“And your mother laughed at the serious way you looked at her…”
Shearwater, “Home Life”
Though mostly I like to joke around about stuff and poke fun at things and people, at times I feel absolutely overcome with seriousness.
Even when I was younger, I would feel this way occasionally. Most everything in life to me at that point was verbal gymnastics, meant for tongue planted firmly in cheek nearly always. But every once in a while something would hit me and a change would come over my demeanor.
There are some things I feel deadly serious about.
One of those things was not having kids until I felt truly ready. Granted, as a young man, I’ve never felt much pressure, internally or externally, to have children, but as I’ve gotten older and watched friends and family members get married and have children, some of whom at an age younger than I would’ve felt comfortable myself, I felt very strongly about their decisions. Some I figured were ready to make that kind of a commitment, but I thought many weren’t, and in my thinking I was often reminded of a person I had become acquainted with after moving back to San Jose, in late 2005 / early 2006.
I was about 20 when I met him, and he, this young guy with short-cropped hair, and his then-girlfriend decided to get married and have a child (which they then did). They were both around 20, she was perhaps 19 even, and neither was in college nor even taking classes. Neither were on dedicated career paths. And they wed, and had a daughter. At the time, I never understood what would have compelled him to want to do that, and, truth be told, that decision and how he has handled it since deeply colored the way I looked at him, as well as how I feel about the larger issue of committing to marriage and a family at a young age.
Within about a year, they were broken up and, though I believe he was given custody of his daughter, over the intervening years it seemed she was raised more by his parents than by him, as he indulged in the things that many of us in our twenties had: drinking, partying, drug experimentation, and the sort of ‘carefree’ existence expected of people that age.
But he had a daughter; didn’t that fact warrant a little more seriousness on his part? He needed to take responsibility for his decision – her, but clearly that was something he was unwilling to do.
Why, then, did he think getting married and having a kid was a good idea in the first place? And why did I think it was such a seriously bad idea, even before he began shirking his duties as a father?
Those two questions have remained with me, and I suppose this is in some sense an attempt to answer them.
By my understanding, in past eras America’s social structures were more rigid, and the paths laid out before a young person moving into adulthood were well-carved. It was not only more expected of a young person to settle into a career and a family not long after (and sometimes before) becoming an adult, but falling into that kind of role was easier, too. There was more precedent for it, and it was more encouraged.
The image that is brought to mind is of a children’s toy involving blocks and slots of varying shapes; the block of a young woman leaving high school with her diploma in hand in the 1950’s and 60’s fits readily into its corresponding slot, that of a homemaker and wife, and society produced many such blocks in that time, and ensured they’d find homes someplace.
The metaphor extends beyond women, and beyond the high school-educated; society was organized in such a way that there were a variety of blocks, and each had its familiar home. The G.I., the blueblood, the working class folk; all had their ‘place.’ They were born into this place, and they fell into its predictable roles later in life.
Such is not the case today.
Due to a major shift in the way technology and the global economy affects the life of the average American citizen, many of these same demographics remained unchanged in nature, but their ‘place’ in society became nowhere near as certain.
The college student gets out of school and out of necessity accepts work completely unrelated to his degree and far below in pay what he would require in order to live comfortably.
A young woman hops from job to job until at age 34 she decides to become a nurse.
Two high school diploma-holders manage over six months to scrape together only $30 in savings for their wedding.
These sorts of stories are commonplace. More educated than in the past, more fickle, and never offered the proper tools and training for life in the real world. This is the reality many of us face.
Mismatched aspirations and job placements are of course nothing new, but today the number of people like this has swelled; perhaps it’s the company I keep (which I doubt), but I can think of few people my age or near it who have definitively settled into a chosen career or familial track, and fewer still who are in the kind of job they’d like or were trained for. I’m 25, past the age of the average college graduate. And even among the few I know who have found their ‘place,’ there are bound to be those who will later reconsider their decisions.
To draw an illustration from popular culture, in the movie “Airplane!,” halfway through the film, one of the female flight attendants breaks down in front of Leslie Nielsen’s character. She’s worried about being “26 and not being married.” Another woman steps into the scene, seemingly at ease surrounded by the chaos unfolding on the plane because, as she explains to Nielsen, she has a husband and a family. This makes the flight attendant even more hysterical, and her despair at being 26 and family-less is, while comical, also very tangible and real.
That was 1980. Only 30 years ago.
To contrast, Liz Lemon, Tina Fey’s character on NBC’s “30 Rock,” has in recent episodes experienced a crisis similar to that of the flight attendant in “Airplane!”: single and growing older, she is afraid of never getting the chance to start a family and find a husband. Here again we have this same dilemma faced by the flight attendant; a person with the desire and drive to fit into a given role but without the opportunity to do so. However, Liz Lemon is presumably about 40 when she echoes the flight attendant’s feelings in 2010; would Liz Lemon have felt that same pressure at 26? Or is it a sign of rapidly changing times that fears of oncoming spinsterhood hit two women at radically different ages (comparatively) living in times not so far removed from each other?
The potential causes for this shift aside, we are seeing this attitude more and more among people (both male and female), as they choose, like Liz Lemon, to focus more on their careers and financial security (or, in her case, to get a hold of an apartment that “smells like Cinnabon in the morning and Burger King at night”), foregoing traditional roles in the increasingly competitive job market, delayed from settling down by increased pressure to attain advanced degrees (due in no small part to the decreased value and skyrocketing cost of a Bachelor’s degree), and reassured by the steady advances in fertility science; they can start their families later, and work on their careers and their happiness now (sans little ones).
We know where that attitude left Liz Lemon in her time, but where does it leave many Millennials – those of my generation, for whom I would prefer the term “Baby Doomers” – who have no effective careers to speak of? We’re derided by many older than we are because we’re seen as largely lacking direction and purpose, and to a great extent they’re probably correct – but I would argue that we didn’t build this city, though we have been made to live in it.
I don’t intend to engage in what is perceived as typical Millennial entitlement; I ask only this question: where do the plans of an entire generation, the largest since that of their parents, the Baby Boomers, fit into a job market and economy facing its worst recession in the last hundred years – a recession with a global spread the likes of which is unmirrored in human history?
It makes me wonder how things would have turned out for Boomers if they had grown up not after the end of the Great Depression, but during it – would they, like those who did in fact grow up during that era, have been simply another Silent Generation? Another Lost Generation perhaps? This is the existential crisis facing my generation today, a generation set to inherit two wars, the after-effects of the Great Recession, and a country wracked by ultrapartisan struggle.
In my own life, I have done my best to account for this environment, and the practical realities of existence that accompany it. This environment faces every person near 25 living in America in 2010. Gumption and hard-won realization can only go so far in the face of this deluge of a downturn and the minute prospects it has faced us many of us with.
And amidst the greater harsh reality of this recession are other smaller realities which are all-too-familiar to people my age: older workers who cling to their jobs. As the Baby Boomers begin hitting 65 this year, and high-tech companies fear losing their “tribal knowledge,” Boomers continue putting off retirement, working – and living – longer than ever before.
Meanwhile, many people my age, starving for work and eternally encouraged to look to volunteer gigs to “pad our resumes,” are embroiled in part-time Hell, often having to fight tooth-and-nail with a legion of similarly educated young people for whatever scraps of hours businesses are willing to give us. And, oftentimes, even those among us who can find steady work are faced with the underhanded tactics many employers utilize, like scheduling us for only 39 hours a week, in order to deny us the status, benefits, and security that full-time, 40-hour work weeks would allow.
Against this backdrop, companies are asking for further productivity from their existing workers, refusing to hire new employees, and positions are jealously guarded at almost every firm from New York to San Francisco; meanwhile, an entire generation essentially spoils on the shelf.
So, even if we are lucky enough to find employment, many of us are stuck in jobs we don’t like, which we didn’t go to school for, and which sometimes don’t even offer us enough hours or pay in the first place, and we take on debt, get denied by lenders, work retail, languish in unemployment, and cut corners doing all kinds of illicit, under-the-table work.
Given all of this, and particularly given the economic climate, what reason would we have for starting a family at this point in our lives? If we are ready – if we are EVER ready – it isn’t today, and tomorrow isn’t looking great, either.
If the business environment is so volatile, where is there room for the kind of seriousness and dedication that raising a family requires? If the world cannot commit to offering us a place to fit into, we cannot possibly be expected to follow the paths of our parents, nor to make that sort of serious commitment to another person.
(While at the same time, a multitude of very unserious ‘commitments’ are made by those who decide to breed prodigiously in spite of overwhelming reasons not to, and their efforts may one day doom us to an Idiocratic future.)
If our society is not serious about giving us any shot at success, what responsibility do we have to be serious in return?
Now, it’s not so much that I think every person my age who got hitched and had a kid made a bad decision, but some, perhaps many, did. Even with the proper preparation and drive to begin a certain career or family track, it seems society has other plans for us.
Then again, to some degree it seems this generation has already adjusted for a few of the realities of which I spoke. Teenage pregnancies have been at very low levels over the last two decades, and, in spite of one friend’s insistence that “Everyone I know is getting married and having kids; I’m just getting drunk,” for many of us, the life we face will be more akin to Liz Lemon’s than the flight attendant’s. Birth rates will likely drop and, though that in itself leads to further problems (as Japan has experienced), the fact that many of us will wait longer than in any prior generation to get married and have kids until we’re significantly older is probably a good thing.
I think it shows that we’re serious about getting things right. About trying to address the problems of overpopulation and resource scarcity without blindly contributing to them. And about honestly and responsibly considering whether marriage is right for us at a given moment.
On a micro level, this trend is already playing itself out. For our own parts, my girlfriend and I, who live together, have already made it past the age at which our mothers had their first children. I’ve made it, in fact, past the age at which my own mother had me – at age 22. (“I learned your lesson for you,” I told her recently. “Oh, thanks,” she laughed in response.) Both my girlfriend and I have no plans to get married nor to have children any time soon at this point.
Speaking for myself, I do want a family at some point, but for now my reticence at starting one is grounded firmly in both practicality and ideology: I could not with good conscience bring a child into this resource-scarce, contentious world, and the global recession it faces (what parent would slim their child’s prospects so willingly?), nor could I afford it without some difficulty; and, inspired by the stance of my housemates, in their early 30’s and in a very stable, long-term relationship, I could not in good conscience get married while many among us are denied the right (extra emphasis on right) to do the same. So to those who might say that the Millennials – the Baby Doomers – are not serious, and refuse to grow up, I would disagree.
We’re deathly serious in fact, and seriously determined to not make the same mistakes that our predecessors have made. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get back to playing my XBOX 360…
(Full disclosure: I do not own an XBOX 360.)