My 20s are barely discernible in the rear view mirror and I have no kids of my own, but, if only for anthropological reasons, I like to keep up with the latest round of “what’s the matter with kids today” worries. (I’ll refrain from posting a video of the Bye Bye Birdie tune of the same name.) While such worries are constant, the particular contents change with each decade. Sometimes they even are well founded. (My worrisome Boomer generation largely succeeded in spite of itself, thanks to the solid economic foundations built by our parents.)
This time around, the concern has much to do with the shaky foundations beneath the feet of Millennials, especially those in or nearing their 20s. The mother-daughter team of Robin Henig and Samantha Henig address this in their book Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck? Part of their answer is in the title: it’s more that they seem stuck rather than that they are. The authors tell us the educational requirements of modern life (and the need to pay for them) simply take longer to get past than was formerly the case, but that the rewards come in due time. I don’t entirely agree. True, a sizable minority of twentysomethings move on from college and, before too long, do quite well for themselves; that is always the case in every generation, and the Henigs, both of whom are successful writers for The New York Times, understandably know a lot of them. But this is not the typical experience – certainly not among the Millennials of my acquaintance. More typical is a 24-year-old with a business degree and $100,000 debt who lives with her parents, got a temporary job at the Boston Market after college because the right permanent job didn’t present itself, and who now realizes she has been in the temporary job for two years. Young men are unlikely even to have the degree, since they now make up only a third of college graduates. (Perhaps one reason that female bisexuality is trendier than at any time since the 1970s is that women are better prospects.)
There is more to it than just graduating into a sluggish economy, however. Part of the Millennial mood has to do with dashed expectations. (The Henigs nail this one.) We’d all like to have lives “less ordinary,” but members of this generation have been told all their lives how special they are, and often regard such a life as a realistic prospect. It isn’t. Oh, one still can live an adventurer’s life, seeing the world as a seaman, for example, but that entails hard work and living hand-to-mouth; seeing the world from the window of your Gulfstream is more the idea, but those window seats are very hard to come by. So, even a prosperous life can seem unsatisfying.
A film recently in theaters and now on DVD catches this sense of things. Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring is based on a real gaggle of
Los Angeles teens who robbed the homes of celebrities
back in 2009. They used internet
entertainment sites and fan sites to learn when the celebrities were out of
town. They got caught only because they openly bragged about their activities
to their friends and even posted pictures of themselves inside the celebs’
houses on facebook. Bizarrely, some of the movie is shot inside the
actual house of Paris Hilton, one of the victims. The teens were not poor or
deprived. They were upper middle class kids – by global standards, rather than
First World standards, members of the upper 1% – who nevertheless couldn’t
afford “the lifestyle that everybody kinda wants,” which is the truly fabulous
lifestyle of the upper 0.001%. So, they helped themselves to it.
Sofia Coppola caught some criticism in the reviews of this film (including from The New York Times) for being “impartial.” The film neither sympathizes with the kids nor takes a moral tone against them. But that, I think, is the point. She just lets the characters talk and act. The juxtaposition of their PC comments about wanting to run charities and help "the planet" with their utterly vacuous personal narcissism speaks for itself and is devastating.
These kids were an extreme case, and I doubt that Millennials as group are any more or less dishonest than any other generation. But the Bling Ring members’ sense that their lifestyle wasn’t adequate compared to “the lifestyle” is a common one.
Time passes, and generations always get their footing eventually, if only because they have no choice. This one will, too. Much of it already has. Yet there is a certain irony to a cadre raised with such overblown expectations being the first since the Great Depression to face a lower lifetime standard of living than that of their parents.