It is, Robert J. Samuelson argued in a recent column, a bad time to be a 20-something.
I could have told you that.
It’s always a bad time to be a 20-something.
Back in medieval times, 20-somethings had it hard because everyone was saying, “Hey, you are in the throes of your ripe middle age.”
Since then, each generation has faced its own challenges.
The expectations are high. The world is your oyster, they say. The sky is the limit. All life lies stretched out before you, like a kitten demanding a belly-rub.
Except that it’s not. Youth once ruled the world. People telephoned us 18-29 year-olds, read us elaborate surveys and listened, rapt, to our preferences.
Now youth still rules the world, but younger youth. Tweens run things. Tavi Gevinson runs a magazine. Before Psy mercifully overtook him, Justin Bieber had the most-watched YouTube video of all time. Justin Bieber, of all things! Get off my lawn!
At least we can complain.
Twenty-somethings have a long and vibrant tradition of bitter complaining. It is what we are known for.
Before there was Lena Dunham, before “Sex and the City,” heck, before “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” there were complaining 20-somethings. Even before the economy soured on us, our age group had a built-in roster of complaints, most slotting under the heading of Not Inheriting The Earth Fast Enough: difficult bosses, strange roommates, the mysterious disappearance of large hunks of our college friends, suddenly being forced to do Real People Things like pay taxes and schedule dental appointments and job-hunt and mammoth-hunt. Our querulous murmurs spiral back through time in a continuous chain until you get back to some cave paintings of people looking irate at being invited to more high school friends’ club-and-drag-woman-to-cave celebrations than they can afford on their budget.
They didn’t know how good they had it.
We really have something to complain about. I am not just saying that because every prior generation of 20-somethings has said it. It is harder to be a 20-something than it has ever been before.
It’s not just the job market. It’s not just our decreased lifetime earning potential. It’s not just that we hear ourselves whining and know how annoying it sounds. It’s not just the fact that we will have to support the Boomers in retirement. It’s not even the way Boomers have hijacked the holidays and force us to listen only to Christmas music that weirdly replicates their childhoods. It’s that, but it’s not only that.
That we could bear. We have a good attitude. “Sure,” we remind ourselves, “we are likely to make less over the course of our employable lifetimes than prior generations. But at least our hair has never looked like this.” This attitude is half the trouble.
Like Boxer in “Animal Farm,” our answer to everything is to work harder. Tune out? Drop out? Not on your life.
So where’s our slice of the pie?
This all feels particularly unfair, because, hey, we never got lost. As a generation, we are noteworthy for our excessive tractability. We are the well-behaved middle child. Some of our parents had us resume-building in the womb. We didn’t really flail or protest. Circumstances forced our hand. If we’d all had jobs, Occupy wouldn’t have happened.
There are certain consolations to being the generation forced to grow up fast, in front of the digital camera. Everyone before us lived long unrecorded lives before the Internet. We left tracks everywhere. We’ve been documenting ourselves and recording our friends for almost as long as we can remember, and we are accustomed to the feel of eyes. Given these constraints, 1980s fashion was never a possibility. The worst that can be said of us is that some hipsters wore too much plaid and brought back mustaches. But we know they didn’t mean it.
But we have also had to mature faster than our Boomer counterparts. It’s the pride and price of living in a generation that has not been without the Internet for any truly significant portion of our lives. The kind of carefree, consequence-ignoring youth that Boomers got to have was not for us. We might have messed around in online forums, but that was as far as it went. For us, there was no lolling around in flared jeans protesting things, listening to music that wasn’t dubstep, engaging in free love and wallowing in a sense of Deep Self-Importance. We feel just as self-important, but that is because we know to the smallest possible digit the precise number of people following us at any given time. Warhol was wrong when he said that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. It’s the future, and everyone is famous to 15 people.
Still, we can’t help the sneaking suspicion that the Boomers had it better.
Our generational counter-movement is no fun. We’re too self-conscious to rebel. People were proud to be hippies. The defining feature of hipsters is that they won’t admit they’re hipsters. They, in fact, despise hipsters. We carry quotation marks everywhere with us, bracketing our every action.
We can’t rebel. We can’t hold down steady jobs. Raised with our own uniqueness and value and particular excellence drubbed into us at every turn, we discovered with horror that So Was Everyone Else. The conviction that you are Special Like No Other Human is the most commonplace conviction there is. We buy our Quirky One-Of-A-Kind Items at nationwide chains of Quirky One-of-a-Kind Item retailers. Just look at Thought Catalog. I love Thought Catalog! See, this is the problem.
From a creative perspective, the worst thing about the job market is all the people who are trapped without jobs who suddenly have been forced to write for posterity. I can barely get through the books my friends hand me at birthdays. With a reading list this long, what hope does Posterity have?
As long as there have been people, everyone has always stubbornly insisted on being the hero of his own life, but now he wants you to read the book too. We have no adventures, and we tell everyone about them — on Facebook, on Twitter, anywhere we can get.
Of course, it could be worse.
Sure, we make up 41 percent of the underemployed. But on the bright side, we have Facebook now to give us daily updates from people we have not seen in person since the eighth grade!
Sure, we get invited to a lot of weddings, but on the bright side, we are too poor to travel to most of them.
Sure, we will make less money over our careers than prior generations, but on the bright side, everything we’ve ever done will be preserved forever on the Internet.
Sure, everything we’ve ever done will be preserved forever on the Internet, but on the bright side we’ve never had to live without it.
Yes, cling to that.
And we do. To hear us talk about dial-up, you’d think it was worse than polio.
Our average comfort level is quite high. The basements where we live now, jobless, are nice and light and air-conditioned. We own the very devices whose existence has rendered our services redundant. We don’t have to buy any music. We don’t have to wonder. Everything we care about is ours at the touch of a button. If we have a thought or concern that we might be alone in feeling something, all we have to do is go to Google to find someone on the Internet who has expressed the same concern much, much better than we could have. It’s torture!
And so I join my voice with the voice of every 20-something who has gone before, in saying, “We have it much harder than anyone else has ever had it.”
But really, this time.