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Archive for the ‘Gen X’ Category

By now, you’ve surely seen it. The cover story in this Sunday’s New York Times magazine went viral days before it landed on my doorstep. Robin Marantz Henig’s “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” focuses a lot on the work of psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, who’s trying to get “Emerging Adulthood” identified as an official, distinct life stage. Arnett’s quest is an interesting one, but, regardless whether the label will earn approval, there’s little question that it fits.

Here is, as we geeks of the pen call it, the nut:

It’s happening all over, in all sorts of families, not just young people moving back home but also young people taking longer to reach adulthood overall. It’s a development that predates the current economic doldrums, and no one knows yet what the impact will be–on the prospects of the young men and women; on the parents on whom so many of them depend; on society, built on the expectation of an orderly progression in which kids finish school, grow up, start careers, make a family and eventually retire to live on pensions supported by the next crop of kids who finish school, grow up, start careers, make a family and on and on. The traditional cycle seems to have gone off course, as young people remain untethered to romantic partners or to permanent homes, going back to school for lack of better options, traveling, avoiding commitments, competing ferociously for unpaid internships or temporary (and often grueling) Teach for America jobs, forestalling the beginning of adult life.

The subsequent discussion that’s hit the airwaves and the blogosphere comes down like this: Yes, for many 20-somethings, and opposed to maybe their parents’ generation, and certainly their parents’ parents’ generation, the decade is more about exploration than commitment. It makes sense: we live–and work–a lot longer now than ever before. And the interconnected nature of modern life puts all the options out there, front and center on our computer screen, the riper for the fantasizing. So is it any wonder that today’s 20-somethings would rather try before they buy? Rule things out as they make their way, honing in–circuitously… eventually… maybe–on what they ultimately want for their lives? Whether that’s jobs, locations, or romantic partners, the goal of this cohort, in the words of blogger Jessie Rosen,

is to get to the right place, not to get there at the “right time.” It’s not that we don’t know what it means to be an adult and how we’re supposed to do it–it’s that we do.

We are painfully aware that the decisions in our 20s lay the foundation for all of adult life. We know exactly how old our parents were when they had us, and exactly what they sacrificed as a result. We know that time is precious, age isn’t really just a number, and having kids changes everything…

What is so much better about becoming an adult faster?

What am I gaining by taking my time versus what I’m losing by just getting to it already? With every year I wait to be ready to get married, am I letting all the people there are to marry pass me by? Will I be a better, more mature mother at 35 or would I have been just as adept and instinctual at 25? If I live at home with my parents for one more year while I save up to be a full-time writer, will that leave an eternal mark of lame on my life resume? Does being an adult mean having the maturity to know you’re not ready for adult things, or having the maturity to dive in and just figure it out? Won’t I be a better, happier, healthier adult if I take my time getting there?

All of which begs the question: what is this “adult life,” anyway?

According to the NYT piece, sociologists typically define adulthood using a checklist comprised of five milestones (altogether, now!): completing school, leaving home, financial independence, marriage, children. In 1960, 77% of women and 65% of men had ticked them all off by the time they hit the big 3-0. As of 2000, less than 50% of women and one-third of men had killed the checklist.

But, again, to quote–well, myself–is it really that simple?

While financial independence is one thing, as for the rest of it–marriage, parenthood, and one single Career–is making such commitments all there is to being an adult? Is signing on to something–one thing–forever and ever the only thing that can ferry you over the threshold, out of NeverNeverLand and into GrownUpDom?

The idea of checklists, commitments, clearly demarcated life stages, they imply a destination, rather than a journey. And I think the fact of the matter is that whether you’ve got the mortgage, the 2.1 progeny, and the pension plan or not, life is always a journey. We are always emerging, as Arnett puts it. And in that way, it’s apt, though not a stage at all. It’s just life.


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Last week I came across a fascinating piece at Salon.com… which, arguably, is made are all the more fascinating for its utter familiarity. The piece, by Rebecca Traister, is called “The new single womanhood: Young, urban and not necessarily looking for a man, a crop of memoirists are sketching out a brave new female world,” and, while it’s ostensibly a sort of genre-as-a-whole reading review, it feels like more of a mirror. Check it out:

Embedded in Crosley’s quirky yarns about travel, work and friendship is a fresh accounting of the mixture of exhilaration and ennui that marks many modern young women’s lives. In this, Crosley is a valuable contributor to what is becoming a new subset of the memoir genre; hers is the latest in a string of entries from professional young women anxious to reflect on the adventure of coming into their own on their own. Unlike the tales of trauma and addiction that studded the first wave of publishing’s autobiographical boom, Crosley and her compatriots are staking out stylistically understated but historically explosive territory by describing experiences that may not be especially unusual, but are unprecedented, because the kind of woman to whom they are happening is herself unprecedented. This crop of books is laying out what it feels like to be a young, professional, economically and sexually independent woman, unencumbered by children or excessive domestic responsibility, who earns, plays and worries her own way through her 20s and 30s, a stage of life that until very recently would have been unimaginable or scandalously radical, but which we now–miraculously–find somewhat ho-hum.

…The decade since [Meghan] Daum’s freshman entry has seen scads of books built along the same calm lines: telling what it’s like to be among the first generations of American women not expected to marry or reproduce in their early 20s, for whom advanced education and employment have not been politically freighted departures, but rather part of a charted path, and for whom romantic solitude is regarded as neither pitiable or revolutionary.

The literary records of this newly carved out period of female life approach it from different angles and vary in quality. But they serve as magnifying glasses for women eager to examine not only their navels but also the opportunities and anxieties presented to them as they embark on a road that sharply diverges from the one traveled by most of their mothers, and certainly by their grandmothers.

Sound familiar? The extended adolescence, the untraveled roads, the elusiveness of happiness, the lives lived featuring each and every one of us as the mistress of our own universe… and then, of course–wait for it dear reader–the choices.

As Helena Andrews has said about her memoir, and the women whose stories resonate with her own: “We got the undergrad degree, we’ve got the master’s degree, most of us, the great job, the closet we’ve always coveted, and we think that happiness should come immediately after that. And that’s not always the case… We know what we can do, which is anything. But we need to figure out what we want to do.”

That, too, is new. And that, too, is unremarkable, even in its newness, because that’s where history has landed us, and the one thing we all have in common is the time in which we’re living. And while we obviously don’t want to go backward, there are growing pains to be expected in the going forward. The freedom to do whatever we want without answering to anyone is both exhilarating and a little bit scary. We are in charge, we can do anything we want… and our work is to figure out exactly what that is.

It’s a tough job, but everybody’s gotta do it.


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… and according to a recent New York Times piece (that, as fate would have it, ran on Friday, a big birthday for yours truly; big enough to officially bump me from one age range box to the next, in fact) neither do you. Surely by now you’ve heard the phrase “extended adolescence”. And whether you take pride or offense in the suggestion that you and Peter Pan have much in common, the fact is, according to Frank F. Furstenberg, who leads the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood:

people between 20 and 34 are taking longer to finish their educations, establish themselves in careers, marry, have children, and become financially independent.

I’m guessing you knew that already. And this too:

“A new period of life is emerging in which young people are no longer adolescents but not yet adults,” Mr. Furstenberg said.

National surveys reveal that an overwhelming majority of Americans, including younger adults, agree that between 20 and 22, people should be finished with school, working and living on their own. But in practice many people in their 20s and early 30s have not yet reached these traditional milestones.

Marriage and parenthood — once seen as prerequisites for adulthood — are now viewed more as lifestyle choices.

The stretched-out walk to independence is rooted in social and economic shifts that started in the 1970s, including a change from a manufacturing to a service-based economy that sent many more people to college, and the women’s movement, which opened up educational and professional opportunities.

Women account for more than half of college students and nearly half of the work force, which in turn has delayed motherhood and marriage.

You get the drift. And I’m guessing you don’t need the New York Times to spell it out for you. Because, more than likely, in one way or another, it is you. We live in a world of wildly expanded opportunities, an all you can eat buffet where everything looks too damn tasty to miss out on any of it. And women in particular have absorbed the message that to be at this buffet at all is a lucky opportunity — so of course we want to get our money’s worth. To try (it ALL) before we buy. It’s a great big world out there, and there’s no MapQuest to tap for directions — we have to figure out our path as we go. And we kinda want to do a little scouting around before we commit to one path, and forgo all the others.

To me, the most interesting question the article brings up is this: while financial independence is one thing, as for the rest of it — marriage, parenthood, and one single Career — is making such commitments all there is to being an adult? Is signing on to something — one thing — forever and ever the only thing that can ferry you over the threshold, out of NeverNeverLand and into GrownUpDom?

Maybe I’m just a product of my times, but I don’t think so. I tend to think of a grown up as someone who makes her own decisions and takes responsibility for where they lead her. And doesn’t expect every one to be right — and doesn’t expect that there’s a right answer to every one. Even — no, especially — if they lead her to dead ends, forcing her to back up and start all over again in the search for a truer fit, head held high over the nagging chorus of Why Doesn’t She Just Grow Ups that surrounds her. Even if her decisions never lead her to a mortgage, or a job that she’ll stay in until she retires, or a promise to stick with one partner til death does she part. Even, in fact, if they lead her out the window in her jammies, following a guy in green tights.


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What if failure was not only an option, it was the only option? According to a recent article by Elizabeth Gilbert (she of Eat, Pray, Love fame) in this month’s O magazine, we’d all be a lot better off. In fact, “Failure is the Only Option” is the title of the piece, in which Gilbert suggests we’d be happier if we screwed up. Early. Often. And big.

Now, easy for her to say: her divorce, after all, begat one of the publishing world’s most staggering successes in recent memory (soon to arrive at the multiplex near you), not to mention an amazing round-the-world adventure and another go at the whole Committed thing. (So, it’s probably no surprise that she’d encourage failure on an epic scale: she, after all, is living one serious silver lining.) In the course of making her case for failure, she hits on one of our main theses about the overwhelm women feel in the face of limitless options, and why those options trip us up so colossally: They’re So. Damn. New.

Here’s a little bit of what she says:

We don’t have centuries of educated, autonomous female role models to imitate here (there were no women quite like us until very recently), so nobody has given us a map. As a result, we each race forth blindly into this new maze of limitless options. And the risks are steep. We make mistakes. We take sharp turns, hoping to stumble on an open path, only to bump into dead-end walls and have to back up and start all over again. We push mysterious levers, hoping to earn a reward, only to learn–whoops, that was a suffering button!

We’ve all accidentally pushed the suffering button. This new job is gonna rock! Quitting this job is gonna rock! This cheese rocks so much, I’m just gonna keep eating it! I’m totally gonna rock these 5-inch heels all night long! How can we ever know if we’re doing the right thing?

Maybe the better question is When can we know if we’re doing the right thing? To which, the only correct answer is: after we’ve done it. In which case, if it was the wrong thing, it’s too late to do anything but pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and try something new (or swear off cheese altogether). But until we’ve given what may or may not rock a shot, well, we’re generally operating without a map. (When you think about it, it’s terrifically ironic: women, who are so talented at comparing ourselves to others, don’t have a whole lot of comps to go by while charting our own course through this life.)

Of course, the major failures–the ones we’re afraid of making–are more significant than a blister or a day spent, uh, divesting oneself of sins of the Cowgirl Creamery variety. But the half-full way of looking at it might be that all those missteps are indeed serving a purpose: in many ways, women today are making the map. And while, one might expect the moral of a story called “Failure is the Only Option” to be something along the lines of “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, so you might as well go for it!”, Gilbert’s points are more charitable: stop pressuring yourself to be perfect, and every time you blow it, consider it a gift to your little sisters. Failure as philanthropy. Check it:

Let’s just anticipate that we (all of us) will disappoint ourselves somehow in the decade to come. Go ahead and let it happen. Let somebody else go to art school. Let somebody else have a happy marriage, while you foolishly pick the wrong guy. (Hell, I’ve done it; it’s survivable.) While you’re at it, take the wrong job. Move to the wrong city. Blow it all catastrophically, in fact, and then start over with good cheer. This is what we all must learn to do, for this is how maps get charted–by taking wrong turns that lead to surprising passageways that open into spectacularly unexpected new worlds. So just march on. Future generations will thank you–trust me–for showing the way, for beating brave new footpaths out of wonky old mistakes.

So here’s to blowing it. And here’s a word to the wise, from a sister who’s been there: half a wheel of Mt. Tam is too much cheese.

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I have this friend. (Really, I swear it’s not me.) She never really had a breakup, despite the fact that she dated a lot. And dated a lot of losers. But no matter how bad the cad, she strove to end things peacefully, operating according to a simple mantra she called “keeping the door open.”

Makes sense. There’s a certain comfort that comes from knowing we have options. It mitigates risk. We’re told, after all, that keeping all one’s eggs in one basket is a bad plan. Unless one is planning on making a large omelet.

I was reminded of this after a conversation I recently had with a couple of girlfriends, discussing the post I wrote about New York Mag‘s “Sex Diaries” piece, during which, one declared: “I think, for our generation, commitment is kind of like death.”

Well then.

These ideas, I’d argue to say they’re almost an indelible part of the current condition. Choice is a blessing. To commit to one is to be, at best, a fool; at worst, well, dead. Stagnated. You can be anything you want! You can do anything you want! You can Have. It. All. You don’t know how lucky you are, to live in an era marked by the number of open doors you have before you! So what kind of fool would suggest we’d be better off closing them?

Dan Ariely, for one. Check this tidy summary:

In Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, Dan Ariely suggests that there is a price to be paid for having many options. He claims that we have an irrational compulsion to keep ‘doors’ open. He suggests that we ought to shut a lot of them because they draw energy and commitment away from those that we should keep open.

Buzzkill, no? And yet. Of course it makes sense. And it’s so funny, because, in all likelihood, closing a bunch of those doors probably would go a long way to ease so many of the problems we talk about here: the pain of multitasking; the impossibility of achieving the perfect work-life balance; the angsting over the roads not traveled. (The baking of the ever-lovin cupcakes.) So why should suggesting we just stick to the path we’re on and forget about all the others be such a buzzkill?

Psychological theorizing is all well and good, of course. But does it really change anything? Does knowing that we’re making ourselves crazy make us any less crazy? But what if we took this advice to heart, if we were to just decide, once and for all: This is it! Those roads not traveled? Screw ‘em! Would that really make us feel better?

Honestly, I don’t know. But I don’t really want to find out, either. I mean, ignorance may be bliss, but it’s a bliss in which I am one hundred percent uninterested. I’ll admit, I am a product of my times, and I am happy for all those doors. No matter how crazy they make me. And, the blessing and the curse of these modern times is this: no matter how much we might buy into this idea that closing off a bunch of them would make our lives easier, no matter how much we might want to pretend that those other doors are not open to us, the fact remains: they’re there. You can’t unring this (door)bell.

And as long as they’re there, I’ll be wondering what’s going on behind each and every one of them.

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Apparently, Gen X has become the forgotten child of the stalled economic engine, stuck between the Baby Boom and Gen Y.

According to recent research by the Pew Research Center, slightly over half of middle aged workers say they are planning to delay their retirement. You can blame it on the recession and tanking IRAs. But what it means for Gen Xers is that there will be fewer places at the head of the table. And thanks to do-it-cheaper Gen Y’s, very few new seats at the foot. Women may be in the biggest pickle of all.

According to an Associated Press story, those workers who came of age with the Brady Bunch are experiencing new levels of workplace angst:

They’re antsy and edgy, tired of waiting for promotion opportunities at work as their elders put off retirement. A good number of them are just waiting for the economy to pick up so they can hop to the next job, find something more fulfilling and get what they think they deserve. Oh, and they want work-life balance, too.

Sounds like Gen Y, the so-called “entitlement generation,” right?

Not necessarily, say people who track the generations. In these hard times, they’re also hearing strong rumblings of discontent from Generation X. They’re the 32- to 44-year-olds who are wedged between baby boomers and their children, often feeling like forgotten middle siblings — and increasingly restless at work as a result.

It becomes even more complicated for Gen-X women, often navigating unfamliar turf when it comes to the workplace, who have to scramble for any place at the table, as we’ve noted here :

Sure, we women do school well. University structures, especially, support the way we learn and succeed. Overachievers? High expectations? Duly noted and rewarded. But once we get to the workplace? Different kind of rules.

Let’s face it. We missed the socialization. From ancient times, men have been raised to know their job is to slay the dragons, and that they will be alone in doing it. American mythology, too, teaches men that their role is to go, seek and conquer. For generations, men’s roles have been predetermined, and unquestioned: They provide. And workplace — and social — structures have evolved to support the model.

For women, though, relatively new to this world of work, roles are still in flux. We never learned to slay the dragon — we were the pretty princesses waiting back there in the castle — and often, we’re a little confused by the messy nature of reality as opposed to the comfortable fit of school. And so we’re flummoxed. Overwhelmed. We’re feeling our way. Where do we fit in? How do we fit in? Should we fit in?

Then, there’s this: Gen X women are often the ones struggling mightily with work-life issues, figuring out how to balance career and family:

… many women are in a place where they have young children or have begun to think about starting a family. Suddenly, career choice becomes a matter of careful and excruciating calculation: Women raised to be masters of the universe –but still seeking the flexibility to raise their kids – are pulled in opposite directions: Meaningful career? Meaningful family life? Choices become crucial: how will we find that niche that will allow us to find satisfaction on both ends? What if we don’t? Maybe we came up expecting to achieve the male model of success; now we realize it’s impossible. Or we’re agonized and guilty because, with all this grand, amorphous opportunity, we find we don’t want that model of success anymore.

Finally, we’ve pointed out that, when it comes to family, these very same women are often judged in ways that their brothers are not:

Let’s also acknowledge that one of the most significant cons of having children might be the impact on a woman’s career; moms with young children are often passed over for promotions, while childless women of childbearing age are often passed over as well, on the grounds that they’ll likely have children soon. Despite the fact that fathers’ roles have begun to change as they’ve become more involved in child-rearing, work-life balance is still considered a women’s issue. And yet. A recent study by Lancaster University prof Dr. Caroline Gatrell found that some employers see their female employees who don’t want children as wanting in some “essential humanity,” and view them as “cold, odd and somehow emotionally deficient in an almost dangerous way that leads to them being excluded from promotions that would place them in charge of others.”

No wonder the discontent is growing: Promotion? Unlikely. Jump ship? Gotta compete with the new kids, who are cheaper to hire, and more tech savvy anyhow.

On the other hand, the AP story suggests all is not lost for the X-ers — so long as they are willing to do a little reinvention — and pimp out their years of experience for newbie wages:

Jon Anne Willow, co-publisher of ThirdCoastDigest.com, an online arts and culture site in Milwaukee, is among employers who’ve recently been able to hire more experienced candidates for jobs traditionally filled by 20somethings.

They’re hungry to work, she says. And as she sees it, that gives her fellow Gen Xers and the baby boomers she’s hired a distinct advantage over a lot of the Gen Yers she’s come across.

“When the dust settles, they’ll be exactly as they were before and we’ll just have to sift through them and take the ones that actually get it and hope the rest find employment in fast food,” she quips.

Swell. Should you stay? Should you go? Call it a Gen X sandwich, with a hefty dollop of indecision on the side.

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Undecided? Numbers say you’re in good company

If Hana R. Alberts is right about quarter-lifers being the hardest hit by the choice conundrum, there are a lot of twenty somethings out there scratching their heads, trying to make up their minds. The census bureau reports that there are some 75 million millenials (born between 1980 and 1995) among us.

Of those millennials, 1.7 million are women who graduated from college this June. If you’re one of them, you’re out there right now, casting about for something to do that comes with a paycheck, right?

Once you do find that job (trust me, you will) you’ll likely follow your big sisters’ footsteps — and get a new one: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average tenure of 25 – 34 year-old women in any one job is 2.6 years.

You may even do a couple of jobs simultaneously. According to Tina Brown, an exclusive poll commissioned by “The Daily Beast” found that one-third of the respondents—college-educated workers over 18—reported that they were either working freelance or two jobs. A few weeks later, Brown told NPR that in light of what she calls the gig economy, “the word ‘career’ is going to become antiquated.” In other words, more choices still.

And sooner or later, you’ll move. A recent Pew Research study on “movers and stayers” found that 77 percent of college graduates have changed communities at least once, and are more likely to have lived in multiple states. Sixty-five percent of women classify themselves as “movers” rather than “stayers,” and 45 percent of those who have moved say they will move again.

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