plus ca change

I love when an old piece of writing seems as if it could have been written yesterday, and could as easily be applied to today’s twenty-somethings as to the young Baby Boomers about whom it was intended. That’s why I was tickled to see this posted a few weeks ago on The Atlantic web site. Here’s the quote, by the writer George Steiner:

A large segment of mankind, between the ages of 13 and, say, 25, now lives immersed in this constant throb…. Activities such as reading, writing, private communication, learning, previously framed with silence, now take place in a field of strident vibrato.

Constant throb . . . strident vibrato . . . these are the complaints crabby old timers like me make when we sit next to kids on the subway whose iPods leak their insistent bass lines into our own heads, or when every restaurant we go into seems to be featuring some sort of horrid techno music thrumming in the background. But Steiner wrote these words in 1971. MORE THAN 40 YEARS AGO. The “youth culture” that had become the “sound culture” was mine.

Steiner continued:

We have no real precedent to tell us how life-forms mature and are conducted at anywhere near the levels of organized noise which now cascade through the day and the lit night.

Now we have a clue. We baby boomers, the former twenty-somethings whose organized noise polluted “the day and the lit night” (what a lovely phrase), are now paying the price in our fifties and sixties with a higher rate of hearing loss than ever before.

As for his fear that reading, writing, and learning would all be hampered by the constant bombardment — aren’t these the very things we fifty-somethings worry about now when we look at our kids with their earbuds and wonder what the world is coming to?

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a twenty-something with cancer

Not until I read the column in The New York Times today by a 23-year-old with leukemia did I think about this version of being twenty-something — being acutely and possibly mortally ill at this tender age. It goes against all notions of the natural order of things. And it does something else — something that didn’t occur to me until the writer, Suleika Jaouad, pointed it out. It brings to a screeching halt the progress a young person might have been making along the rough, exciting road to adulthood.

“Cancer magnifies the in-betweenness of young adulthood,” Suleika writes:  “You’re not a child anymore, yet you’re not fully ready to live in the adult world, either. After my diagnosis, I moved back into my childhood bedroom. And as I get sicker, I increasingly rely on my parents to take care of me. But at the same time, I’ve had no choice but to grow up fast. Daunting questions that most of my peers won’t have to consider for many more years have become my urgent, everyday concerns: How will I hold onto health insurance if I’m unable to work? Will I be able to have children? How long will I live?”

No 23-year-old should have to ask herself such questions. Especially the last one.

After I read Suleika’s Times column, I watched the first installment of the video that will tell her story as it unfolds (she’s getting a bone marrow transplant this week).

What I was struck by, in the video, was the brief shot of her mother sitting in the background at one of Suleika’s doctor visits, trying not to cry. Her mother — whose name was never mentioned — spoke in voiceover.

As a parent of a young adult, you have to be careful. You still want to do everything for her, but you’re knowing that doing everything for her . . . is not necessarily what she wants. You’ve got to learn to stand back and to be useless, and accept it, and it’s very hard.

In Suleika’s blog, which she started when her chemotherapy began (and which led the Times Well blog to seek her out as a contributor), there doesn’t seem to be a tag or a category for “parents.” There’s a reason for that. This is one struggle that, at its heart, is something a young adult has to endure on her own. Her parents might want more than anything to take her grief, pain, and terror onto their own backs and somehow spare their child. But they can’t.

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enough with the “generation me”

Generational stereotypes are in the eye of the beholder, it seems. One obvious and pervasive example: the stereotype that the Millennial generation is filled with narcissists.

Much attention has been paid to a new report from Jean Twenge and her colleagues that seems to reinforce Twenge’s idee fixe — that today’s twenty-somethings are more self-centered than any previous generation. This belief has permeated Twenge’s professional writing (she’s a psychology professor at UC San Diego), as well as pop-science books that give away their bias in their titles: “The Narcissism Epidemic” (2009) and “Generation Me” (2006).

So when Twenge and her colleagues came out with a new report about the selfishness of Millennials, it fed right into her favorite narrative. The researchers concluded that since the sixties, the trend has been toward young people exhibiting less social involvement, less concern for others, and more self-interest. In comparison to Baby Boomers when they were young, the authors wrote in a report published online in the March Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, young people today consider “goals related to extrinsic values (money, image, fame) more important and those related to intrinsic values (self-acceptance, affiliation, community) less important.” On balance, Twenge and her colleagues concluded, “The results generally support the ‘Generation Me’ view.”

Trouble is, it’s just as easy to come to a different conclusion if you’re so inclined.

The recent findings were based in large part on an opinion survey that has been given to incoming college students since 1966, a major undertaking known as “The American Freshman” project that has so far surveyed 8.7 million students. That’s a useful bunch of data, since it compares the attitudes of Baby Boomers (born 1946-1961) and Millennials (born after 1982) when they were the same age, roughly age 18. Yes, the proportion who cared about “being very well-off financially” increased signficiantly in that time, from 45 percent of Boomers saying this was an important life goal to 74 percent of Millennials saying so. But it’s just as easy for me to cherry-pick the life goals and values that did not change as it is for Twenge to cherry-pick the ones that did.

Even the changes that Twenge’s group took to reflect Millennials’ inflated self-esteem and narcissism could be interpreted differently — as a growing sense that one’s work should be meaningful, gratifying, and esteemed. More Millennials than Baby Boomers said they cared about, for instance, “having administrative responsibility for the work of others,” (39 percent versus 26 percent) or “obtaining recognition from my colleagues for contributions to my special field” (54 percent versus 43 percent). That strikes me as more idealistic than selfish.

Most press reports of this study emphasized that Millennials were found to be more socially and politically disaffected than their parents were. Yes, young people have shown a drop in how much they valued “keeping up to date with political affairs” or “becoming involved in programs to clean up the environment.” But there was an increase in how much they valued “influencing the political structure” and “becoming a community leader.” Doesn’t that lead to the opposite conclusion — that they’re more politically involved, not less?

And how about raising a family? Nearly 75 percent of Millennials saw that as an important goal, compared to just 65 percent of Baby Boomers. Is Twenge really going to argue that this is because Millennials are narcissists who just want to see their own genetic awesomeness carried on?

To be fair, Twenge and her colleagues did stress that any conclusions from their study must be “nuanced.” But nuance doesn’t play well in the media — and Twenge hasn’t really worked that hard to push for it anyway. Millennials were raised with “more focus on the self and less focus on the group, society, and community,” she is quoted as saying in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “The aphorisms have shifted to ‘believe in yourself’ and ‘you’re special.’ It emphasizes individualism, and this gets reflected in personality traits and attitudes.”

Maybe it’s a good career move to stake out one extreme position and stick with it, using tired old tropes like kids-today-got-a-trophy-for-just-showing-up whenever you get a chance. But it strikes me as a big mistake to try to paint this generation, or any generation, with one broad brushstroke — especially a brushstroke that is unnecessarily damning.

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a new source of fresh eggs?

When I read about scientists from Harvard reporting last week in Nature Medicine that human ovaries contain stem cells that can grow eggs from scratch, I thought again about the chapter in Twentysomething about baby-making. (Seems like I have baby-making on the brain, if measured by this post and the one I wrote last week.) If the research is confirmed it will, first of all, counter the old dogma that females are born with all the eggs they’ll ever have, which has always explained why a woman’s eggs get progressively more damaged with age. But more than that, it will revolutionize our conception of assisted reproduction — and of how long young women can safely wait to start having babies.

What makes the research so interesting to me is how it will affect young women’s ideas about how long they can safely put off decisions about childbearing. Already, their sense that they can delay that decision almost indefinitely is a main driver of the delay among Millennials of achieving not only parenthood, but all the other traditional “milestones” of adulthood.

If eggs can be made fresh at any age, the way sperm can, will that further delay the onset of adulthood, which many people complain is already late enough?

It’s not clear, from my reading of the report, how often these ovarian stem cells actually make new eggs when left alone to do their own thing. It must not be too often, since a woman’s natural fertility suffers a sharp decline with age, and her eggs are clearly older and more prone to big problems with cell division and chromosomal damage.

Fertility inexorably declines with age: at age 30 it’s 20 percent lower than it was in the early twenties; at age 35 it’s 50 percent lower; at age 40, a distressing 95 percent lower than it was at its peak.

Here’s another way of looking at it: say a group of couples have been spending their time trying to get pregnant (the fun, old-fashioned way, with no syringes or Petri dishes). If the women in that group are 28 years old, 72 percent will get pregnant after trying for a year; if they’re 38, only 24 percent will. Much of this is no doubt attributed to old eggs, since a forty-something’s chance of pregnancy at an IVF clinic is significantly higher — almost the same as a twenty-something’s — if she is using donated (in other words, much younger) eggs. If these stem cells have been there all along and capable of maturing into eggs with fewer genetic abnormalities, why don’t they?

Obviously, many questions remain, and more research must be done to confirm these early findings. It’s much too soon for young women to make their reproductive decisions based on the remote possibility that when they’re finally ready to have babies — when the career is in high gear and the right partner is found and all the other pieces of a settled life have fallen into place — there will be fresh eggs aplenty.

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which comes first, motherhood or adulthood?

Do you need to be fully adult before you start having babies, or is it having babies that helps turn you into an adult? That’s the question Sam and I wrote about on the Motherlode blog at nytimes.com. (Part of pre-pre-publicity plan for our Twentysomething book is to blog about twenty-something quandaries wherever we can.) What prompted the question were the findings in a new study by Child Trends that the majority of twenty-something women who are having babies today are not married. Clearly, young women are leapfrogging over marriage en route to motherhood. But are they leapfrogging all other elements that are also thought to be part of growing up, and heading straight for the baby?

In the post, we emphasized the class distinctions in how young women answer this question. We referred to research by Martha McMahon, a sociologist at the University of Victoria, who back in the 1990s interviewed 59 Canadian mothers of preschoolers to see, among other things, the sequence of adult transitions that they considered idea. she found that the answer depended on their socioeconomic background. “Whereas middle-class women indicated they felt they had to achieve maturity before having a child,”  McMahon wrote, “working-class women’s accounts suggest that many of them saw themselves as achieving maturity through having a child.”

I beg to differ — sort of. I’m pretty sure that I, too, achieved maturity through having a child, and thought that was a perfectly acceptable sequence, even though my sensibilities have always been solidly upper-middle class. In Twentysomething, Sam and I look at all the ways that being young are the same for Millennials as they were for Baby Boomers, and all the ways they’re different. This is one way things are different, I think. Maybe it’s to everyone’s advantage for young people to wait until they have had all the youthful adventures they crave, and have learned to really take care of themselves, know who they are, and gotten to know their partners, before plunging into baby-making. All this is possible today because of developments in assisted reproductive technology that make it routine to wait until the thirties or even later to start having children. I get it.

The downside is one that’s hard to admit. Just as I was in a rush to get going with my life when I was young (married at age 19, babies at age 26 and 30), I’m in a rush to get going now. But I’m already 58, and I can see that I’m never going to get to be a young grandmother. I might not even be a grandmother at all. And if I am, I might not be one who lives to see her grandchildren graduate from college and get married, the way my own mother did. As Millennials’ views of the shape and timing of their own lives evolve, it looks as if my own generation’s expectations have to evolve, too. I expected to become an old lady through grandmotherhood. I guess I’m going to have to get there the traditional way, by getting old.

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look up from the damn phone

Fear of missing out on something better going on somewhere else — a better party, a more interesting conversation, a more gripping movie — is no doubt part of being young. For me it goes as far back elementary school, when we’d go on field trips and the better crowd was always the one in the back of the bus if I was in the front — or in the front of the bus if I was in the back. Why were they all singing and laughing and carrying on, and we were all so quiet?

But when fear of missing out not only gets its own acronym (FOMO, the Urban Dictionary’s Word of the Day for last April 14) and, worse, when it becomes a rationalization for a truly unforgivable style of social interaction, I start to worry about the next generation.

According to a piece in today’s New York Times, this nefarious FOMO is leading packs of twenty-somethings to become smartphone-addled, constantly texting and emailing while they’re in the presence of people they should be having a perfectly good time with, always on the prowl for the next better thing. It’s so bad that one of these offenders actually admits to sort of slipping “in and out of consciousness” while he’s with people, because he’s spending so much time attending to people he isn’t with.

The irony to me is that this guy, Spencer Lazar, who’s practically addicted to the constant quest for his “information edge,” is starting an online service, Spontaneously, that’s supposed to help friends connect with other friends in person. If they all act like Spencer once they’re in each other’s presence, why even bother?

I’m guessing Spencer is probably in his late 20s, since most of the people in the article were, but his age somehow never appeared — hire some more proofreaders, New York Times! The article describes what it’s like to hold a conversation with him IRL.

You’re passing in and out of consciousness, listening for the key words, the meat of the conversation, but letting the ancillary parts drift off. You can miss important details or offend someone by not being present.

Ya think?

Now, I know not to trust trend stories, even when they appear in the vaunted The New York Times, but the one really troubled me. Especially because I asked Sam if it sounded like the way she and her friends behave, and she said yeah, it pretty much did. (She also discovered that she and Spencer have 16 mutual friends on Facebook, which I guess isn’t that surprising since they’re about the same age, class, and sensibility, and since Spencer has 1,639 friends.)

The Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 30 percent of young adults say they sometimes use their smartphones to avoid interacting with the people they’re with. (70 percent use them when they’re bored, which no doubt includes some of those same people.) And we parents just aren’t getting it. As 29-year-old Jordan Cooper put it, when he’s with his mother and spends all his time texting and tweeting and checking Facebook, she tells him — no doubt hurt in the way we dinosaur fifty-somethings get hurt about such behavior in our beloved children — that he’s being anti-social. But Jordan puts her in her place. “I’m being social,” he tells his mother, “just not social with you.”

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mirror mirror

I’m trying to figure out what I think about this piece by Edith Zimmerman that appeared in The New York Times Magazine for November 13. (Do I even use the past tense for a piece that appeared in a magazine that’s not officially distributed until three days from now, even though it’s been online since yesterday? The very fact that I wonder this is a kind of answer to this entire post — I’m too OLD for this!)

Edith is 28 years old, an internet pop star among a certain young women —  including both Sam and her older sister — who admire her online humor magazine, The Hairpin. Her piece is a long rant about a viral video from a rap singer who is just 22 — a video that Edith herself doesn’t especially like — and how her dislike of it manages to make her feel old. What is she not getting? she wonders. She, who makes a living being able to put her finger on the pulse of youth? Is she maybe, God help her, out of touch?

Edith’s job is to find and distribute and comment upon lots of viral, youthy internet memes, like the videos of the guy with the tiny hat superglued to his head (and I’m so hip that already watched it months ago) or of the girls singing a capella accompanied by empty cottage cheese cartons (never heard of it till now, but I found it and I love it). How could Edith be savvy enough to love this

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and yet to find that this rap video, by a girl a full SIX YEARS YOUNGER THAN SHE IS, leaves her cold? Is she suddenly no longer culturally relevant?

To me, the answer about why she likes one and not the other is so obvious — the girls with the cottage cheese cartons are talented and adorable and look like they could actually have a conversation with you, and the girls in that rap video . . . well, they aren’t and they don’t. But that’s not the point Edith is making. She doesn’t seem to think there’s such a thing as objective value. I don’t think she believes that some things are just more worthwhile, more artfully done, more clever than other things. (Worthwhile is a stretch here, I guess — I mean, neither of these things is especially worthwhile, just a way to waste a few minutes when you should be working on a book.)

Instead, Edith is making another point. Her point is that now she knows what it means to be old and past it — because now, at the ripe old age of 28, her cluelessness about that video proves to her that she IS old and past it.

Oh Edith, Edith, you don’t know the half of it. You’re 30 years younger than I am — in other words, I’m more than TWICE YOUR AGE — and believe me, you’re not old. Not if you can publish an essay in The New York Times Magazine that’s there specifically because you’re the authority on youth. Not if you can punctuate that essay with excessive exclamation points as though The New York Times Magazine was your own personal blog, Not if you can sneak in the word “whore” into your piece not once, not twice, but three times. (OK, you’re ostensibly quoting the 22-year-old’s lyrics, but it’s still a coup.)

If you want to see old, take a look at a writer who’s not 28 but 58, and no matter what she does, she can’t sound or act or look anything other than, you’ll excuse the expression, old.

The part that throws me is that Edith seems to think this sensation is unique to Millennials. I suspect that the web might exaggerate the sense of aging, just as it exaggerates or amplifies everything. But I’m not sure about what she says about how her parents’ generation might have felt about things as we were passing 30 and then 40 and then, before we knew it, 50, and God how did 60 get here so fast.

Here’s a piece of Edith’s rant:

Then again, the Internet is a new kind of barometer for keeping track of exactly how old you feel: how many things you don’t get, how many mini-Internet worlds you can’t find the door to; exactly how many crickets in the world you can no longer hear chirping. Unlike in generations past, when (I imagine) you just kept doing what you and your same-aged friends did, and aged into obscurity in comfort on a cloud of your own tastes and generational inclinations, until you died either thinking you all were still the coolest or not caring anymore about being cool, these days the Internet exists in part to introduce you to all these things you didn’t know about, but in part to remind you how much there is out there that you’ll never know about.

But here’s what I think: I think in past generations, people aged no more gracefully than Millennials are going to. It’s not true that they kept thinking, until the day they died, that they were still the coolest. It’s not true for my mother’s generation, and it sure as hell isn’t true for mine. Edith writes that living online is like being at a house party and opening the wrong door on your way to the bathroom and instead finding a bunch of kids engaged in something — a game, a drug, an orgy — that you don’t understand. If she feels like this at the age of 28, how does she think my mother feels at 87? My mother has to pee and she isn’t even in the HOUSE. And how does she think I feel at 58? Edith gets out of the awkward wrong-door situation with “oops, sorry.” For me, I don’t think the kids would even see that there’s someone standing in the doorway.

In a way, I let myself feel compassion for this young woman, a victim of a web culture that only cares about the next next thing. But in a way, I think that her worrying is just a tad excessive — maybe even something she’s doing for comic effect.

What I take away from her piece, mostly, is that Sam and I should think about grappling with this issue in our book — this notion that Millennials’ sense of their place in the world, as they move through their twenties, has been twisted by the sensibilities of the web, which throws a laser focus on the slightest hint of being outside the flow. It’s a shame that so many of us feel extraneous and clueless so easily. It’s a shame especially that someone like Edith Zimmerman, who is right up there in the middle of it all telling the rest of us what to care about and whom to emulate, should feel extraneous and clueless now, or ever.

Posted in 20-somethings, aging, The New York Times Magazine | 4 Comments