Once, many moons ago, I spent a month in Iceland with too little money and nothing to slow a march of days that seemed already to be getting much too short. It was September, and each morning and late afternoon a wind would come through Reykjavík to clear the air, sifting and reshaping the clouds. By eight o’clock, the sun would start to set, and little yellow lights would trace the contours of the hills. I spent much of the month walking through unfamiliar neighborhoods, trying to imagine what it would be like to make a life in each. This wasn’t an unusual pursuit, since at that time I was a stranger to adult life everywhere I went.
I had come to Iceland on a small research stipend, after three months of failing to support myself in New York. In Reykjavík, overpriced and thriving that fall, I lived in a hostel and followed the kind of overcontrolled schedule only truly underemployed people can devise. Each morning, I would walk to a café that had become my office. In the evenings, I would wander to the waterfront or read by the big downtown pond. Weekend nights were different, because that was when the city came alive:
Q: I went out last weekend and when I woke up the next morning my shoes were covered with mud. I don’t remember visiting a farm while out on the town. Can anyone explain to me what happened?
A: It is still a mystery to many who live in Reykjavík who wake up with the same problem after hitting bars in this town. We can’t really explain it but be aware that the bars are really crowded so it’s a given that a lot of people will step on your feet.
I had seen this item in Reykjavík Mag, an English publication in the tourist office, and for several clean-shoed evenings after that it was a source of poignant disappointment. Finally, I came back to the hostel one Saturday evening to find my room overtaken by three Swedes. The floor was strewn with empty half-litre cans of Carlsberg; when they offered one to me, I asked what brought them to Iceland.
“We slaughter sheep,” one said. “Up the coast.”
They were dressed in jeans and sported close-cropped blond hair. One of them had an elongated, toothy face, and he went on, “We slaughter two thousand sheep every day, eighty thousand in the season. He cuts out the stomachs, and we put the carcasses in the freezer. Like an assembly line.”
“You kind of need an iPod,” the third said.
Back in Sweden, the guys told me, they were studying computer science at university, and—well, you know how it is: one thing leads to another, and soon you find yourself carving sheep bellies for a little extra cash. Jobs were hard to come by in Sweden, but Iceland welcomed the help. Slaughterhouse employees got free rooms and six meals a day. There was too much fish on the menu, maybe, but better that than the remaindered meat from the smokehouses. Why was that? I asked this in a conversation-making spirit, but my new acquaintances stared.
“You’ve noticed there are not so many trees in Iceland?” one asked at last.
Yeah, I said.
“Well, what do you think they do all the smoking with? It’s a fifty-fifty mixture of—I don’t know what the English word is. You dig it up. . . .”
“Yeah, peat,” he said. “That and shit.”
“Yeah—shit,” the long-faced one chimed in, his voice rising with indignation. “And, listen, I am Swedish. I don’t eat meat that has been smoked in shit.”
There was a lot of simpatico nodding; then the four of us fell silent. At some point, it had been decided, with the eloquent noncommunication of twentysomething males, that we would be going out together, and that this would make us, fleetingly, friends. My life at that time was full of passing relationships: people I knew for days, or even hours, and who posed for Polaroid-like snapshots in my memory which outlast many of the long-exposure images I’ve collected since. In the hallway of the hostel, we connected with two Swedish women—possibly also butchers—and blundered outside. It was shortly after midnight. People in the streets were young, seemed young, and swarmed toward one another on the downtown plazas. At Sólon, a large-windowed space like something from a SoHo street corner, we got drinks, and some of us began to dance.
“You’re too polite. Feel the music.”
I never saw the Swedes again after that morning, but the pulsing, muddy world they led me into quickly became mine. A week later, I was on my own at another club. It was 4 a.m. I was planning to leave. A woman approached and wondered whether I would dance. She was willowy and wore a black cocktail dress, black patterned stockings, boots. Her hair was dark, and her eyes were very blue. She had high cheekbones. This was the fall when clubs across Europe were playing Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack,” the Pussycat Dolls’ “Don’t Cha,” and Bob Sinclar’s “Love Generation” in a seemingly endless loop. You couldn’t talk over the throbbing bass, and so we leaned at intervals into each other’s ears. New York, I said, so loudly the words stung my throat. Originally, California. She smiled wryly and spoke with a trickling Icelandic accent. At one point, her hair fell forward and covered her ear; I swept it back to add something, and she kissed my neck. That was the start of our silent ravelling in the loud club. The skin above her collarbone had the clean, smoky, late-October smell of candle wax.
Outside, it was a cold night, and you could feel it in your fingers and your ears. Her coat was trimmed with dark fur, which struck me as maybe the most arch and elegant thing I had ever seen. My sense of the scale of the world, and its speed, changed that night, and I carry the memory with me today the way some people carry amulets or worry stones: a reminder that there is always an Iceland to return to, a place where, in an unexplored city in the wee hours just south of the Arctic Circle, strangers are dancing and the seemingly impossible isn’t. I was twenty-two, but I think of this as when my twenties actually began.
Recently, many books have been written about the state of people in their twenties, and the question that tends to crop up in them, explicitly or not, is: Well, whose twenties? Few decades of experience command such dazzled interest (the teen-age years are usually written up in a spirit of damage control; the literature of fiftysomethings is a grim conspectus of temperate gatherings and winded adultery), and yet few comprise such varied kinds of life. Twentysomethings spend their days rearing children, living hand to mouth in Asia, and working sixty-hour weeks on Wall Street. They are moved by dreams of adult happiness, but the form of those dreams is as serendipitous as ripples in a dune of sand. Maybe your life gained its focus in college. Maybe a Wisconsin factory is where the route took shape. Or maybe your idea of adulthood got its polish on a feckless trip to Iceland. Where you start out—rich or poor, rustic or urbane—won’t determine where you end up, perhaps, but it will determine how you get there. The twenties are when we turn what Frank O’Hara called “sharp corners.”
Allowing for a selective, basically narrow frame of reference, then, it’s worth noting that much of what we know about the twentysomething years comes down to selective, basically narrow frames of reference. Able-bodied middle-class Americans in their twenties—the real subject of these books—are impressionable; they’re fickle, too. Confusion triumphs. Is it smart to spend this crucial period building up a stable life: a promising job, a reliable partner, and an admirable assortment of kitchenware? Or is the time best spent sowing one’s wild oats? Can people even have wild oats while carrying smartphones? One morning, you open the newspaper and read that today’s young people are an assiduous, Web-savvy master race trying to steal your job and drive up the price of your housing stock. The next day, they’re reported to be living in your basement, eating all your shredded wheat, and failing to be marginally employed, even at Wendy’s. For young people with the luxury of time and choice, these ambiguities give rise to a particular style of panic.
“Fck! I’m in My Twenties” (Chronicle), a new cri de coeur by Emma Koenig, is a diary of these fretful years trimmed to postcard size. Drawn from a blog of the same name (minus the asterisk), the book offers a catalogue of twenty-first-century anxieties expressed in the form of freehand illustrations, diagrams, and slogans—the protest affiches of a new, self-conscious generation. Not much is lost in the unorthodox narration. Koenig’s general complaints about life (“Is everyone else actually happier than me? Or are they just better at pretending?”) and love (“There should be some kind of loyalty rewards program for getting hurt over and over again”) and something in between (“WHY IS OUR RELATIONSHIP SO COMPLICATED*??????? we aren’t even sleeping together!”) may strike readers as sloshy commonplaces. But a charm arises from her nicely observed details. On one page, she addresses such online compulsions as checking “that I am typing your name into the search box and not making it my status.” On another, she confesses that her idea of adulthood includes “obnoxiously large wine glasses.” Readers who use Facebook or who grew up in the golden age of Riedel ware will recognize these stresses.
Others will find reports like Koenig’s clannish and occasionally inscrutable. The age is subject to a parallax effect; the twenties look different depending on how far you are from them. That difference in perspective—you want what you think older people have, and vice versa—is notably neurotic-making, and can surely be held responsible for many compromised careers, doomed marriages, and general life crises. A self-help subgenre couldn’t be far behind. In “The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter—And How to Make the Most of Them Now” (Twelve), Meg Jay takes the specific complaints of twentysomething life and puts them to diagnostic use. Jay is a clinical psychologist, and her patients have helped orient her in the tribulations of the age. “Every day, I work with twentysomethings who feel horribly deceived by the idea that their twenties would be the best years of their lives,” she writes. “People imagine that to do therapy with twentysomethings is to listen to the adventures and misadventures of carefree people, and there is some of that. But behind closed doors, my clients have unsettling things to say.”
One unsettling thing Jay’s clients say is that their lives are not what they had hoped. Their grinding work in college has failed to produce a decent job. Their confidence is at its nadir. They are having too much hapless sex, or not enough, or maybe the wrong kind. And what if they never get married? In an earlier guide, “20 Something Manifesto: Quarter-Lifers Speak Out About Who They Are, What They Want, and How to Get It,” Christine Hassler refers to this feeling as the Expectation Hangover™.
In fact, Jay’s prescriptions amount to: Don’t slow down yet! In professional life, a few lost years or lousy, aimless jobs could come to haunt you: “Late bloomers will likely never close the gap between themselves and those who got started earlier.” The frontal lobe of the brain launches a phase of major rewiring from the teens into the twenties, raising the stakes of engaged and productive behavior: “We don’t become what we don’t hear and see and do every day. In neuroscience, this is known as ‘survival of the busiest.’ ” In other words, it’s good to be mulling knotty problems at your desk, bad to be doing lots of nothing on the beach. Jay’s treatment doesn’t quell the general anxieties of twentysomethings; it channels them.
That power-suit sensibility marches through more specialized manuals, too, such as Tina Seelig’s “What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20: A Crash Course on Making Your Place in the World” (HarperOne), a book intended, most of all, for twentysomethings in the shadow of Silicon Valley. Seelig is the executive director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, and her advice echoes Jay’s call for proactivity, with a higher tolerance for risk. Think big and creatively, she urges; question the rules; claim leadership positions; do not be afraid to quit in order to get ahead. “The entire venture capital industry essentially invests in failures,” she observes. She suggests that twentysomethings take this as a cue to brainstorm wildly, bailing on what doesn’t pan out.
That’s probably easiest if you’re working in a lavishly funded industry filled with restless, well-connected people looking for the newest zany venture: advice on working through the challenges of twentysomething life frequently tells us more about the adviser than about the age. Not everyone will share an appetite for failing big, though. The economy is poor; even a higher professional degree, the first refuge of the risk-averse, may not guarantee a job. And average college debt, adjusted for inflation, has tripled since the late nineteen-eighties. (It’s still growing.) In the face of these and other shifts, the voices of previous experience seem questionable. It is not clear that the grownups know what’s really going on.
The fullest guide through this territory, as it happens, avoids pointedly prescriptive claims. In “Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?” (Hudson Street), Robin Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig provide a densely researched report on the state of middle-class young people today, drawn from several data sources and filtered through a comparative lens. Robin Marantz Henig is a baby boomer and a veteran magazine journalist focussing on science. Samantha Henig, her daughter, is in her late twenties, with a twenty-first-century version of the same career. (She has worked as a Web editor and writer at several publications, including this one, and is now the online editor of the New York Times Magazine.) Together, trading the writing in tag-team fashion, they assess the key departments of twentysomething life—school, careers, dating, family-making, and so forth—and try to discern how much has actually changed. They are interested not so much in the Mark Zuckerbergs of the demographic as in the parental-basement dwellers; they believe that people in their twenties have been getting a bad rap and want to know whether concern is justified.
Their answer, which should not come as a surprise, is: it depends. “Twentysomething” has its origins in a much discussed Times Magazine article that Robin Marantz Henig published, in 2010, called “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” That piece had a narrow and provocative frame—the psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett’s idea that the twenties make up a distinct life stage, a kind of second adolescence—which the book broadens in subject and style. From Samantha Henig, we get chatty, slangy, personal writing, often trimmed, in the manner of the genre, with quirky specifics. (“We painted and decorated, and bought a sectional couch on Craigslist, each piece light enough that we could transport it entirely on our own in Katie’s Honda CRV. Katie called it the No-Boyfriend Couch. We were single grown-up ladies, doin’ it on our own.”) From her mother, we get intergenerational reality checks, which help us to weigh each topic according to two standards: “Now Is New” and “Same as It Ever Was.”
Among the alleged crimes of twentysomethings these days is hiding out in school (or in various far-flung places, like Iceland), thus deferring adult life, or being fickle in the job market once they get there. Yet the Henigs dismiss the idea that insane tuition costs and rival opportunities have made education a bad investment—if nothing else, median salaries rise with every new degree. And they wonder whether the Wanderjahr truly offers much escapism. “Doors do eventually close—sometimes because of things you did, sometimes because of things you didn’t do,” Robin Marantz Henig notes.
As for professional fickleness: there seems to be a bad kind and a good kind. The bad kind is when you change professions entirely, several times—financial consultant, graphic designer, dog walker, academic. Two-thirds of career wage growth (and, presumably, the responsibilities that go with it) happens in the first ten years, so repeatedly resetting the counter makes it likely you’ll end up uncomfortably behind your cohort. The good kind, Henig tells us, has to do with how you use that ten-year span. Fifty years ago, one might have planned to join a large, stable company at twenty-three and to rise through the ranks until retirement. Try that now, though, and there’s a good chance you’ll fall behind your more restless peers, who get a salary and a status bump with every sideways leap—an entrepreneurial style for which the build and bail cycles of Silicon Valley are an influential template. Flightiness is the new aggression.
And considerations like these change the stakes of modern love. Marriage can be easier to put off now that it serves less of a structural function than it once did (women are presumed to be self-supporting; men can deal with their own laundry). Samantha Henig points out that Ally McBeal, the late-nineties TV paragon of desperate singledom, was supposed to be twenty-seven when the show began—a freak-out timeline that already seems quaint for an urban professional. (The current version of that character, Liz Lemon of “30 Rock,” is a decade older.) There’s no shame now in being a twentysomething without imminent family plans, and there may even be extra power. A study has found that women’s salaries at this stage of life increase by a fixed percentage each year they don’t have children. One researcher reports that, on average, putting off having kids for ten years doubles a young woman’s lifetime earnings.
Of course, the indices of marital success encompass more than balance sheets; Jay helpfully reminds her readers that a flop of a marriage “cannot just be left off your résumé like a failed job.” Both she and Samantha Henig are fascinated by studies suggesting that marriages growing out of cohabitation have a higher failure rate than those created from separate households. It’s unclear why this should be the case—or even whether it is the case: the conclusions are disputed—but Henig presents a theory. Early in a relationship, the decision-making is constant and deliberate. (To go out? To go up? To call today? To call tomorrow?) Soon, though, things settle, and “sheer inertia would have you stay together. The real choice, then, the one that requires contemplation and action, is to break up.” Hence what Henig calls “sliding”:
You spend enough nights together that, actually, now that you think about it, doesn’t it seem silly that you’re paying two rents and constantly leaving the shoes you need at the wrong apartment? . . . Living together has its hardships, but it’s also sort of fun, like playing house. You experiment with cooking braised short-ribs and bicker about throw pillows, just the way you always imagined you would one day. The things that concern you about the relationship are still there, but however hard it would have been to break up before, now there’s the shared couch to consider, and the fact that you could never afford such a big living room on your own. (And yes, this “you” here applies to “me,” the veteran of two live-in relationships that ended in breakups and couch custody battles.) Pretty soon you start to look like a married couple anyway, so maybe it makes sense just to make it official. Suddenly you have a wedding website and you’ve posted a poll asking if the honeymoon should be in Europe or Jamaica, without ever fully facing the very real question of whether you actually want to spend the rest of your life with this person.
Sliding into marriage is hardly a new phenomenon, and yet it carries different implications in an age when the alternative is free agency. Like deferring and career-hopping, it is a stay against the burden of active commitment—and, according to the Henigs, this trap of choice is a marked difference from the past. Sure, you made hard choices if you were twenty-five in 1976, but not so many, and not with a protracted window. (The Internet, which makes it possible to monitor basically everything going on everywhere, at every moment, doesn’t help.) As Henig mère puts it, “Choice overload . . . makes people worry about later regretting the choice they make (If there are twelve things I could do tonight, any one of them might end up being more fun than the one I choose); sets them up for higher expectations (If I choose this party out of those twelve things, it had damn well better be fun); makes them think about the road not taken (Every party not attended could contain someone I wish I’d met); and leads to self-blame if the outcome is bad.” Transpose this lattice of anxiety onto a generation more competitively educated than its forebears, and you see how “F*ck! I’m in My Twenties” comes about.
What’s the alternative, though? Nobody would urge young people to narrow their frames of reference. An improving economy will help secure the middle class, but it won’t sort out the choice problem. One surprising feature of Jay’s and the Henigs’ books is that the basic anxieties they describe are identical to those of pre-recessionary guides like Hassler’s. The financial crisis may have pulled the ropes tight, but it didn’t tie them in the first place.
The real finding of the Henigs’ investigation, in fact, may be one they don’t explicitly note: even when a feature of contemporary twentysomething life seems culturally “new,” its causes aren’t. Yes, men and women are investing more heavily and restlessly in their early careers and having children later. But that’s the consequence of changes imagined and set in motion half a century ago. Higher education may be more expensive, and its degrees less distinguishing. But that comes from decades-old adjustments to schools’ social goals and function. By the end of “Twentysomething,” one has the impression that today’s young people aren’t so much living a new kind of life as reaping the returns on ideas conceived years ago.
That in itself is a swerve from the past. Nearly every twentysomething generation of at least the past half century has created a new mainstream aspirational model. 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 have today’s twentysomethings done to reinvent the kind of life we dream of? Certainly, they’ve contributed a lot to the structure of online culture; two-thirds of young adults surveyed in a 2011 study said they’d prefer an Internet connection to a car, suggesting a new social order. But Twitter is, in the end, a networking tool and a news digest, not a life-style ideal by which people set their professional, financial, and romantic compasses. Offline, the generation’s dreams seem not to be wholly their own.
The inherited dreamscape may help explain why current twentysomethings feel perpetually underrealized, living a manqué version of grownup life. It explains the sensation of “playing house” and, worse still, the haunting suspicion that even our complaints are less than fresh. In this decade, twentysomethings’ great moment of progressive rage has been the Occupy movement. And yet the Occupy movement’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. One sometimes wonders where members of the generation will land if their self-idealization as hopeful sixties youth ever wears off.
All this reinforces the suspicion that today’s twentysomethings aren’t formed of special clay but are merely a reshaped version of old material. A literary survey of the age does, too. The twenties, possibly alone among the middle decades of life, are passionately celebrated in fiction and memoirs, and the celebrations tend to share a style that is personal, specific, cliquish, pastiched, breathless, often bibulous, and flagrantly confessional—the voice of early mastery without mature constraint, self-discovery at a moment when each revelation seems unique. “Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers” (2006), a compendium of field reports edited by Matt Kellogg and Jillian Quint, offers one cross-section of those voices (“My capacity for stillness sometimes strikes me as ironic”; “Everyday life is a soapy film coating seas of panic and second-guessing”). But the form has a rich vein of precedent, too. “Howl,” “Slaves of New York,” and “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” all celebrate the joys and pains and quirky exigencies of twentysomething life, each in the manner of its era and occasionally with embarrassingly shaggy excesses and an overcharged sense of urgency. (“For heaven’s sake, publish nothing before you are thirty,” Virginia Woolf, who worried about prematurely stifling this vigor, once advised a young poet.) Reports like these have a lot of appeal, though, and part of that comes from the thrill of recognition. “You know what I’m talking about!” these books say. Perhaps you do.
Lately, this self-revealing style has even moved off the page. “Girls,” Lena Dunham’s popular HBO series, got billed as a new kind of TV comedy—which is true in the sense that Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s “Apple Core” is a new kind of still-life. The show’s great innovation is to take the old style and subject of twentysomething prose and carry it to television. Allowing for differences in era and perspective, there’s more continuity than one expects between, for example, “This Side of Paradise” (1920),
“You don’t understand—”
“Yes, I do,” she interrupted. “I do, because you’re always talking about yourself and I used to like it; now I don’t.”
“Have I to-night?”
“That’s just the point,” insisted Isabelle. “You got all upset to-night. You just sat and watched my eyes. Besides, I have to think all the time I’m talking to you—you’re so critical.”
and “Girls” (2012):
“Is this the game? You chase me like I’m the fucking Beatles for six months, and then I finally get comfortable, and you shrug? What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“I’m scared, O.K.? I’m really scared all the time. I’m, like, very scared all the time.”
“Join the fucking club.”
“No. ’Cause I’m more scared than most people are when they say that they’re scared. I’m like the most scared person who’s alive.”
“Well, you don’t have the right to be.”
It does not always follow that the more one has the more one can afford to lose, and that may extend to the innovations of the age itself. Twentysomething writing shines in its raw, winking, Zeitgeist intimacy, but the nature of that intimacy changes less than one might think. There’s a curious universality to youth culture; the ostensible “voice of a generation” has an oddly timeless air. That’s partly why “The Sun Also Rises” feels evocative and familiar to a young person who has no experience of Paris and Pamplona ninety years ago. And it’s why Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” (1960), say, or Wong Kar-wai’s “As Tears Go By” (1988) retains a spark of tribal legibility across the barriers of time and place. Twentysomething culture is intimate and exclusive on the one hand, and eternal on the other. We tout this stage of life, in retrospect, as free, although we ogle the far shores of adulthood while we’re there. Sometimes those two illusions of the age converge: Nielsen data indicate that the most enthusiastic audience for “Girls” is middle-aged men.
The shock of the twenties is how narrow that window of experience really is, and how inevitable it seems both at the time and afterward. At some point, it is late, too late, and you are standing on the sidewalk outside somewhere very loud. A wind is blowing. It’s the same cool, restless late-night breeze that blew on trampled nineteen-twenties lawns, dazed sixties streets, and anywhere young people gather. Nearby, someone who doesn’t smoke is smoking. An attractive stranger with a lightning laugh jaywalks between cars with a friend, making eye contact before scurrying inside. You’re far from home. It’s quiet. All at once, you have a thrilling sense of nowness, of the sheer potential of a verdant night with all these unmet people in it. For a long time after that, you think you’ll never lose this life, those dreams. But that was, as they say, then.