Living In The Great Depression

Being a 20-something is difficult, sigh

Lately it seems the mainstream media is obsessed with ‘us twenty-somethings’ [a virtual social class to which I can still claim membership for one more year]. I think it’s because we’re obsessed with ourselves, and when given an opportunity to write in visible ways with respectable bylines we pick ourselves as the central topic. Or the articles are written by older people  [I generally visualize the great old lords of the mainstream media as ‘older people’ due to the fact they usually have poor email skills when I work with them like just writing ‘thanks’ to a long email with questions in it, the way an eight year-old might] and they have some kind of resentment toward ‘us’.

Or they’re just business-savvy and they know we are obsessed with ourselves and that whenever they write an article – say, this Wall Street Journal piece about ‘Where Have All The Good Men Gone’ we will all of us ‘share’ it on our Facebooks and discuss post-feminism and get all heated about it and they will gain mad hits. Like, when the WSJ published this article I really don’t know if they endorsed the article [if not the message, minimally the validity of the argument] or if they were just psyched to throw its author under the bus [where ‘bus’ is ‘people on the internet’.]

Anyway, on the surface level the article is not too original. It’s more identification of what seems to be [according to the media] a ‘problem with our generation’, that being we have ill-defined social roles, we are ‘failing to grow up’, generally there is mention of men playing video games as if this were indicative of some huge failure to cope, that these well-educated people are spending their first adult decade doing ‘unpaid internships’ or being a barista while blaming the recession, that because they feel entitled to some kind of ‘creative control’ in life they are doing strings of meaningless ‘freelance projects’ while becoming increasingly anxious about the future.

Key to the accusation, especially in this piece, is that ’20-somethings’ are like somehow not achieving milestones formerly associated with adulthood, chief among them financial independence, a stable romantic partnership/marriage, plans to reproduce, ownership of property, etc. It is a little bit of a creepy thing to notice; I’m not exactly part of the accused demographic, being that I’m kind of too old to wholly qualify for that generational umbrella, I have a full-time writing job and health insurance and my own apartment and I literally can’t remember the last time I had to ask my parents for money. I do remember the 1990s with inappropriate vividity and not the sort of ironic retro-nostalgia with which other young people I know seem to be curious about jelly shoes, pogs and flannel.

But I am [commence full-body cringe, lip-curl shove-my-dear-cat-away-for-a minute-in-paroxysm-of-self-conscious-guilt-at-looming-stereotype]  uh ‘pushing 30’. My parents were pretty measured about this shit and yet when my mom was my age I was already born. I am not married; marriage does not appear imminent. This is probably because I am shit at doing laundry and dishes, at paying bills on time, or at spending my free time doing anything more efficient than watching My So Called Life DVDs which I indulgently purchased despite my electric bill being late and you don’t even want to know what I owe on my fucking taxes. Actually neither do I, that’s why I’ll probably file late yet again this year, continually setting aside time to ‘go get that shit taken care of’ at an accountant and spending the time sleeping off a hangover or purchasing nail polish [because I need ‘me time’, natch].

I spend a lot, a lot of time attending parties where I am, increasingly, the oldest person in the room. Like, literally, this past weekend I went to a birthday party where people asked me ‘when do you graduate’ and I was like ‘from what’ because it took me a fucking second to realize what they meant. I had fun alternating between coy responses, lies I’d sling to test their plausibility, and blunt honesty so I could enjoy the shock response. I will not always be young enough to pull this off. I will not be young enough for much longer. I’ve got a good six months. Hang on I need a drink while I get my head around that.

Increasingly I find myself entertaining fantasies the type I would have once found fucking loathsome; I would like to meet a man who is a ‘systems analyst’ or a ‘process consultant’ or an ‘adjunct professor’ or ‘head researcher’ [what the fuck are those things] and get married move to Park Slope and have those kind of parties that aren’t actually ‘parties’ but are grown-ups sitting or standing around a very clean living room, drinking wine and eating canapés [what the fuck are canapés]. Maybe ‘tapenade’, I know what tapenade is. Water crackers. Brioche that I made and people praise it and I say ‘oh, it’s nothing.’ Maybe it’s even frozen or I ordered it from a restaurant and I lie to everyone so they think I’m a better homemaker.


More From Thought Catalog


    How many times have you seen My So-Called Life?

    • Leigh Alexander

      actually, i used to watch it routinely when it was actually on, but i just kinda 'got back into it' like 2 weeks ago not really remembering much about it and this is my first re-watch, i've just been kind of doing it very focusedly lately


        It's been out on DVD so long I was worried that this article was a way of coping with your 200th time going through the series.

      • Leigh Alexander

        hahaha, no, it just never occurred to me to revisit it until now, and when i am masticating some kind of media i sort of do it in this all-consuming way for a minute

        not that it's any less concerning

      • Juliejc5

        I don't really think this article achieves anything. I think I “get it,” but it's not particularly enlightened. Sort of reinforces the point about the self-involved 20-something demographic. Yeah, nothing new. Moving on.

  • Jonah Matthews

    The “If we accept that our roles and milestones…” part is going to stick with me. Goddamn.

  • Simes

    I've spent a few minutes trying to come up with a decent response to this. I think that this kind of existential anxiety is one of the luxuries that reasonably intelligent educated people possess. Part of the “better life” our ancestors sweated blood to give us, if you will. The gift of existential anxiety, which we possess because in our lives there actually are meaningful choices beyond “work or starve”. I'm still not sure this is a great response, tbh.

    If it makes you feel any better, I'm ten years further down the line than you and I have no idea what I'm doing with my life either. Although that might not help at all. In which case, sorry.

    I do have both a dishwasher and a washing machine, though, and I consider my life immeasurably improved as a result. Maybe that's a place to start? :)

    • Leigh Alexander

      i would die for a dishwasher and washing machine. now i have a purpose for which to strive. thank you.

  • Theo Tanaka

    Wow, that's practically all my life redacted here!
    I'm from Brazil, living in São Paulo, just turned 28 years old, and I don't know exactly what I'm doing with my life.
    I graduated in electric engineering, and not once I felt like an engineer. I worked as a programmer for the most part of my life, now I'm working as a game designer, but all the time I feel like I should be working with cinema. I wish somebody told me what the heck I was supposed to be doing… Oh, yes, I also live with my parents, I broke up with my last girlfriend about a year ago, I spend all my money going out, buying games and films, and… that's it, not such a bright future, I guess…

  • Brian McElmurry

    Damn, this was really powerful.

  • RahRah Underhill

    I turn thirty in August, but I tell people I work with that I will turn twenty, tongue-in-cheek. If they happen to believe me, I just go with it.

    For some reason I don't want to turn thirty. It's not because of the implied responsibility and maturity that is *supposed* to have already been at that age. Hell, weren't we supposed to have come of age at some point between 15 and 25? So it's not that, because I feel mostly responsible, and when it matters I feel mostly mature.

    I think it just scares me that we're all growing up too fast. I was once a senior in high school when me and my friends would skip school to go to the Guitar Center in Atlanta, and it LITERALLY feels like it was just yesterday, and that over a decade couldn't have possibly gone by already since then. Time-is-going-by-too-fast statement # 9,402,056, checking in.

    I suddenly feel like that grown up voice that narrated the story of his own childhood, and spoke about Winnie Cooper like all the time.

  • Karina Briski

    Thanks for not making me yawn through another tired rant on the poor, aimless 20-something losers we are. Because hey, everyone's always been aimless and loser-ish – save for The Great geniuses, artists, authors, philosophers, etc, etc that we will always remember and point to when we're thinking of how pathetic we are, for having only a millisecond of accomplishments under our belts.
    I think you've hit at something as close to the core of this problem as we could get – that loss of certainty, a template, set path – whatever it's called – for our lives to be following. And the subsequent feeling that dilates between apathy & contempt when we realize that all of the choices and gifts and privileges ceded to us by our parents and their parents, etc have maybe not actually made us better, but at times, crush us with their offerings of limitless options- to the point of paralysis and deer-in-headlights immobilization, making us possibly the greatest fuckups of all time because we were given more privilege than any other generation and according to all that we're writing as well as what's being written about us, we're more or less squandering it all away playing video games and prematurely aging from all our frenetic worrying over how/why we're playing video games instead of creating The Next Great Whatever.
    But whatever. Thanks for this.

    • Leigh Alexander

      thank you. i don't actually feel like a loser — i've never not had a job since i was a teenager, i left the home at the appropriate time, have owned a car, am satisfied with my career + direction etc — which almost makes it weirder that i'm not immune to the same kind of existential shit that people a bit younger than i am seem to be widely enduring. 'vertigo of possibility' or something. we have too many choices to reconcile against expectations that seem blurry

      • Karina Briski

        You're right about this collective sense though – and I agree to not feeling like a loser based on your same reasons and others – and that it still doesn't stop us from somehow absorbing the anxiety seeping through those articles or films or books and our friends who might be experiencing it firsthand. we somehow appropriate that guilt or uncertainty even if we feel ourselves only tangentially related to the experiences producing it. Maybe because of our expectations, as you pointed out, being too vague to conceive of for how high they stretch…

      • Mitu

        Leigh, have you ever seen this TED talk/read this guy's book?… All about that vertiginous feeling you mention which comes with too much choice.

        The most interesting bit is that this guy is also a college professor, and assigns his students 20% less work than he used to, not because they're any less intelligent, but because they're so preoccupied with all these existential questions which didn't befall our ancestors.

      • Eric Liu

        Hah, I was just sending this around under the description “Generational Angst meets The Paradox of Choice”.

        On the one hand, I totally get it. On the other hand, I hear in my head an extremely sarcastic voice saying, “Boohoo, I have too many options! Life is so good and I have so much freedom that I actually get to pick things, and I can't choose!”

        And then I wonder if the answer is same as it has been for everyone along the way: pick something that seems the least terrible, and go with it until something else seems less terrible than what you're doing (which is, perhaps, just a loaded way of saying “satisfice”).

    • Gabrielle Bodek

      Great response, I'm going through the same indecision right now. I should be happy that I have all the power in the world to determine my future, but I also have all the rope to hang myself with as well. To give our generation credit, there's not much inspiring us out there these days either… This lack of motivation and halt on social and financial progression is enough to make me wonder if what the future holds is really worth all this tedious nonsense?

  • alwaysabgirl

    All I can tell you is even if you accept your so called milestones, etc… it doesn't mean they'll accept you. The ability to reinvent oneself is key, so is patience and the realization that you are responsible for your own happiness. You have to switch that light on your head and decide that. Honest and truly. Anxiety, worry and depression is a fucking waste of time.

    Maybe you won't be great enough for the world to weep when you're gone, but your family and friends should miss you. If they don't, you didn't do it right.

  • Julene

    “When you’re exhausted of feeling angry with yourself for being too exhausted to do your laundry or to do anything but sleep off the hangover that you induced by anxiously swimming to the bottom of several glasses – because it’s hard to talk to people when you’re all so disoriented and tired, or even because you did nothing but stay home and experience a sudden attack of ‘what the fuck am I here for’ and drink because you weren’t sure – when you’re suffering that kind of exhaustion even if you do meet someone you kind of like or might want to ‘date’, even the fucking stupid shit like ‘when is it okay to text them back’ or ‘what night am I going to be free to like go on a date’ or ‘could I picture us having a joint bank account’ is too much to fucking deal with and so you just don’t do it.”

    Christ, you've just encapsulated my single 20-something doing sorta-something-but-mostly-nothing life here in NY. Good thing there's only another five hours til happy hour…

  • federico

    lol im 19 lol

    • aaron nicholas

      yo good luck bro

  • tommmmm

    fuck. it seems like every decade of my life is something to dread. i just spent 10 years of awkward uncomfortableness, now this. ugh.

  • Calvin

    The New York Times had a huge expose on “20-somethings” a few months ago, and it was pretty depressing back then too. Not because I'm a 20-something who falls line-by-line into their characterization of what a recent graduate freelancing writer with little-to-know income and a penchant for run-on sentences with lots-of-words-that-are-hyphenated. But because that's just how life works nowadays.

    Just look at the fact that “Facebook” was named Time's Person Of The Year last year, and the “Facebook Movie” might be the best picture. Isn't it strange that a generation of older people are eager to pigeonhole an entire younger generation of people by classifying “Facebook” as the greatest contribution? Like Leigh said, think about the Great Depression and how easier and simpler it was. Not today. Would “Facebook,” or the “Internet” that necessitated “Facebook,” or the “Personal Computer” that necessitated the “Internet,” or “Suburbia” that necessitated “Personal Computers” have been comprehensible to a time like The Great Depression?


  • Louise

    You ain't seen nothing yet, this generation hasn't even started.

  • ok

    I have been in a “bad mood” all day and this strangely put me in a good mood. Thanks.

  • Sarah

    You already know my thoughts on this. The woe begotten artistic hopeful who's dreams were dashed by the ever climbing list of relentless crippling physical health ailments of seemingly no end. For every five steps forward I take ten back. October and 30 years old will mark the turning point for me. Do I finally call it quits on my tireless struggle towards my dreams? Are dreams even really something to work towards when faced with the reality of what real life “adulthood” accomplishments are supposed to be? Are these things I have worked for 15 years towards merely foolish fantasies brought on by a childhood surrounded by people convincing me I was destined for greatness?

  • Colleen Johnstun

    The last three paragraphs of this piece are incredibly offensive and out of touch. Congratulations on your upper-middle class upbringing and education, you're one of the few. Must be nice to be able to romanticize the Great Depression, because your life never came remotely close to that level of hardship.
    Take your existential angst and direct it towards something constructive, or if you choose to write about the human condition, be a little more self-aware.

    • Leigh Alexander

      aw baby, it's so fun to comment on articles by people you know nothing about, isn't it? welcome to web 2.0, have fun here! content democracy!

  • JacobMartin

    I'm 21 and with all these celebrity deaths I'm anxious I'm going to have to work really hard to create my artistic output before I might get picked off at Michael Jackson's age or even the Redwall books guy's age. I really have to think about what I'm doing with my life now so when I get to 71 like the Redwall dude I won't have to get anxious that I'll die suddenly without completing my photo archives or my bibilography.

    My problem isn't “what do I do with my life?” but “Do I have enough time to create what I love, if even Michael Jackson didn't see past fifty?”.

  • Amari De Lennon

    I think this article is useless shit. I don't really feel the need to explain myself. But if you must know: http://wontbelongtillibelong.t

  • nuttynupur

    You've said much of what I feel…the big 3-0's coming up and I don't think I have too much to show for it right now…but scratch under the surface and you will find learnings from mistakes, tries at things if I hadn't done I would've always wondered about. Am currently pursuing my dream, and so far it's living up to my expectations. Sometimes I regret not doing what I wanted to earlier, but then I would've had less adventures:)

  • Keith Gibbs

    I think the problem is in many cases not the lack of attainment but the rejection or recontextualizing of previous standards set out as standard for 20 year olds and 30 year olds.

    As a brief confession, I am recently 30 [groan], recently a new parent, have a professional job (software developer), and own a condo in the Boston area with my wife. I am not the 28 year old barista a couple of credits short of an art degree.

    But looking at it objectively, compared to my parents generation, I am at least 5 years behind… I have a Masters in a field not related to my career (as much as I enjoyed it), didn't even start thinking about a house and kid until after 5 years of being married [and I feel that I got married young at 24, since I just lucked out happened to meet my wife early on in college]. Compared to 90% of my friends, I am basically the only one (at 30) close to “matching up” with 90% of my parents or grandparents generation had at 25 or so. And what I have is with obscene amounts of student loans and debt and whatnot.

    Another confession, I play video games. Quite a bit really. Well, not tons in the last couple of months, but I play more than regularly, even with a job, wife, house, and kid. My wife plays video games [and lucky for her, our 8 month old love to watch her play Harvest Moon while strapped in her jumper].

    We have cocktail parties… or at least did prior to the baby. Sure, my wife *does* indeed wear pearls. We both love to cook, but admittedly it wasn't overly swank as the humorously contrived one Leigh envisions. Basically an excuse to eat, drink mixed drinks (including on-the-fly concoctions), and once the place thins out, maybe throw down on my old NES for a pace. Not wearing an ascot, but a clever T-shirt (and yes, Alyssa is in pearls, but with jeans).

    Honestly, we live longer and we wind up going to school longer than previous generations. We need to pay our dues in entry-level shit for quite a number or years. We have student loans only God himself can recon. If we don't get exhausted from trying to catch up, we are just a few hundred steps short of what is expected. But then again, I think most of us (20 / 30 somethings) relax and roll with it to some degree (and perhaps have an extra bourbon or two to compensate).

    I do think the Leigh is hitting on something I kind of noticed. There is something romantic about days gone by. Even the Great Depression has a sort of appeal. Even life as described seems more real and visceral than debt-laden/over-comercialized/over-stimilated/disassociated modern world. Whether or not you have a job doesn't *really* seem to matter (well unless you *really fucking commit to it* with a house and a kid) in the modern age or at least not substantially affected if you put it off.

    I ramble… and it is late in the evening.

  • Ashke

    I like what you've written here. I don't really want to have lived in the Great Depression (starvation is not a virtue) but I know what it is to be reaching 30 and not really know where your life is going. I've hit a few of the milestones (I'm married, we own an apartment together), but my career is more of a “career” and I still don't have any idea what I want to do with myself.

    I'm not really sure if the headline is relevant to the article, though. Left me expecting something completely different than what I got.

  • Nicholas Cox

    Look people, the whole thing about life is you never know what's going to happen in it. We all need to stop sitting around waiting for the mess to clear so we can start living our lives. The mess IS our lives. Life is messy and it is happening right now.

    When our parents ask why we aren't “growing up” they're really just asking why we aren't turning out exactly like them. The answer is: we aren't turning out like them because, even if we don't realize it consciously, we are smart enough not to make the stupid mistakes that they made. We are realizing that life is unpredictable and messy. They never learned that, and now they are berating us for not sharing their childlike naivete.

    Don't worry. We are going to be a better generation than they ever were. Where they failed, we will succeed.

  • G-rac Ushdugery

    That WSJ article is idiotic, why should anyone feel the need to fit some predefined role that society creates for them, if people aren't hurting anyone else, more power to them. Also take heart in the fact that you have time and mind to write an article largely centering on existential angst, it means you're standing triumphantly at the top of the pyramid that is Maslow's Heirachy of needs.

  • Nan

    Leigh, I hope you find a good guy. Maybe one that is ~3-5 years older than you and bosses you around a bit, remember to be submissive and cut off any friendship with other males. You'll do just fine then.

  • Sunny

    This is one of the worst things I've read online, and that includes the Rugrats/President Clinton fanfiction a friend sent me.

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