This New York Times article
about the ennui and challenges that face America's current crop of 20-somethings is a fascinating read. Why can't they get married by 25, get a career going and have kids by 27 like their parents and grandparents? The author delves into a multitude of reasons, including changing cultural norms, the economy and various other physiological and psychological reasons.
What I think it doesn't delve far enough into, however, is that there is, simply put, no incentive to "grow up" anymore. I'll offer my own biography as an example. A year ago, I was living in a house I was hoping to buy from my landlord and I had a career at a certain cable television behemoth who's name need not be mentioned here. Out of the clear blue, my colleagues and I were rounded up one morning and told we were soon to be the victims of "corporate restructuring."
Upper management assured us that they would do everything in their power to find us other positions in the company. Of course, once this meeting was over they did nothing of the sort. Out of sixteen well-experienced, smart employees in my department, four of us were picked for other slots. Myself and two others attempted to take demotions but were refused, presumably because the company didn't want to pay us salaries inflated by several years of seniority, preferring to pick desperate applicants fresh off the street that they could pay at a starting wage.
Am I still bitter? Sure, but I'm not the first American, nor will I be the last, to go through this. People my age can't bet on anything anymore. What incentive is there to go chasing off after the American dream? Last time I checked, the divorce rate in this country was hovering at the 60% mark and the average citizen works at no less than four companies during their adulthood, as opposed to the one or two of our parents' generation.
So many of us are living on shaky ground. All of the country's rock solid union jobs are a thing of the past. The economy has been bouncing in and out of the gutter since at least 2000. The propagation of everything from internet hook-ups to women's lib to the heightened expectations of "me culture" have made getting hitched a dicey proposition. Why get married and buy a house when the relationship could fall apart or you could get laid off at any second or when there's fifty million apps to play with on your iPhone? Why fight to keep a marriage going when you can bootleg a million hours worth of music and snag Starcraft 2
for free off the internet?
So, for many of us, we're stuck in a state of prolonged adolescence with no end in sight. I'm 31 and I'm currently living like I did in my early 20s. I'm currentlly a college student who just finished an AmeriCorps internship. I'll be running off to bum around Europe for several weeks in September before fall term starts. I'm doing this because, well, I don't what else to do. If I wasn't in school I'd be working part time in a coffee shop or a temp agency for peanuts or sitting around the house playing Red Dead Redemption
. I can't foresee a day when I'll ever be a father because, simply put, I don't think I'll ever be able afford parenthood, let alone set up a college fund for the little brat.
I'll offer you a different example. Someone I know, I'll call her "Nikki," is 28-years old. She's been in a stable relationship for going on three years. Her boyfriend is making a comfortable salary as an engineer, she's content with her job at a local company and they live together in a rental house on the east side of Portland. A generation ago, they'd be married with at least one kid living in their spare bedroom. Instead, they've vowed to "never get married," let alone have children for the reason above.
A few years ago, Nikki was on a plane and got into a terse discussion with the elderly woman sitting next to her. The woman felt that she was betraying "her obligations as a woman and an American" by not getting married and pregnant. As Nikki has admitted on several occasions, "I'm way too self-centered and immature to ever have kids. My boyfriend is too. We'd rather travel, go out to dinner and play video games with our free time and disposal income. Why would anyone ever want to have kids?"
The situation many people in my boat face is, for the most part, a nasty one but it's not all bad. A lack of opportunities and expectations have given, at least myself, a bizarre sort of freedom. I feel no obligation to be married with kids at this point in my life. No one looks at me funny when I say that I don't have a wife, whereas, a generation or so ago I'd be an odd-ball. I have more single friends than married ones. I've grown accustomed to sitting around coffee shops with my laptop and school books on a Wednesday afternoon than an office. I'm happier and more content now than I was a year ago when I had to spend 40 hours a week in a cubicle in a dreary budling in Beaverton listening to my downtrodden coworkers complain about everything from our workload to the selection of M&Ms in the vending machine.
It's also instilled in many of us, especially here in Portland, a sense of thriftiness. Free movies in the park, brewpub theaters, Torrents, coffee shops and cheap music shows for entertainment. Craigslist
I'm sure if Nikki's fellow passenger were sitting across from me right now at the Belmont Stumptown, I'd get an earful. She'd look at me as if I were a homeless meth-head with no inclination to work hard or get my shit together. That said, I'm working harder now than I was a year ago. My course load at Portland State during spring term kept me busy, on average, 50 - 60 years a week. I've spent the summer months juggling the hassles of getting this blog going again (believe it or not, this thing takes a lot of time to run) with a full-time internship and various other "young creative" projects.
I'd like to stay optimistic but, with Boomers being forced to work well into their golden years because their 401Ks have been raided or they simply can't swing it financially, I dread where it's going to leave my generation. Will we ever be able to retire? Will I still be fledgling and struggling to find work a few years down the road? Will Portland's unemployment rate ever drop below 9%? Something's gotta give. That could mean a complete collapse of the cliches of the American dream (i.e., graduate from college, get a job, get married, have kids, retire at 55) or worse. We're in the middle of a very strange period in history where nothing seems to make any sense at all. Morality, work-ethics, religion, you name it.
Or, maybe, just maybe, we'll pull out of this weird ennui rut this country has been stuck in for over a decade and get back all those "good, old fashioned American values" my grandfather in Georgia likes to talk about.
Labels: the economy