Friday, August 20, 2010

What Is It About Us?

The New York Times article “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” was posted on August 18, two days ago--although a footer nonetheless proclaims, maybe a bit hubristically, that “A version of this article appeared in print on August 22” in the Times Magazine section.

The article is allegedly about why my generation is taking so long to settle into the stasis of adulthood. The author, Robin Marantz Henig, did not interview even a single member of the generation in question, despite the fact that both her daughters seem to be in their 20s and settling into adulthood quite nicely. At one point she quotes a few vague, rather trite expressions of ambivalence, attributed to a few 20-somethings identified only by first name, from a book called 20 Something Manifesto. She then quickly reminds us that, “While the complaints of these young people are heartfelt, they are also the complaints of the privileged,” before quoting “Julie, a 23-year-old New Yorker” who “was coddled her whole life” and now does not feel like an adult. “Coddled,” in the passive voice, as though this coddling just happened, as though Julie didn’t have Baby Boomer parents who did the coddling. And at the very end she does relate a brief encounter with one real-life 20-something. “C.” is a 22-year-old woman who “started to fall apart during her junior year at college, plagued by binge drinking and anorexia,” and has been living for the past three months at Yellowbrick, an exorbitantly expensive rehab center designed specially for psychiatrically troubled 20-somethings. Henig gives a nice little physical description of C. but still does not let her speak. Children of any age, it seems, ought to be seen and not heard.

The person she does let speak, and at great length, is Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a psychologist who is a leading expert on post-adolescence, and has spent his career campaigning for the scientific establishment to canonize “emerging adulthood” (his coinage, and he is damn proud of how catchy it sounds) as stage in human development between adolescence and adulthood. He produced a book and a textbook about emerging adulthood, as well as edited an essay collection, and he is currently working on a book for parents of emerging adults. Henig doesn’t mention anything about a book written for emerging adults; I guess that isn’t such a high priority. She also devotes copious paragraphs to the findings of neurologists, with due respect to the ontological infallibility of scientific studies, showing that “children’s brains [are] not fully mature until at least 25.” “Car-rental companies,” quipped the director of one such study, are “the only people who got this right”--because everyone knows that, in order to drive safely, you need a brain that has stopped developing and entered the rigor mortis of adulthood.

Henig’s article is an embodiment of everything that is wrong with the Baby Boomers and a slap in the face for all the 20-somethings who emerged from their loins. It ought to be the slap that wakes us from our sleepwalk and inspires us to become the adults our parents never were. They love to tell us, in commencement speeches and what have you, that it is our job to clean up their mess. That mess is us, and we can count on no help from them in rising above it. I will write this up more fully later on; in the meantime here are some notes about individual passages:


“Is it time to place a similar emphasis, with hopes for a similar outcome, on enriching the cognitive environment of people in their 20s? “

This question reflects the Baby Boomer worldview according to which people in their 20s, the children of the Baby Boomers, have no agency whatsoever. We are not even human beings. We are plants: “enriching the cognitive environment” sounds like fertilizing the topsoil. And you are the gardeners, constantly tending our cognitive environments as though we were prize tulips.

“None of this is new, of course; the brains of young people have always been works in progress, even when we didn’t have sophisticated scanning machinery to chart it precisely. Why, then, is the youthful brain only now arising as an explanation for why people in their 20s are seeming a bit unfinished?”

Is it a good thing to be “finished”? Doesn’t that mean “dead”? As for the notion that “the brains of young people have always been works in progress,” see below.

“Arnett readily acknowledges his debt to Keniston; he mentions him in almost everything he has written about emerging adulthood. But he considers the ’60s a unique moment, when young people were rebellious and alienated in a way they’ve never been before or since.”

You Baby Boomers are so fucking proud of The Sixties. You are supposed to be adults, but you still remember your adolescence through the haze of adolescent narcissism. Tons of young generations have rebelled against their parents, and the only difference between you and them is there were a lot more of you. You call yourselves “The Woodstock Generation.” You ought to call yourselves “The Altamont Generation.” Or if you really want to be named after your greatest accomplishment, why not just call yourselves “The Global Warming Generation”?

“And another of Fingerman’s studies suggests that parents’ sense of well-being depends largely on how close they are to their grown children and how their children are faring — objective support for the adage that you’re only as happy as your unhappiest child.”

This is part of the problem. Such utterly invested parenting is often toxic for all involved.

“The fact that emerging adulthood is not universal is one of the strongest arguments against Arnett’s claim that it is a new developmental stage.”

The word “new” is ambiguous. In the context of this sentence, and the article as a whole, it means “newly-discovered.” But it really ought to mean “entirely new”. This ambiguity exposes a fatal logical fallacy lurking just below the surface. The article’s line of argument rests on the assumption that the human brain has always developed in exactly the same way. A century ago, scientists “discovered” adolescence, which this article assumes existed in exactly that form extending forever backward into the darkness of prehistory. Today, they assume that human brains have always taken upwards of 25 years to develop, as if this fact were corroborated by fMRI images found in clay jars under pyramids. It never occurs to them that historical changes may have influenced the development of the brain. They should realize, furthermore, that the changes they made to accommodate the presence of adolescence in the cycle of life may have caused the new developmental stage, “emerging adulthood”, to appear.

“The demands of imminent independence can worsen mental-health problems or can create new ones for people who have managed up to that point to perform all the expected roles — son or daughter, boyfriend or girlfriend, student, teammate, friend — but get lost when schooling ends and expected roles disappear. That’s what happened to one patient who had done well at a top Ivy League college until the last class of the last semester of his last year, when he finished his final paper and could not bring himself to turn it in.”

Neglecting to interview this young man to let him tell his own story was a journalistic failure of the highest order.

“[Jesse Viner, director of Yellowbrick] is a soft-spoken man who looks like an accountant and sounds like a New Age prophet, peppering his conversation with phrases like ‘helping to empower their agency.’”

Henig heard the phrase “helping to empower their agency” as a meaningless rhetorical flourish, presumably because she cannot comprehend the notion that these people, whom she so easily reduces to measurable quantities of biomass, could possibly have agency.

“‘Agency’ is a tricky concept when parents are paying the full cost of Yellowbrick’s comprehensive residential program, which comes to $21,000 a month and is not always covered by insurance. Staff members are aware of the paradox of encouraging a child to separate from Mommy and Daddy when it’s on their dime.”

This is a paradox if and only if “agency” means financial independence and nothing more. For a lot of Baby Boomers, this is precisely what it means. And why the fuck is the place called “Yellowbrick”? Have we forgotten that the Yellow Brick Road leads to nowhere?

Monday, May 10, 2010

An Open Letter to Our Parents' Generation


This is a letter of grievance. I am writing on behalf of my voiceless, nameless generation, because no one else has stepped forward to speak for us. I find myself forced into this position by the silence of my peers, a silence that I fear will go unbroken forever unless I say tonight, once and for all, that enough is enough—enough silence, enough cheerful compliance, enough sleepwalking through the predetermined channels of this privileged world. It's time to make a stand, to reveal to the world the awful damage you have inflicted, in your infantile complacence, upon each and every one of us, damage that will not leave us as long as the world continues to bear the uneraseable mark of your self-satisfied decadence.

You never tire of parroting that tired platitude to the effect that, when we take our place as the leaders of tomorrow, it will be our job to fix the mess that you made. You say it, almost in unison, with slight smiles on your lips, because by now it has become a self-depricating joke. But, joke or no, I have a serious response: how about you clean up your fucking mess? By leaving it to us to repair the irreparable harm you have done the world, all you're doing is ensuring that you will continue to control us, as you always have, even after you're all dead or retired. You rebelled against your parents but made it impossible for us to rebel against you—God forbid it should go on my permanent record. You instilled in us the fear and shame that you once thought you could live without. You dangled prizes in front of us to make us do whatever you wanted, and most of us are still frantically, pathetically grasping at them.

Admit it, you never really gave a fuck about us. All you ever wanted was to look at us and see your own pleasing reflection. You wanted to prove to the world and to yourselves that you were good parents, that you read all the right books and played all the right classical music and hired all the right coaches and specialists. To you we were bundles of joy, problems to be solved, gifts and challenges, little Manhattan Projects all requiring the constant supervision of an army of trained professionals to make sure that we were developing within normal parameters—never, even for a single second, were we human beings. Most of all, we were springs to satisfy your insatiable thirst for even more affirmation that, yes, you parented us well: higher test scores, more accomplishments, more prestigious awards, all crammed onto the resume, but it's still never enough for you—like Saturn, you devour your children.

You treated us like extraordinarily expensive kitchen appliances upon whose proper functioning depended the whole of your happiness and self-worth. Whenever something went wrong, after shouting and crying and screaming "Why is this happening to me?" you called the repairman. Falling grades? Call the learning specialist! Emotional problems? Call the cognitive behavior therapist! Drugs? Send that little ingrate to rehab! You treated us like machines and we became like machines, like Pac-Man chomping up an endless line of prearranged activities without a thought in our heads about why we're doing it, and then you wondered why we started dumping handles of Smirnoff down our gullets the second our prearranged activities ended and we managed to scrape together some unsupervised time. Our automaton hedonism is, like everything else, just the result of a cost/benefit analysis, that mechanical mental operation which, thanks to your guidance, we perform as naturally as breathing and to the exclusion of all other thought.

We were always supposed to be just like you. Remember that commercial, for Microsoft or something, in which the idealized bourgeois futures of bright-eyed schoolchildren—doctor, scientist, senator—are circumscribed about them in imaginary chalk? That ad just made literal what you had always seen when you looked at us: we were to be exact replicas of you, only without the rough edges or the rocky past. You fell into the abyss of sex and drugs; we were going to develop completely according to plan, and then we were going to thank you for your commitment to parenting as we stepped up to the podium to accept yet another award, another line on the resume and another sweet morsel of validation in your voracious mouths. But tonight, as you can see, I'm not thanking you for anything. I'm saying shame on you. Shame on you for hurting us like that, shame on you for drinking our blood and feeding on our suffering, and shame on you doubly for making us believe that it was all in the name of good parenting. All this time, you never gave a fuck about us—all you ever did, every day, was suck us dry and howl for more.

We have inherited the mess you made, and that mess is us. And we sure as fuck won't be able to clean it up if we end up just like you, just like you always wanted us to. Our only hope is to wake up, and say enough is enough, to see how we've been cheated out of our youth, out of our lives, before the last spark of life is extinguished and we succumb, once and for all, to the undertow of a comfortably joyless life. It's already happening all around me: conversations are becoming clusters of banal one-liners, the gleam of desperation behind eyes is giving way to weary resignation and finally to the empty cheerfulness of the walking dead. But it isn't too late for us yet—we still have a chance to rise above it all, to become THE INFINITE GENERATION that you, our parents, mistakenly took yourselves to be. But this path no benevolent grown-up has prearranged for us, with a Ritz crackers and a Capri Sun waiting for us at the end; this one we will have to blaze ourselves, and we may have to blaze through some things that we've gotten used to letting stand in our way.

Sincerely Yours,

Nicholas T. Cox, 10 May 2010