The New Yorker has published a piece by Nathan Heller examining the “second adolescence” known as being a 20-something. They start the discussion with the question “Whose twenties?” After clarifying that the books under discussion for this piece focus on relatively well-off 20-somethings, Heller observes that trend pieces on being 20-something are as confused as the experience itself. Does one want to build a career or “sow one’s wild oats”? What does it mean to “sow wild oats” when you are constantly connected to the internet and probably document your daily experience (online) on a regular basis?
One commonality seems to be disappointment. Expectations of a solid post-college job are frequently not met. Another commonality is not knowing what one wants to do post-college. But wandering aimlessly for a year or four can come at a price. One of the books discussed, The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter — And How to Make the Most of Them Now by Meg Jay, claims that one’s brain undergoes a major rewiring during the twenties, and years of non-productivity could put one at a neurological as well as career disadvantage. Neurologists call this “survival of the busiest.” And of course, if that isn’t bad enough, even if you do work hard and follow a more conventional career path, the economy and job market are horrible.
After examining the psychological, neurological, and career path aspects of being a 20-something, Heller focuses in on relationships and marriage. The phenomenon examined is “choice overload,” the feeling that if one delays getting married and settling down, one has the free agency to see what and who is out there. This is nothing new, the books and Heller conclude, but it has been amplified by the internet’s constant reminder of how the people you know are living their lives. So, choice overload and comparison anxiety.
One of the most interesting points in the article is that apart from pioneering a new online-heavy lifestyle, this generation hasn’t defined a new mode of living, in the “real world.” Most of the concerns outlined in this piece can be traced to generations past. As Heller puts it, “The postwar twentysomethings understood themselves to have built the suburban homestead. The sixties generation liberated minds, bodies, and domesticity. The late boomers fleshed out eighties wealth culture. The much scorned Generation X reurbanized and gentrified America, and gave us the new ideal of the start-up mogul.” What has this generation of 20-somethings done, besides expand internet culture?
Heller mentions the Occupy movement as a potential thing to point to as evidence of this generation’s engagement or ideals, but has immediate criticism. Occupy’s “path of approach, from the name to the language and the kind of public theatre involved, is at least half a century old. Even in our moments of outrage, we reach back to older forms; such engagement is, literally, conservative.” These are damning words. But Heller has an appreciation for 20-somethings and their modes of expression. He even favorably compares dialogue from Girls to some from This Side of Paradise.
So what is to be learned from this article? There’s no conclusion, other than that the 20-something experience is timeless even as young people today face increasingly online-documented disappointment, angst, and confusion.
But I think Heller may underestimate the impact of the expansion of internet culture. It may take time to spread through a generation, but I think a segment of this generation already experiences a fracturing of their identity via internet that is irrevocable. The more one speaks the ironic, post-ironic polyglot of internet-speak, the more one forms internet friendships that feel like “real” ones, the more one’s internet persona takes on a life of its won, the more any stable identity is complicated, let alone career path. Heller says the 20-somethings are all right, but who are they, anyway, anymore? Detached from even a stable conception of self, it can be hard to say who is doing or not doing what it takes to “succeed” as a 20-something. Thrillingly, confusingly, disturbingly (?), the internet can help one realize just how much one does not know who one is.