Since this sort of goes with my recent writing, I'm going to republish an essay I wrote last year about being a Young Person Trying To Make It that serves as a sort of precursor to that work. (Full disclosure: I'm not 26 anymore.) It was on my old site, the one that was hacked, so longtime readers should recognize it.
Don’t Call Me A Millennial. My Name is Hillary.
I think about the South on some days more than others. There are a million ways to forget it in this city, the District of Columbia, which isn’t even really a city at all compared to New York or London or Beijing but is, for our purposes, an urban hub: I can take public transit to a pupuseria or a pub, go to a poetry reading and not see the same people I saw last time, chat with the security guard who mans the entrance to my building. None of these things were even in the vocabulary of my childhood self, for whom a visit to the Chinese grocery store was a semiannual treat that required an hour-long drive to Tampa. But sometimes I’ll take the train out to Virginia, or ride my bike past Meridian Hill Park, a flash of green bounded by cement, and be reminded of how far I am from where I used to be.
I’m a half-white, half-Asian girl who grew up in Florida, went to high school and college in Kentucky, moved out to DC, and worked with what the bourgeoisie of the city politely refer to as “disadvantaged children” before leaving for grad school and then coming back. Growing up, I was told sometimes that this clash of cultures and ethnicities would make me more beautiful and stronger, like two plants bred together: heterosis, or hybrid vigor. This didn't make it any less strange that my grandmother watched war documentaries and wept quietly into the sofa, or that I spent my Saturday mornings learning long division, or that no one in my family had an opinion about Florida versus Florida State football.
Which is to say that I have a profound appreciation for the consequences of assuming that my experience is universal. This was developed through thousands of hours of having to explain Vietnamese food and why it smells like garlic and fish, reading books no one else in the class had time for, and realizing that none of my employees or coworkers understood or cared that I was too conservative for my ex-boyfriend, I hated my psychiatrist, and that my friends back home all thought I was uppity for living in a place where people infused their cocktails. And which is also to say that every time I read an article that purports to somehow describe or speak for “Millennials,” “Gen Y,” or “my generation,” I want to throw my computer out the window.
But I don’t. I post angry Facebook comments, or badger my friends via Gchat into talking about it instead of filing expense reports, or go on extended, tipsy rants at bars I can afford, most of which do not infuse their cocktails with anything but grime. Because I am an upper-middle-class professional in a not-very-lucrative field living in a city, and this is our way. I’m not ashamed of it. But I embrace it knowing that this person I am is not the person I always was, and that it’s not who we all are, and that anyone who tries to pretend otherwise is a liar.
Joan Didion, in “Goodbye to All That,” says of New York that
I am not sure that it is possible for anyone brought up in the East to appreciate entirely what New York, the idea of New York, means to those of us who came out of the West and the South. To an Eastern child…New York is just a city, albeit the city, a plausible place for people to live. But to those of us who came from places where no one had heard of Lester Lanin and Grand Central Station was a Saturday radio program, where Wall Street and Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue were not places at all but abstractions (“Money,” and “High Fashion,” and “The Hucksters”), New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself. To think of “living” there was to reduce the miraculous to the mundane; one does not “live” at Xanadu.
Returning to the idea of our background influencing the signposts we embrace, I am a female English major from a liberal arts college who stays up on Saturday nights writing essays for fun, which makes Didion more or less my patron saint. (See also: Rachel Wetzsteon, Louise Gluck, Madeleine l'Engle.) But every time I ride the metro home from work and hear tourists loudly discussing how not to get robbed, I am reminded that there are many people for whom my everyday is foreign and a little scary. And as I write this, I am watching the mouse that apparently now lives in my apartment and remembering that sometimes I feel the same way.
When I was sixteen I lived in Louisville, and I attended a summer camp called Governor’s Scholars for which I was not really the target audience. The point of the program was to get smart kids from across Kentucky to a) keep on keepin’ on w/r/t education and employment and b) do so in the Bluegrass State. I was always going to leave eventually, and everybody knew it. But I had fun, and it was there that I first met people who thought that Louisville, despite its abundance of freeways and chain restaurants, wasn’t really “part” of the rest of the state, being too urban and separate: it was New York or California, and the remainder of Kentucky was the Real America. The girls on my dorm floor that summer referred to their hometowns by county, because it was assumed that those towns, unless they were one of maybe five or six known quantities (Louisville, Lexington, Owensboro, Bowling Green, Frankfort, Paducah), were too small for anyone to recognize.
These girls were not stupid or naive. Many of them were, and are, smarter than me, they had more experience with boys and drugs, and we had the same taste and interests. But they also had different choices, and different options, than I did: sometimes their parents were professors and they wanted to go to Duke, and sometimes their boyfriend was 24 and living at home with his parents, working at the Valvoline. Later, when I was in college, I was the orientation assistant for a girl who had had to convince her friends of the relative merit of leaving for college instead of sticking around and getting a job. She told us the story of how she’d had to sell her friends on the idea of her leaving: “People who go to Centre," she said firmly, "don’t draw checks." What she meant, if you’ve never heard that phrase, is that our college was a good way to sidestep the prospect of being on welfare. Which was not a conversation it had ever occurred to me to have.
So I didn’t really fit in there, but when you live somewhere it becomes part of your fabric, whether or not you plan for it. When I moved to the city, at 23, neither I nor my parents knew a damn thing about grocery shopping without a car, or finding roommates who wouldn’t kill me in my sleep. I distinctly remember my family discussing this: “Yeah, she’s going to move in with people she doesn’t know that she found on the Internet. I guess it’s something you do? Yeah, I don’t get it either.” Because why would you move in with people when you could just get an apartment on your own? Because a one-bedroom apartment costs how much? Well, why would you move to a place like that in the first place? Don’t you like having money? (Yes. Yes, I do.)
And so what I’ve found myself doing, in grad school classes and at farmers’ markets and in long dinner-party discussions, is creating a sort of informal, downlow network of others who understand that our world is not the only one: people whose friends and high-school classmates stayed in the suburbs, work in human resources, got married right after college and own a two-bedroom house whose mortgage is roughly half of our monthly grocery bill. And who still like those friends and value them, despite the fact that they don’t know how to use Craigslist or follow the Malian elections. “Oh,” they’ll say, “you’re from Tennessee? I’m from Ohio,” and I can see a flash of recognition in their eyes that says, I went to public high school. And I know that as soon as someone else starts railing about the Rest of the Country and the doomed elections, or debating the relative merits of attending Princeton versus Columbia, there is a person nearby who understands.
The impetus of all this is an article I read in the Huffington Post (of course that’s where I read it), by a writer named Sarah Shanfield, called “What It Means to be 25 Today.” You can probably guess where this is going. Sarah Shanfield lives in New York City, where she moved to make it, Mary Tyler Moore-style, after school. She’s trying to find her way as a young, professional woman whose options are very different from those her parents and grandparents faced. And the funny thing is that I completely identify with it; the things that she thinks and/or worries about - relationships, happy hours, whether or not she’ll ever be an adult - are the exact same things I think about all the time. But, for lack of a better description, it still makes me angry.
Poor Sarah Shanfield’s piece is just the latest iteration of a trend I like to call Hearing Youth Voices - the problem, of course, being that the people who have the access and resources to speak (present company included) tend to have more in common with each other than not, which creates this sort of Idea of Youth that’s too small to have any real utility. There’s a shorthand we use in talking about the children: we’re Connected, and use Social Media; we’re Tech Savvy; we Want to Make A Difference, unless we’re having trouble figuring out what our job should be, in which case we’re living in our parents’ basements in unprecedented numbers; we Travel More, Settle Down Later, and our parents probably told us We Were Special, which may or may not have had a detrimental effect. It’s an easy way for the adults of this world to quantify how a generation with access to a whole truckload of future alien technology is going to be different.
And when these words describe us, we play into it, adopting these identifiers as our own. This is a particular problem in DC, a city that is very fond of celebrating young people to watch, which has the effect of making the rest of us feel as though we’re doing something wrong. The day before I read the Shanfield article, I had had a long come-to-Jesus with the 23-year-old intern in my office, who is incredibly smart (and adorable to boot), on whyit’s okay that she doesn’t have everything figured out just yet. Then and later, I was reminded of a political magazine for which I used to edit, one that was ostensibly by and for the youth. Our founder spoke often on television and in the papers for the young people of America, despite the fact that he had gone to Andover and I went to a high school where the biggest scandal involved people attacking each other with pushpins. There wasn't much to his narrative, all things considered: he talked a lot about how we were more engaged than our predecessors, and how we used the Internet, and how youth as a voting bloc could not be ignored. None of it addressed, for example, the issue of youth who didn't care because their neighborhoods never, ever improved, regardless of who was in office. But his message was relatively inoffensive and easy to understand, and he was well-connected, and he gained traction. And it became clear very quickly that if you understood at all the story he was selling, it would be easy enough to find yourself in there, locate people who wanted to listen, and forget about the rest.
To understand the problem with assigning generational voices, let’s employ the strategy of Gamification, which is also something that is apparently popular among people of my age. (I freely admit that I cribbed this from people who are cooler and/or more famous than me.) Gamification in this context means making something a game in order to make it more usable and easier to understand, and since Shanfield's article is all about the goals you did or didn't achieve, this should set up a pretty straightforward analogy for us.
If you are my age, imagine you are in Blockbuster. If you are younger, imagine you are on Netflix, or at Best Buy, or something. If you've never had access to technology like that, forgive my imperialism, and I'll try to make this as clear as possible.
There’s a section in the video game area, next to first-person shooters and underneath MMORPGs, called Being 25 Simulators. These are platform games, where the ultimate objective is to get your protagonist from one end of the game to the other.
If we accept the idea that Sarah Shanfield’s piece is the universal depiction of being 25 today that its title suggests, we can assume that it’s maybe the only title on the shelf. “But wait!” you say. “Part of the point of that essay was that there are lots of different choices you can make, and that’s okay!” Bear with me here.
When you turn on Shanfield's game, you see a map of different levels and worlds you can choose from, and presumably they'll all let you win somehow, despite what you may think about them needing to all be achieved or to go in a certain order. These levels include Staying With Your College Boyfriend (and also Leaving Your College Boyfriend) and Taking Yet Another Internship. You pass through them successfully by doing whatever is in the title. Maybe you get bonus points when you open a savings account.
But let’s say you live in Johnson City, Tennessee, where my parents live - a university town of 63,000 in the heart of Appalachia. In the Johnson City area, there are two rival high schools named Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. My sister's best friend's mother, Juanita, once refused to move to town on the grounds that it's "just too big." Johnson City has a mall, but it's not a very good one.
In that case, your game is probably different, and should also be on the shelf, in a different box. And a map of that game might look like this:
Or perhaps you live in Trinidad, in northeast DC, the last neighborhood I worked in before leaving to go back to school. Trinidad has made significant strides since 2008, when it was cordoned off by the police because of all the murders, and during my time there I grew very friendly with the uncles and aunts of my students, and with the guy at the liquor store who sold me VitaminWater and candy. But it's still the neighborhood where I brought a Dutch friend a month ago, and he looked around and said, with visible relish, "Ah! Now this looks like medium crime."
If you live in Trinidad, a lot of people outside of the neighborhood prefer to forget that your game exists. But that's a mistake, because not only does it exist, but its stakes are a good deal higher.
The point is that playing any of these games shouldn't be judged, per se, because you probably don't have a lot of say in the matter. But it would be pretty foolish of us to assume that there’s only one game, and if we did, we wouldn’t learn much about how games work. Or how we ultimately make it to that castle and save the princess.
Because that’s what we all want to do, in the end. Sarah Shanfield isn’t wrong in that people who are 25, or 26, or 27, do have something in common, regardless of where they are: we’re roughly a quarter of the way through our lives, and starting to feel like what happens from here on out is maybe a little bit more up to us than we realized. We start to get the idea, if we haven’t already, that we’re not the children we used to be, and suddenly we have to do something with that information. I’m going to pull another demographic-specific trope out here and quote Rilo Kiley, one of my favorite bands when I was in college:
I've felt the wind on my cheek
Coming down from the east
And thought about how we are all
As numerous as leaves on trees
And maybe ours is the cause of all mankind
Get loved, make more
Try to stay alive
“Well, we obviously know that we’re not the only ones living this life,” someone’s probably huffing somewhere. Of course you do. But there’s a difference between knowing it and saying it. And in a world where the show Girls is described as depicting “true-to-life Gen Y losers” and Lena Dunham is “plain” and “unshapely” (she’s not, and if you don’t follow this sort of thing, the show is only true-to-life if you live in a city and have a college degree), is it any wonder that people outside of the rarefied echelons of the east coast latch on to descriptions of the “real America”? It’s a toxic divide, to be sure, but it’s also not a surprising one. When someone tries to sell you a false reality, it’s going to make you angry.
We all have a right to tell our story, and the beauty of our voice - and the only thing that will ever help us learn to live with each other - is that it’s collective. A lot of the pushback on Sarah Shanfield’s article came in the form of comments calling her “overprivileged” and telling her to “get out and volunteer,” which is unnecessarily shaming and also misses the point. There’s nothing wrong with her telling her story (which, again, is also pretty much my story) as long as we acknowledge that it’s only one of many.
So I would like to try to expand upon the idea of what it means to be 25. From the perspective of an overeducated, mixed-race girl who’s now 26, and who has finally realized that she - like everyone else - doesn't need to fit in.
It’s okay to be 25.
If you’ve been described as a “voice of your generation” or a “young person to watch,” you probably know that you’re doing all right, but in case you need reassuring, it’s okay to be hot stuff at 25. But it’s also okay if you’re waiting tables or selling office equipment and trying to figure out what your next step is. Maybe you went to a small college and your career services office never told anyone to leave the state. Maybe you have a baby, and it needs food. You will now have empathy for everyone else whose career pathways were not straight or smooth, and you will know to be nice to the receptionist.
It’s okay to send out Tumblrs on the Internet, gossip about some trend you and your friends have invented, and live with roommates. It’s also okay to have bought a house and sought out married-people friends who don't have time for memes anymore. Some people get married earlier, and some get married later, and it’s only a bad thing if you married the wrong person at the wrong time for you. Otherwise, congratulations, you’re in love, or you’re single and learning from every new heartbreak.
It’s okay to try online dating, and also okay to have mixed feelings about OKCupid because even though you can’t seem to find anyone decent in real life you really prefer meeting people in person. It’s even okay to hand over your iPod on the first date and let that be a factor in how things progress, as long as you recognize that it’s not super important and also a little obnoxious.
And it’s okay to not have strong taste in music. Some people don’t. You probably have opinions about baseball players or luxury goods, which I do not.
It’s okay to want to talk about books with people who think Dan Brown is a moron. It’s also okay if you like Dan Brown, because people can agree to disagree and then decide to talk about other things for a while.
It’s okay to have faith. Or to leave your religion.
It’s okay to not want to leave where you’re from, although it might not hurt you to do so. Maybe think about why you don’t want to leave, at least. But you probably have a lot of reasons for feeling like that, and they’re probably complicated, and that’s okay too.
It’s okay to not know what you want or why. But it’s not okay to not want to know what you want, because you deserve to want things, just like everyone else. (And the “why” tends to be helpful in finding things to want that are sustainable and healthy.)
And finally, it’s okay to tell your story, to toss your tile into our collective mosaic. Because we’re never going to have one if people don’t take part. And maybe your tile is foggy with the humidity of a south Florida summer, or shiny and sharp and focused, or maybe it has a lot of other tiles attached to it. Hybrid vigor, my friends. Hybrid vigor.