Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

My Pick for Album and Song of the Year

December 30, 2011

Bon Iver’s self-titled album with the song Holocene. I think Justin Vernon of Bon Iver sums it up best in his interview with All Songs Considered on NPR:

But I think for me, the music that has always resounded with me — and art as well — is when it feels a little bit like it’s coming from a person. And it’s coming from a visceral place. A place that is maybe trying to explain something that isn’t explained yet.

 

 

On the meaning of Holocene, Vernon says:

Yeah, yeah. Holocene. Holocene is a bar in Portland, Ore., but it’s also the name of a geologic era, an epoch if you will. It’s a good example of how all the songs are all meant to come together as this idea that places are times and people are places and times are… people? [Laughs.] They can all be different and the same at the same time. Most of our lives feel like these epochs. That’s kind of what that song’s about. “Once I knew I was not magnificent.” Our lives feel like these epochs, but really we are dust in the wind. But I think there’s a significance in that insignificance that I was trying to look at in that song.

And, I think if I had to sum up my year, it would relate to something like that — that so much of growing up is finding the significance in your insignificance. There is nothing yet there is everything. The world does not revolve around us, and yet, the world is a reflection of us — our decisions, our lives, our relationships, our human impulses, and our rare abilities to rise above them courageously and imagine the world differently.  The lack of “magnificence” in our individual lives adds up to something far greater than any of us could ever conceive, and you come to understand how interconnected it all is.

Vernon continues:

…You’ve grown up, 25, 26 years old. And now you have to realize you’re kind of in control of most of the stuff happening in your life, and if you’re not happy about them, you have to actually do stuff about it. And there were dark times during the For Emma tour where I was homesick, or I was not figuring stuff out or whatever. But I think the last three years has been mostly about getting patted on the back every time I make a decision that is good; that isn’t based on some bad set of points. That’s good for community or music. And not based on any other decisions. And I think trying to get healthy and treat myself better and treat people around me better, it’s much healthier now. And I have [For Emma] to thank for that, but not because of the success that it brought. But because it was my last chance to do something, to actually step out and be myself and not edit anymore. And I think the metaphor for the rest of my life is kind of everything keeps growing and glowing at the same time…

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What is Innovation, Really?

November 20, 2011
 
Totally a life-affirming article.  I’ve long questioned my own ideals of success… and of “failure,” but it’s hard.  Articles like this help assert that you aren’t, in fact, crazy. And that figuring out life isn’t just about picking a profession. It’s about picking a mission and designing your life around that mission very intention-full. (Yes, I just made up that word, but I think it’s more powerful than just ‘intentionally.’)  We have to keep growing our own self-efficacy in our own terms and make sure to include all aspects of ourselves, not just out professions.
 
When I was younger I was a poet, a creative writer, an athlete, a competitor, a photographer. I want to accomplish as much as the next type-A, completely driven, overwhelmingly ambitious person. I also desperately want to be a mother someday, a loyal partner, a dog owner, an author and who knows what else.  Maybe a trapeze acrobat? And, I want all of this, as part of my extraordinary (hopefully) life not as add-ons or seeming outliers in my professional equation. I hope our generation can help build a world around this conviction that helps unbury these passions that are oftentimes seen as “excess” or “separate” from “who we want to be when we grow up.”

From The Chronicle of Higher Education

October 3, 2010

What Are You Going to Do With That?

By William Deresiewicz

The essay below is adapted from a talk delivered to a freshman class at Stanford University in May.

The question my title poses, of course, is the one that is classically aimed at humanities majors. What practical value could there possibly be in studying literature or art or philosophy? So you must be wondering why I’m bothering to raise it here, at Stanford, this renowned citadel of science and technology. What doubt can there be that the world will offer you many opportunities to use your degree?

But that’s not the question I’m asking. By “do” I don’t mean a job, and by “that” I don’t mean your major. We are more than our jobs, and education is more than a major. Education is more than college, more even than the totality of your formal schooling, from kindergarten through graduate school. By “What are you going to do,” I mean, what kind of life are you going to lead? And by “that,” I mean everything in your training, formal and informal, that has brought you to be sitting here today, and everything you’re going to be doing for the rest of the time that you’re in school.

We should start by talking about how you did, in fact, get here. You got here by getting very good at a certain set of skills. Your parents pushed you to excel from the time you were very young. They sent you to good schools, where the encouragement of your teachers and the example of your peers helped push you even harder. Your natural aptitudes were nurtured so that, in addition to excelling in all your subjects, you developed a number of specific interests that you cultivated with particular vigor. You did extracurricular activities, went to afterschool programs, took private lessons. You spent summers doing advanced courses at a local college or attending skill-specific camps and workshops. You worked hard, you paid attention, and you tried your very best. And so you got very good at math, or piano, or lacrosse, or, indeed, several things at once.

Now there’s nothing wrong with mastering skills, with wanting to do your best and to be the best. What’s wrong is what the system leaves out: which is to say, everything else. I don’t mean that by choosing to excel in math, say, you are failing to develop your verbal abilities to their fullest extent, or that in addition to focusing on geology, you should also focus on political science, or that while you’re learning the piano, you should also be working on the flute. It is the nature of specialization, after all, to be specialized. No, the problem with specialization is that it narrows your attention to the point where all you know about and all you want to know about, and, indeed, all you can know about, is your specialty.

The problem with specialization is that it makes you into a specialist. It cuts you off, not only from everything else in the world, but also from everything else in yourself. And of course, as college freshmen, your specialization is only just beginning. In the journey toward the success that you all hope to achieve, you have completed, by getting into Stanford, only the first of many legs. Three more years of college, three or four or five years of law school or medical school or a Ph.D. program, then residencies or postdocs or years as a junior associate. In short, an ever-narrowing funnel of specialization. You go from being a political-science major to being a lawyer to being a corporate attorney to being a corporate attorney focusing on taxation issues in the consumer-products industry. You go from being a biochemistry major to being a doctor to being a cardiologist to being a cardiac surgeon who performs heart-valve replacements.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with being those things. It’s just that, as you get deeper and deeper into the funnel, into the tunnel, it becomes increasingly difficult to remember who you once were. You start to wonder what happened to that person who played piano and lacrosse and sat around with her friends having intense conversations about life and politics and all the things she was learning in her classes. The 19-year-old who could do so many things, and was interested in so many things, has become a 40-year-old who thinks about only one thing. That’s why older people are so boring. “Hey, my dad’s a smart guy, but all he talks about is money and livers.”

And there’s another problem. Maybe you never really wanted to be a cardiac surgeon in the first place. It just kind of happened. It’s easy, the way the system works, to simply go with the flow. I don’t mean the work is easy, but the choices are easy. Or rather, the choices sort of make themselves. You go to a place like Stanford because that’s what smart kids do. You go to medical school because it’s prestigious. You specialize in cardiology because it’s lucrative. You do the things that reap the rewards, that make your parents proud, and your teachers pleased, and your friends impressed. From the time you started high school and maybe even junior high, your whole goal was to get into the best college you could, and so now you naturally think about your life in terms of “getting into” whatever’s next. “Getting into” is validation; “getting into” is victory. Stanford, then Johns Hopkins medical school, then a residency at the University of San Francisco, and so forth. Or Michigan Law School, or Goldman Sachs, or Mc­Kinsey, or whatever. You take it one step at a time, and the next step always seems to be inevitable.

Or maybe you did always want to be a cardiac surgeon. You dreamed about it from the time you were 10 years old, even though you had no idea what it really meant, and you stayed on course for the entire time you were in school. You refused to be enticed from your path by that great experience you had in AP history, or that trip you took to Costa Rica the summer after your junior year in college, or that terrific feeling you got taking care of kids when you did your rotation in pediatrics during your fourth year in medical school.

But either way, either because you went with the flow or because you set your course very early, you wake up one day, maybe 20 years later, and you wonder what happened: how you got there, what it all means. Not what it means in the “big picture,” whatever that is, but what it means to you. Why you’re doing it, what it’s all for. It sounds like a cliché, this “waking up one day,” but it’s called having a midlife crisis, and it happens to people all the time.

There is an alternative, however, and it may be one that hasn’t occurred to you. Let me try to explain it by telling you a story about one of your peers, and the alternative that hadn’t occurred to her. A couple of years ago, I participated in a panel discussion at Harvard that dealt with some of these same matters, and afterward I was contacted by one of the students who had come to the event, a young woman who was writing her senior thesis about Harvard itself, how it instills in its students what she called self-efficacy, the sense that you can do anything you want. Self-efficacy, or, in more familiar terms, self-esteem. There are some kids, she said, who get an A on a test and say, “I got it because it was easy.” And there are other kids, the kind with self-efficacy or self-esteem, who get an A on a test and say, “I got it because I’m smart.”

Again, there’s nothing wrong with thinking that you got an A because you’re smart. But what that Harvard student didn’t realize—and it was really quite a shock to her when I suggested it—is that there is a third alternative. True self-esteem, I proposed, means not caring whether you get an A in the first place. True self-esteem means recognizing, despite everything that your upbringing has trained you to believe about yourself, that the grades you get—and the awards, and the test scores, and the trophies, and the acceptance letters—are not what defines who you are.

She also claimed, this young woman, that Harvard students take their sense of self-efficacy out into the world and become, as she put it, “innovative.” But when I asked her what she meant by innovative, the only example she could come up with was “being CEO of a Fortune 500.” That’s not innovative, I told her, that’s just successful, and successful according to a very narrow definition of success. True innovation means using your imagination, exercising the capacity to envision new possibilities.

But I’m not here to talk about technological innovation, I’m here to talk about a different kind. It’s not about inventing a new machine or a new drug. It’s about inventing your own life. Not following a path, but making your own path. The kind of imagination I’m talking about is moral imagination. “Moral” meaning not right or wrong, but having to do with making choices. Moral imagination means the capacity to envision new ways to live your life.

It means not just going with the flow. It means not just “getting into” whatever school or program comes next. It means figuring out what you want for yourself, not what your parents want, or your peers want, or your school wants, or your society wants. Originating your own values. Thinking your way toward your own definition of success. Not simply accepting the life that you’ve been handed. Not simply accepting the choices you’ve been handed. When you walk into Starbucks, you’re offered a choice among a latte and a macchiato and an espresso and a few other things, but you can also make another choice. You can turn around and walk out. When you walk into college, you are offered a choice among law and medicine and investment banking and consulting and a few other things, but again, you can also do something else, something that no one has thought of before.

Let me give you another counterexample. I wrote an essay a couple of years ago that touched on some of these same points. I said, among other things, that kids at places like Yale or Stanford tend to play it safe and go for the conventional rewards. And one of the most common criticisms I got went like this: What about Teach for America? Lots of kids from elite colleges go and do TFA after they graduate, so therefore I was wrong. TFA, TFA—I heard that over and over again. And Teach for America is undoubtedly a very good thing. But to cite TFA in response to my argument is precisely to miss the point, and to miss it in a way that actually confirms what I’m saying. The problem with TFA—or rather, the problem with the way that TFA has become incorporated into the system—is that it’s just become another thing to get into.

In terms of its content, Teach for America is completely different from Goldman Sachs or McKinsey or Harvard Medical School or Berkeley Law, but in terms of its place within the structure of elite expectations, of elite choices, it is exactly the same. It’s prestigious, it’s hard to get into, it’s something that you and your parents can brag about, it looks good on your résumé, and most important, it represents a clearly marked path. You don’t have to make it up yourself, you don’t have to do anything but apply and do the work­—just like college or law school or McKinsey or whatever. It’s the Stanford or Harvard of social engagement. It’s another hurdle, another badge. It requires aptitude and diligence, but it does not require a single ounce of moral imagination.

Moral imagination is hard, and it’s hard in a completely different way than the hard things you’re used to doing. And not only that, it’s not enough. If you’re going to invent your own life, if you’re going to be truly autonomous, you also need courage: moral courage. The courage to act on your values in the face of what everyone’s going to say and do to try to make you change your mind. Because they’re not going to like it. Morally courageous individuals tend to make the people around them very uncomfortable. They don’t fit in with everybody else’s ideas about the way the world is supposed to work, and still worse, they make them feel insecure about the choices that they themselves have made—or failed to make. People don’t mind being in prison as long as no one else is free. But stage a jailbreak, and everybody else freaks out.

In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce has Stephen Dedalus famously say, about growing up in Ireland in the late 19th century, “When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.”

Today there are other nets. One of those nets is a term that I’ve heard again and again as I’ve talked with students about these things. That term is “self-indulgent.” “Isn’t it self-indulgent to try to live the life of the mind when there are so many other things I could be doing with my degree?” “Wouldn’t it be self-indulgent to pursue painting after I graduate instead of getting a real job?”

These are the kinds of questions that young people find themselves being asked today if they even think about doing something a little bit different. Even worse, the kinds of questions they are made to feel compelled to ask themselves. Many students have spoken to me, as they navigated their senior years, about the pressure they felt from their peers—from their peers—to justify a creative or intellectual life. You’re made to feel like you’re crazy: crazy to forsake the sure thing, crazy to think it could work, crazy to imagine that you even have a right to try.

Think of what we’ve come to. It is one of the great testaments to the intellectual—and moral, and spiritual—poverty of American society that it makes its most intelligent young people feel like they’re being self-indulgent if they pursue their curiosity. You are all told that you’re supposed to go to college, but you’re also told that you’re being “self-indulgent” if you actually want to get an education. Or even worse, give yourself one. As opposed to what? Going into consulting isn’t self-indulgent? Going into finance isn’t self-indulgent? Going into law, like most of the people who do, in order to make yourself rich, isn’t self-indulgent? It’s not OK to play music, or write essays, because what good does that really do anyone, but it is OK to work for a hedge fund. It’s selfish to pursue your passion, unless it’s also going to make you a lot of money, in which case it’s not selfish at all.

Do you see how absurd this is? But these are the nets that are flung at you, and this is what I mean by the need for courage. And it’s a never-ending proc­ess. At that Harvard event two years ago, one person said, about my assertion that college students needed to keep rethinking the decisions they’ve made about their lives, “We already made our decisions, back in middle school, when we decided to be the kind of high achievers who get into Harvard.” And I thought, who wants to live with the decisions that they made when they were 12? Let me put that another way. Who wants to let a 12-year-old decide what they’re going to do for the rest of their lives? Or a 19-year-old, for that matter?

All you can decide is what you think now, and you need to be prepared to keep making revisions. Because let me be clear. I’m not trying to persuade you all to become writers or musicians. Being a doctor or a lawyer, a scientist or an engineer or an economist—these are all valid and admirable choices. All I’m saying is that you need to think about it, and think about it hard. All I’m asking is that you make your choices for the right reasons. All I’m urging is that you recognize and embrace your moral freedom.

And most of all, don’t play it safe. Resist the seductions of the cowardly values our society has come to prize so highly: comfort, convenience, security, predictability, control. These, too, are nets. Above all, resist the fear of failure. Yes, you will make mistakes. But they will be your mistakes, not someone else’s. And you will survive them, and you will know yourself better for having made them, and you will be a fuller and a stronger person.

It’s been said—and I’m not sure I agree with this, but it’s an idea that’s worth taking seriously—that you guys belong to a “postemotional” generation. That you prefer to avoid messy and turbulent and powerful feelings. But I say, don’t shy away from the challenging parts of yourself. Don’t deny the desires and curiosities, the doubts and dissatisfactions, the joy and the darkness, that might knock you off the path that you have set for yourself. College is just beginning for you, adulthood is just beginning. Open yourself to the possibilities they represent. The world is much larger than you can imagine right now. Which means, you are much larger than you can imagine.

William Deresiewicz is a contributing writer for The Nation and a contributing editor at The New Republic. His next book, A Jane Austen Education, will be published next year by Penguin Press.

The Kids Are Actually Sort of Alright

November 7, 2011

A pretty on-pare description of the millennial generation — our mentality, our struggles, and our hope — in New York Magazine.

My screwed, coddled, self-absorbed, mocked, surprisingly resilient generation.

Every generation finds, eventually, a mode of expression that suits it. Cavemen drew lines on their cave walls. Sixties kids marched. My generation, we Gchat, a million tiny windows blinking orange with hopes and dreams and YouTube links, with five-year plans and lunch plans. So as I began to search for a single phrase that could, preposterously, describe our entire cohort, post-crash, I did what I always do in moments of crisis. I Gchatted my 24-year-old sister Clare, who happens to be living back at home with our parents while she looks for a job:

(10:24 p.m.) CLARE: how about they just call us SAA
self-absorbed assholes
ME: booo
CLARE: we need a D
to make it really good
SAD—self-absorbed delusionals
ps
(10:26) can i send you a cover letter right quick?
ME: sure
(10:28) CLARE:
our generation is:
delayed
afraid
immature
(10:29) independent
fame and glory hungry
(ambitious?)
weirdly apathetic when it comes to things outside of the internet
(10:32) ME: delayed is not our fault
CLARE: ok, you know what i always think about when i think of our generation? i read the david brooks book, “the social animal” and while it was only mediocre, he had this one really great bit that really stuck with me—the Greek ideal of “thumos”, which is the lust not for money or success (in the conventional sense) but the lust for glory
we want glory through our ideas-we want to know we matter
(10:33) the cold truth is that not all of us are brilliant
we are not all big thinkers. Not everyone’s TED talks will change the world
some of us will just dissipate into the ether
(10:34) but it is the digital connectivity, that proximity to these people, that makes us think that perhaps we will succeed as well
(10:35) ok, i’m done
(10:36) no i’m not
here’s why the recession is so devastating to us
we grew up, all the way through college, with everything seeming so ripe and possible
(10:37) we had a PC education—people tried to hide from us as long as possible that not everyone is equal
we were told we all have a fair chance of making it
that’s just not so
and we’re starting to realize that
(10:39) are you even listening to me anymore?
(10:41) ME: hi sorry
(10:42) i was writing an email
i am filing your comments
in my file.
(10:43) i think
your cover letter is good!
CLARE: i thought it was ok
(10:47) but I am, to be honest, expecting a rejection.

I know this might read as very woe-is-us, but these are the facts: Nearly 14 percent of college graduates from the classes of 2006 through 2010 can’t find full-time work, and overall just 55.3 percent of people ages 16 to 29 have jobs. That’s the lowest percentage since World War II, as you might have heard an Occupy Wall Street protester point out. (Not coincidentally, one in five young adults now lives below the poverty line.) Almost a quarter more people ages 25 to 34—in other words, people who should be a few years into their independent lives—are living with their parents than at the beginning of the recession.

Being young is supposed to mean you have the luxury of time. But in hard times, a few fallow years can become a lifetime drag on what you earn, sort of the opposite of compound interest. Because the average person grabs 70 percent of their total pay bumps during their first ten years in the workforce, according to a paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, having stagnant or nonexistent ­wages during that period means you hit that springboard at a crawl. Economist Lisa Kahn explained to The Atlantic in 2010 that those who graduate into a recession are still earning an average of 10 percent less nearly two decades into their careers. In hard, paycheck-shrinking numbers, the salary lost over that stretch totals around $100,000. That works out to $490 or so less a month, money that could go, say, toward repaying student loans, which for the class of 2009 average $24,000. Those student loans (the responsible borrowing option!) have reportedly passed credit cards as the nation’s largest source of debt. This is not just a rotten moment to be young. It’s a putrid, stinking, several-months-old-stringy-goat-meat moment to be young.

Earlier generations have weathered recessions, of course; this stall we’re in has the look of something nastier. Social Security and Medicare are going to be diminished, at best. Hours worked are up even as hiring staggers along: Blood from a stone looks to be the normal order of things “going forward,” to borrow the business-speak. Economists are warning that even when the economy recuperates, full employment will be lower and growth will be slower—a sad little rhyme that adds up to something decidedly ­unpoetic. A majority of Americans say, for the first time ever, that this generation will not be better off than its parents.

The young persons in these slides reflect an extremely random sample of twentysomethings affected by the economy, skewed heavily toward college attendees and acquaintances of New York staffers. All slogans are their own words, though we provided the tape.

And so we find ourselves living among the scattered ashes and spilled red wine and broken glass from a party we watched in our pajamas, peering down the stairs at the grown-ups. This is not a morning after we are prepared for, to judge by the composite sketch sociologists have drawn of us. (Generation-naming is an inexact science, but generally we’re talking here about the first half of the Millennials, the terrible New Agey label we were saddled with in the eighties.) Clare has us pegged pretty well: We are self-centered and convinced of our specialness and unaccustomed to being denied. “I am sad, jaded, disillusioned, frustrated, and worried,” said one girl I talked to who feels “stuck” in a finance job she took as a stepping-stone to more-fulfilling work she now cannot find. Ours isn’t a generation that will give you just one adjective to describe our hurt.

It might be hard, in fact, to create a generation more metaphysically ill-equipped to adjust to this new tough-shit world. Yet some of us, somehow, are dealing pretty well.

Our generation is the product of two long-term social experiments conducted by our parents. The first sought to create little hyperachievers encouraged to explore our interests and talents, so long as that could be spun for maximum effect on a college application. (I would like to take this forum to at last admit that my co-secretaryship of the math club had nothing to do with any passion for numbers and much to do with the extra-credit points.) In the second experiment, which was a reaction to their own distant moms and dads, our parents tried to see how much self-confidence they could pack into us, like so many overstuffed microfiber love seats, and accordingly we were awarded clip-art Certificates of Participation just for showing up.

The finite supply of actual brass rings meant that the first experiment would never pan out, but the second was a runaway success. Self-esteem among young people in America has been rising since the seventies, but it’s now so dramatically high that social scientists are considering whether they need to find a different measurement system—we’ve broken the scale. Since we are not in fact all perfect, this means that the endless praise we got growing up, win or lose, must have really sunk in. (Meanwhile, it’s this characteristic that our parents’ generation—which instilled it in us!—so delights in interpreting as “entitled.”)

I’ve got a working theory about what’s happening as our self-esteem surpluses collide with a contracting world. A big chunk of our generation, the part David Brooks a decade ago collectively labeled the Organization Kid, more or less happily embraced very hard work within the system. (Brooks was focused on elite students, but I think the term applies equally well to your typical first- and second-honor-roll strivers.) If you were an Organization Kid and have prospered despite the economy, landing one of those jobs that come with an embroidered gym bag, you’re obviously fine. The big change is that when you describe yourself as lucky—a word that comes up a lot with friends I know like this—you may actually mean it more than you would have before. (Before, it would have just been codespeak for “privileged.”) If, though, you set track records and made summa cum laude—if you earned praise not just for effort but real achievements—only to land back in the same bedroom where you drilled for the SATs, then you are unmoored. Your less-decorated peers, feeling the love regardless of results, came to believe they’ll always be appreciated. Whereas you have had your worldview kicked in.

You become a little like my friend Lael Goodman. “The worst thing is that I’ve always gotten self-worth from performance, especially good grades. But now that I can’t get a job, I feel worthless,” she says. Lael, who is 27, was the valedictorian of her high school and did very well in college too. Unable to find a position that paid a decent wage using her En­glish degree, she got a master’s at the University of Michigan in environmental studies. She does technically have a job, for now, filling in for a woman on maternity leave at a D.C. nonprofit, but it’s not one that prevents all her go-getting from seeming for naught. Lael feels like she’s stranded on the wrong rung. “All the articles in the newspaper say that investing in an IRA now means I’ll have hundreds of thousands of extra dollars down the road, so I should just scrimp and save,” she says. “But I can’t scrimp and save because I’m doing that just to afford housing and groceries. So I’m screwed now, unable to enjoy young adulthood in the way that I feel I was promised, and screwed for the future.”

Then there is my friend Sam (not his real name, because he felt that if I used his real name, he’d truly be unemployable). In high school, Sam was the sports captain who set all the curves in calculus. I used to call him up the night before physics tests to figure out what I should know. Sam went to the best college he got into, for which he took out $50,000 in loans. He signed up for some abstract-math courses, was cowed by classmates who worked theorems for kicks, and majored in poetry writing rather than fall short in the subject he’d built so much of his identity on. After graduating, he took a job as a woodworker’s apprentice, not the expected outcome for a grade-grubbing gunner, but also not all that unusual back in the days before every decision about which major to sign up for or job to take started to feel make-or-break. One thing about being the boomers’ heirs growing up in boom times was that it used to be okay to take a life-enriching sabbatical. There was no reason to think you wouldn’t eventually be able to get back on track.

Sam found out that woodworking turned out to be mostly vacuuming up wood chips, and so after a few months, he moved on to a series of other gigs, none of them exactly a career. When he finally got sick of bouncing around in his broken-down $200 car and living with his parents—who kept pressuring him to revisit his math-and-science aptitude—he got himself a $25,000 bank loan, which he used to cover expenses while enrolled in continuing-ed classes in engineering at one of the U.C. schools. He ran out of money pretty quickly. He then found a job working in urban education, but was laid off after a year and a half. “That was the point in my life where I was like, I need to get a career, I need to make that move,” he told me over the phone, in the mellowed-out East Bay patois that had crept into his voice since I last spoke with him. These days, he’s going to networking events and desperately applying for jobs in the tech world, hopeful that landing something very entry-level will put him back on a navigable route to success. He’s had creditors calling him at all hours. He is rather earnestly worried that he might end up on the street. His brothers are managing to stand on their own feet, and he can’t bear to move back home.

“I have a lot of regret about going to college,” Sam, the person in my high-school class who’d been most obsessed with getting into a good college, now says. “If I could go back again, I think I’d try … not going to college”—our generation’s ultimate blasphemy.

Sam blames himself for his predicament, not the economy, mostly. But other people in similar straits are coming to see their personal hardships as the product of broad inequalities. How many young people will put themselves into that category is a big test for Occupy Wall Street. One of its advocates created a Tumblr, “We Are the 99 Percent,” to collect accounts of being screwed by the recession. The posts from twentysomethings take stories that sound something like Lael’s—“I worked hard (40 hours a week during most of my education), for what? Tell me what I need to do to get ahead, because I did everything right!”—and make them a call to arms.

The unions, we know, are heeding that call, but a broader youth movement has yet to materialize.* The Obama 2008 campaign was the high-water mark for twentysomething political involvement. The activism it entailed felt like work—not a turnoff for us. Dialing your way through spreadsheets of get-out-the-vote phone numbers is something you can add to a résumé; getting escorted off the Brooklyn Bridge in those plastic handcuffs is not. But we’re done with that kind of engagement, for now: While this is by some measures the most politically progressive generation ever, young people have never been more disillusioned, as a group, about their ability to bring about meaningful change through the electoral process.


*This article has been updated from its original version. Yaphet Murphy is 38 years old, not 28, the age he had given to the author and a fact-checker. Because that puts him outside the focus of the essay, a paragraph describing his struggle to find work has been removed.

Sam Graham-Felsen was the Obama campaign’s chief blogger last cycle and now lectures about youth activism all over the world. When we spoke during the early days of the protests, he wasn’t convinced Occupy Wall Street could make activism cool for kids again, a factor he views as a key difference between the U.S. and ­places like Egypt. “Even just the physical style, the types of chants, the stuff that they’re eating, the granola—it’s just so derivative of the sixties,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Guys, let’s do something that’s more our generation.’ ”

What’s not clear is exactly what that might look like. It’s not that this is a generation that doesn’t want to improve the world—been to a college activity fair lately?—but ours is a fractured involvement. The Cold War sort of settled which was the superior economic and political system, leaving youthful calls for revolution to be shouted in the context of gay rights and women’s rights and pro-Palestinian-hummus-in-the-campus-cafeteria demonstrations, which are really about improvements to the status quo, not a wholesale overthrow. In the sixties, that generation’s protesters wanted a blank slate, economic and political chaos out of which they could build something new. We’ve got that chaos, and all we want is a way to get back to the structured prosperity that preceded their marching. It’s hard to build a potent counterculture when some of the people it’s meant to appeal to are just hoping for the chance to put on a tie and report to their cubes.

“Maybe I don’t have to make a splash. Maybe I’ll be okay with just keeping afloat.”

If you look at the people on the left who have painted the darkest picture of what the economic downturn means, they’re a generation ahead: Matt Taibbi, for one, or Ken Layne, the publisher of Wonkette, whose ironized blog prose mixes strangely with his incredibly bleak reading of the economy and culture. (Layne told me, in an e-mail of ambiguous sincerity, that the main advice he would give a recent graduate was to own only what would fit in a backpack and keep a current passport always on hand.) They are unabashedly, feverishly upset. Their words practically sweat clammily. Our generation tends to prefer our dystopian news delivered with the impish smile of a Jon Stewart. (I turn the channel when it’s time for scowling, ranting Lewis Black.) Reared to sponge up positive reinforcement that requires only a positive attitude as a buy-in, we are just not that into anger.

I spent the summer listening to Helplessness Blues, an album by Fleet Foxes. It is sweet and comforting and hated by a certain kind of music snob, and it was unexpectedly popular. The band, fronted by a 25-year-old, owes much to the sounds of groups like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, but if such a thing is possible, Fleet Foxes makes those older acts sound hard-edged. The folk music of the sixties was protest music, but there is nothing remotely political about this. Instead, the preoccupations are inward-turning, the title track serving as a gentle generational anthem: “I was raised up believing / I was somehow unique / Like a snowflake, distinct among snowflakes / Unique in each way you can see,” it begins. “But, now, after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be / A functioning cog in some great machinery / Serving something beyond me.” It’s not just the bearded dudes in flannel; some of our angry-sounding musicians, it turns out, are just seeking affirmation. On the song “Radicals,” rapper Tyler, the Creator snarls, “I’m not saying just to go out and do some stupid shit, commit crimes. What I’m trying to tell you is, do what the fuck you want, stand for what the fuck you believe in and don’t let nobody tell you you can’t do what the fuck you want.” Then the kicker: “I’m a fucking unicorn, and fuck anybody who say I’m not.” Today’s fucking unicorn is yesterday’s “Fuck tha Police.”

Television writers, a lot of them young themselves, are starting to offer their own expressions of our generation’s shifting sensibility. Pre-crash, we had the creamy male fairy tale of Entourage. Now HBO serves up How to Make It in America, a slightly grittier prequel to the good life that implies simply being marginally in the mix of a certain kind of scene—it’s no longer necessary to have ascended to the top—constitutes “making it” today. And CBS is enjoying a hit with 2 Broke Girls, set in a diner in Williamsburg and co-created by Michael Patrick King, whose Sex and the City prerecession fantasia ran on a constant loop in college girls’ dorm rooms in the mid-aughts as we put on our heels and going-out tops and drank vodka from Solo cups. The show is neither very good nor very accurate in its portrayal of what it’s really like to be a broke girl living in Williamsburg (hi!), but it does get one big thing right. It centers on the sardonic heroine Max, played by Kat Dennings, who beneath her surface armor is hamstrung by faltering self-confidence after, we are meant to imagine, being unable to get anything better than her waitressing gig. Her co-worker foil, Caroline, the spoiled, newly destitute daughter of a Madoff-esque figure, refuses to wallow despite her fall from privilege, and dreams up a cupcakery as a way to split the difference between the waitressing grind and the life she had coming her way. Obviously, a vegan falafel truck would be a much more 2011-appropriate start-up scheme, but never mind: Their attempts to deal with adult disappointment, to find a new path, now make for a plot with a lot of mileage in it.

In the early days of the recession, I was secretly a little jealous of friends who’d lost their jobs. When you’re young enough, from the outside a layoff can look confusingly like liberation. It seemed like an opportunity to do more of the semi-sanctioned and semi-scripted fucking around that goes with this decade of life. But it stops feeling like a fun, sexy choice when it’s not, in fact, a choice, and what income you’re fortunate to have is highly nondisposable. It’s hard to fully enjoy avoiding maturity if you’re worried that it’s more like maturity is escaping you.

Amid all the jumping around between jobs and among beds, the twenties are, for a lot of people, the time to figure out whom you want to settle down with. The economy has pushed back that rite of passage: The median age of first marriages has crept up by about a year since 2006—a statistically huge increase—and the overall marriage rate is at an all-time low. The number of women between 20 and 34 rose by about a million between 2008 and 2010, but the number of children born to the group dropped by 200,000. Thirty-nine percent of us in a 2010 National Journal poll were getting financial help from relatives, including a full quarter of those with full-time jobs. Those statistics partly stem from actual hardship. But they also seem to reflect inflated expectations of the lifestyle you need to have attained before you’re ready to move on to your next stage.

And yet: Some of us are learning to make the trade-offs. For 27-year-old Lydia Greaves and her husband, the choice was the house they dreamed of buying in his native Seattle or the family they dreamed of simultaneously starting, but not both. He, a lawyer, couldn’t find work for nearly a year after getting his J.D., and she, an environmental chemist, was laid off for a while in 2010. They’ve decided to put off saving for the down payment and try for the kid first. “If we wait until we feel like we’re financially ready, I’d be 40,” she says. “It was like, ‘Okay! In that case …’ ”

It’s not exactly a happy story, but it can be a hopeful one. And the early-onset pragmatism is trickling down. One of the youngest young people I spoke with was Kristine Nwosu. The child of Nigerian immigrants, she’s 19 years old and a sophomore at Temple University, putting her among the first members of our generation to enter college knowing full well the scary merry-go-round they’ll be climbing aboard when they’re done. Her mother is a nurse and her father a chef who, even before he started cancer treatments and underwent a liver transplant this summer, had struggled financially, losing both a restaurant and a catering business. Kristine used to want to cook for a living, too. But she’s leaning toward studying to be a pharmacist, a field for which hiring prospects remain bright. “I have a slight interest in it,” she says. That now feels like enough.

Recently it has become important to me to buy lamps for my very small apartment. I have been in it more than a year, and it’s starting to feel claustrophobically tiny. I can’t make it any bigger, but I can make it brighter, and so I have spent hours browsing the web for shades with the right transparency, the ideal height. I move lamps around daily, trying to find the combination that will make cramped feel cozy, that will cast a golden glow if I stick them in the right corners.

It occurs to me that what I am trying to do with lamps—to make the best of limited circumstances, to brighten what feels shabby—is the domestic side of what I’ve already done with my professional self. I’m one of those young people always calling themselves lucky: I’ve been employed throughout the downturn, in the industry that I wanted to work in. But at my old job, there were several rounds of layoffs. The first robbed me of my cubicle mate, the last (which came after I’d left) hit veteran colleagues at the top of their games. Watching that, I decided to never count on career stability and have tried to be less defined by my work. Some of my friends have recalibrated as well. “I look at the people in positions of authority in my office and see the stress and pressure they are under,” says one. She has lowered the bar beyond which satisfaction supposedly waits. “It makes me think, Well, maybe I don’t have to be in charge. Maybe I’ll be okay with just keeping afloat rather than making a splash.”

It’s part of the American way to get a lot of self-worth from your job. Meanwhile, one of the reasons there aren’t enough of those jobs out there is that America no longer makes enough stuff. Young people feel that void, intrinsically. Making stuff is what got us smiles from our parents and top billing in refrigerator art galleries. And since we are, as a generation, more addicted to positive reinforcement than any before us, and because we have learned firsthand the futility of finding that affirmation through our employers, we have returned to our stuff-making ways, via pursuits easily mocked: the modern-day pickling, the obsessive Etsying, the flower-arranging classes, the knitting resurgence, the Kickstarter funds for art projects of no potential commercial value. The millions upon millions who upload footage of themselves singing or dancing or talking about the news to YouTube. Of course, funny videos and adorable hand-sewn ikat pillows aren’t the only kind of stuff that people are making as a way of coping with harsh economic realities—meth, for instance, comes to mind. But putting aside those darker enterprises, this is a golden age for creativity and knowledge for their own sakes. Our pastimes have become our expressions of mastery, a substitute for the all-consuming career.

Even status updates and photo albums on Facebook are part of this. Jonathan Franzen wrote a commencement speech–cum–jeremiad last spring against our generation for, as he sees it, substituting Facebook “liking” for real-life passion for something. But the thumbs-up isn’t a substitution for anything. It is just a tiny kindness, a sweet pat on the back, and the profligacy with which we give them out is just a function of a generation’s giving out compliments in the volume in which we received them growing up. Thumbs down, Franzen, for missing the point.

On the day before I turned 27, I went to meet my friend Desi for a beer and a burger. He is a thoughtful, very smart 24-year-old college dropout, smallish and dark-haired with a bushy Brooklyn beard. He rides a motorcycle and seems to be friends with half the staff of places like Four & Twenty Blackbirds, where his roommate works as a baker. He took time off from Georgetown on a lark to work on an offshore oil platform and get some life experience (“stories rather than ideas,” he said—admitting in the next breath that it may have had something to do with the number of times he’d read On the Road) and wound up never returning to school. When he dated my roommate a couple of years ago, he was paying the bills with a gig delivering cloth diapers, and she made it sound like he was having trouble finding other work. Desi is the guy you would have once said had thrown away his future but today seems like maybe he’s got something figured out.

The morning before we met, Desi’s motorcycle had broken down. If his truck goes next, he won’t have the money to fix it. “A little bit of bad luck, and things can unravel pretty quickly,” he said. But Desi wanted to sell me on the merits of constrained circumstances, not tick off tales of woe. He is still delivering diapers, but he’s now got another job as a woodworker-slash-lacquerer. He finds a satisfaction in the craft that eluded Sam, my high school’s former can’t-miss kid, during his woodworking interregnum. Desi does a great deal of yoga. He proselytizes about the book Shop Class As Soulcraft. “Getting better at enjoying life” is something he describes very seriously as a goal. This is not something that requires a big salary, and he doesn’t think his mind-set will change much with age. He has only so much sympathy for the complaints of his girlfriend, a 2011 college graduate working retail who is devastated that she’s been unable to find a job that requires a degree.

Remember how most Americans think this generation will be worse off than the one that preceded it? This generation doesn’t agree. A plurality of young people still think they’ll do better than their parents. Our optimism is surprisingly durable. A large-scale Pew study published in 2010 showed that about 90 percent of us either say that we currently have enough money or will eventually meet our long-term financial goals—we’re more hopeful on that front, in fact, than we were before the recession.

Clark University’s Jeffrey Arnett, who studies what he calls the life phase of “emerging adulthood,” points out that people who respond with optimism to questions like that don’t necessarily see “better off” as simply a question of wealth. For nonwhite Americans, certainly, there’s less discrimination than their parents faced, and that may affect responses. But there’s evidence to suggest other members of our cohort believe they’ll live a more fulfilled life, have better relationships, even if they don’t live in larger houses or drive fancier cars than their parents. Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me, says the most prominent shift she has seen so far among young people in this economy is an apparent decrease in materialism. We are less interested in stuff, but still very interested in self.

Desi’s onboard with less stuff. “You don’t need to have money to buy a huge record collection; you have Grooveshark. You don’t need that shit. Life is just getting easier.” And it definitely is, in terms of access to entertainment. Facebook and video games and Twitter and Internet memes and Google Books and smartphones and free apps have made life on a small budget a lot more diverting. Rob Weitzer, a 24-year-old ­Bushwick dweller who grew up in Connecticut and has been spottily employed since graduating from the New School, puts it this way: “My parents are well off financially, but I’m better off culturally.”

Desi’s father happens to be an engineer who worked for the company that made the StairMaster, that very boomer self-improvement device. His grandfather did important work on a generationally defining product of his own. Desi’s grandfather was John Rawls, the philosopher credited with expanding the intellectual framework for the modern social safety net. Desi also cares about safety nets, but smaller ones. “Feeling like you can take care of yourself and your friends … that’s the answer,” he told me when we were talking about Occupy Wall Street, and whether it’s worth it to be involved. “You know, you find a community where you don’t feel that powerlessness.” I bring up his grandfather’s legacy. He redirects the conversation. “Definitely, if you don’t do something, it’s not going to happen. But if you do do something, it’s still probably not going to happen. Your time could be time that you spend enriching your own life.”

Twenge, the Generation Me author, turned me on to the existence of a concept called “locus of control.” Essentially, it’s a measure of whether you think your destiny is controlled by you or outside forces. For years, young people have increasingly placed their loci of control outside themselves, and this is true of my generation more than any yet. It seems unlikely that a global financial crisis that revealed just how deeply ingrained, intertwined, and intractable are the world’s problems is doing much to counteract that trend. Yet someone like Desi manages to place the locus of control firmly within himself, centered narrowly on his own life and the people he knows. Notwithstanding what that attitude portends for social justice (nothing good), maybe it’s the only way to feel like you are in charge of your own destiny, by focusing your lens ever tighter.

Another phrase I now can’t get out of my head is “managed decline.” It’s been batted around in the context of Europe; George Soros splashily said it about the U.S. dollar a few years ago; and Ken Layne, the Wonkette Cassandra, used it when we spoke. It also strikes me as a fairly good way of describing the process of getting older. That’s what we’re doing when we decide that we can be okay with having more unpredictable careers and more modest lifestyles, if that’s what’s in store: Even as we hold out hope that something will reverse the trajectory, we are managing our decline, we are making do.

Desi and I tried to picture the country in 50 years, as a kind of parlor game. “Oh! Mushroom cloud! It’s going to be a disaster!” he said. “It’s so overwhelming there’s nothing in particular to be worried about.” We both laughed, because it’s true.

Who are true believers?

October 6, 2011

I keep thinking about thinking about this article, so I thought I’d post it…

Belief as Serious Fiction (Ctd)

IMG_0267

“If you have never fully doubted, you have never fully believed. And what keeps faith alive at those moments is indeed practice, ritual, discipline, and the small but vital ways in which a Christian reaffirms her faith in day-to-day interactions with other human beings…

The interaction between dogma and practice is what religion is. But Christianity really does insist on practice as the core definition (which is why Oakeshott put religion into the “practical” category of human life, not the philosophical). The transformation of what were long deemed myths – Genesis, the Christmas stories, for example – into literal truths is a modern, neurotic development that, as time goes by, requires faith in obvious untruths (like creationism). And in the end, faith must be compatible with truth, or it is a coping mechanism, not a living, coherent belief.

So, yes, revelation matters. But not in every tiny literalist detail. And for faith to live, it must be practised. Fundamentalism, in this sense, is rationalism in religion, to purloin an Oakeshottian phrase. It has to be defeated before the real life of faith can recover and reach more people.” ~Andrew Sullivan

 

 

 

Sightings

July 18, 2011

Parlours

July 14, 2011

Great find. Love what I've heard so far. Click to go to their music.

 It sounds like something frightening is happening behind her, but she’s not afraid. She’s sweating, but it feels like exercise. It sounds as if there’s really nothing to worry about. She’s been chased before, by this same beast.

Listen here.

American Exceptionalism: Why French People Should Root for USA in the Women’s World Cup

July 12, 2011

From Slate…

“Your French team has had a fine little run to the semifinals, a much better streak than anyone expected, or than they really deserve. Do you really want them to stand in the way of America’s Manifest Destiny? I didn’t think so.”

Read more here.

Greatest Sports Competition of the Year

July 12, 2011

Women’s World Cup: USA vs. Brazil Quarterfinal

“I have no words. Phenomenal. The goal and then the PKs. Someone is writing this book. There is something about the American attitude to find a way to win. Unbelievable.” U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage

Things I Should Have Posted: Part I

July 12, 2011

Important stuff that’s no longer news but still meaningful — Stuff I would have posted this past year and a half if I were in blog world.

Tahrir Square just after Mubarek announced he was stepping down. An image that encapsulates what it's all about.

Welcome to the World, South Sudan

July 12, 2011

July 9, 2011.