Writing a book about twentysomethings has forced me to read all the negative stereotypes dumped on young adults born in the 1980s, who have been given such dismissive labels as Generation Screwed, Generation Limbo, Generation Me. The most recent one is Generation Whine—but I think it's based on a misperception of just how different the current crop of twentysomething trendsetters really are. The term is used in a New Republic article from earlier this month that is mostly about the eruption of self-referential books, TV shows, and blogs that seem to have irritated the author, 23-year-old Laura Bennett. Bennett highlights a few of the media's favorite targets—Lena Dunham and her HBO series "Girls," Emma Koenig and her Tumblr and upcoming TV show "Fuck! I'm in My Twenties!"—and a less predictable one, the group blog "Thought Catalog," which calls itself "a place for relevant and relatable non-fiction."
To Bennett, these are all examples of a brand new youth phenomenon she calls you-ism: "a tendency to look inward under the pretense of looking outward. This, after all, is a generation of twentysomethings taught to indulge and unpack every psychic injury online and to expect that endorsement for their own experiences is just a few clicks away."
But pop culture has always been fascinated with youth. There have always been writers and artists whose entire oeuvre is based on minute observation of the smallest details of their own (usually privileged) inner lives and that of their social circle. Lena Dunham might irritate Bennett, but she's following in the tradition of lots of great writers before her: Philip Roth, Woody Allen, Joyce Maynard, Nora Ephron.
Bennett interviewed me by phone in the course of her prodigious research for this article, and I mentioned these predecessors to today's young navel-gazers. But that wasn't the point she wanted to make. "A steady stream of articles and books," she ended up writing, "is constantly reminding us that today’s young people, the recession’s unlucky children, are experiencing their twenties as an unprecedented period of paralyzing limbo."
At the end of our phone call, Bennett started chatting about how much she and her friends had liked the article about twentysomethings that I wrote for The New York Times Magazine in 2010, the one that had gotten me started on this subject in the first place. She said (and I'm paraphrasing here, because this was her interview, not mine, and I wasn't the one taking notes) that she and her friends had all passed the article around to each other and to their parents, and they had all felt great "comfort"—her word —in seeing that they weren't the only ones feeling so confused and disoriented about all their new adult choices. I told her that I was very glad to hear that—my mistake was in treating this last part of the interview like a normal conversation—and that when another reporter had asked me what emotions I hoped my readers would have as they read the book (which I co-wrote with my 28-year-old daughter Samantha), I had surprised myself by saying that I hoped they'd find some comfort in what we'd written.
"Bingo," I'm imaginging Bennett thinking as I said that. She had her money shot. Because the only thing that makes her piece different from other pieces complaining about the navel-gazing Millennials is that she places the blame not on the kids but on their parents. It's the decision-makers at HBO and The New York Times who have "thrust [over-privileged twentysomethings] into the cultural spotlight and fixated on their every move," she writes. The problem isn't the Millennials; it's the Baby Boomers who raised them, spoiled them, and now won't let them grow up. And I had just handed her the perfect ending.
"Robin Henig, for her part, says that she never intended for her book to be a blanket statement about all young people. . . .Her main hope was to address the world of her daughters. “If there’s an emotion I want people to come away with from this book, it’s feeling comforted,” she said. A nearly 300-page professional collaboration between a mother and her twentysomething daughter—designed to reassure the daughter’s peers that everything will be OK—feels a bit like helicopter parenting seen through to its logical conclusion. While some of the anxiety at play here is surely the twentysomethings’, perhaps even more of it belongs to the boomers whose basement couches they are occupying."
The notion that Twentysomething is the ultimate in helicopter parenting is as absurd and offensive as is the notion that I entered into it specifically to reassure Samantha's peers that everything will be OK. Call me old-fashioned, but I don't begin my books and articles knowing in advance what I'm going to write. I do my reporting, reading, and interviewing first, and only after all that—in the case of this book, after more than a year of all that—do I reach my conclusions.
There's a powerful pull these days to weigh in on the same few popular topics by saying something unexpected and slightly askew. Bennett has come of age in this culture, and I'm sure she'll do well in it; I've seen lots of tweets and links about her essay, often accompanied by descriptors like "thoughtful," and she's been giving a bunch of public radio interviews and the like. But I worry about a culture that rewards the unexpected viewpoint simply for being unexpected, without any apparent weighing of whether it was arrived at before or after the writer did her reporting.