The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Talking About My Generation

Even moreso than the impostor syndrome article, one column has really been making the rounds. In an his NYTimes column, David Brooks coined the term odyssey years for the period in between adolescence and adulthood where young adults try new things, travel, and join knitting circles. Brooks lacks insight into my generation, but he has, once again, coined a term that I fear will stick. He has a narrow and dated outlook on what it means to be a young adult in the 21st century.

After having grown up an Organization Kid, I have now entered my odyssey years, which means I’m a Gen Xer who works too hard. In fact, if you erased one paragraph and replaced a pop culture reference here and there, the column could be from over a decade ago. I also suspect that people have been talking about the new fluidity in categories of thought of young people since at least the late sixties.

I think it’s also important to note Brooks’s formulation of the twenty-something American envisions a population of highly motivated, white, upper- and upper-middle-class young adults. As is often the case in his column, he is not talking about the general population, but rather a tiny slice of overachievers. He’s talking about me and my friends.

But he’s not shedding light on what it means to be a motivated millenial. In the article, I am endowed with contradictory personality traits. On the one hand, I desire the traditional, but I also avoid the old-fashioned recipes for success. The only way for this not to be contradictory is to interpret it so vaguely that it could apply to almost any twenty-something in the last thirty-five years.

Brooks says that people my age are traveling more after college, and are taking longer to get settled. Well, duh. For Brooks though, this means we’re not adults. After all, being an adult means having a stable job, getting married, and having kids. It’s his concept of adulthood that should be questioned. Settling down is not maturity.

Adults, even in Brooks definition of the word, aren’t equating their selves with their jobs anymore. When asked, “Who are you?” even the middle-aged self-identify with the activities they do rather than with their jobs. People are no longer teachers or bankers; they are poets and rock-climbers. When (or if) I get married I will be a husband; when (or if) I have a kid I will be a father. These categories do not make me more of an adult just something new.

What Brooks needs is a more fluid definition of what it means to be an adult. But maybe that’s just “the spirit of fluidity that now characterizes this stage” in my life

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2 Responses

  1. schneider says:

    I think you’re right to question his stereotypes and definition of “adulthood”, but I do see some point in what he’s saying. What I’m seeing is more of an issue of as he put it moving away from home and becoming financially independent. “Who is responsible for paying for your living expenses” is an important question that probably does reflect on whether you’re an adult or not. Brooks sees many young people rock-climbing and traveling, while still sucking at the parental teat, rather than on their own dime. Or even if they have a job, they’re being subsidized by their parents to live in places nicer than they could afford, eat and live better than they could afford etc. I know a bunch of our peers who are living like that, “while they’re getting settled”, heck my brother is still living at home for that reason, and he graduated 3 years ago. I think another difference is that there are far more opportunities for recent graduates that are structured like your current program now than there were 30 years ago, where you had your fullbrights and rhodes, but most people had to get a job and start making money soon. That being said, Fuck Brooks and his bullshit, jargon-happy columns.

  2. admin says:

    I think you’re right about to think of financial independence as an indicator of whether or not a person has taken on some of the obligations and entitlements that comes with being recognized as an adult. I wouldn’t be surprised if my parents’ definition of being an adult was a person who pays their own cell phone bill. Having said that, I don’t think it’s the result of our generation being more immature or irresponsible, nor does it make those who go on structured or unstructured adventures—when it is off one’s parents’ dime—any less of adult.

    Compared to people aged 45-54, people aged 25-34 are making comparatively less money than a generation ago. This is especially true for young men where the median income of people aged 25-34 in the US is declining. For young men, the median income is down 12% since 1974 when adjusted for inflation. This, paired with increases in the cost of housing and increasing student load debt, means it’s not surprising that families who can afford it continue to financially support their kids after graduation. I think this phenomenon is one reason why there decreasing social mobility in the US today. To work one’s way up the ladder in certain fields, it’s near impossible to support yourself at the beginning. No one can afford to live in Manhattan from the income of a magazine intern. If you can afford to give your kid a boost, then of course you’re going to.

    In Brooks’s article, he doesn’t differentiate between financially independent wanderers and those “sucking at the parental teat,” as you put it. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think of an adult as someone whose status in the social fabric no longer hinges on the support of that person’s parents. This isn’t a perfect definition, but it’s all I got at the moment. A famous person’s kid status, no matter what he/she does, might always hinge on his/her parents, and this person should still be considered an adult.

    ps it always makes me nervous when I agree with you

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