old-fashioned guy who never lived with someone before marriage, got married and had children before age 30, attends church every week, and has a “responsible” white-collar job. Through another prism, I’m a 41-year-old blue-jean-wearing, undead-slaying activist lawyer who changed jobs a few times in my twenties and early thirties and still has a problem with long-term planning. Do I have trouble growing up? What kind of message do I send?  

The message I hope I send is that a good family enables an adventurous and purposeful life and that maturity is measured by your devotion to the meaningful duties in your life — and that even the mature can enjoy a good lightsaber duel.  

But that’s not quite right. . . . As we look out at a broken generation that produces a broken generation, perhaps the best answer is the one reportedly given by G. K. Chesterton when asked “What’s wrong with the world today?”

“I am,” he replied.   

Regardless of our generational characteristics or our own personal biographies, we are simply ill-equipped to serve as examples for others. In Chesterton’s profound and humble statement lies the true first step to cultural reform.